Superman was so popular that he made the jump from one medium, comic books, to another, radio, in record time. Only two years after his debut, he earned his own radio show, The Adventures of Superman. Its writers inherited the whole mess. And pressure? These guys had to crank out enough scripts to run episodes three times a week. They were lucky in the beginning. Radio played to a wider audience than comics, and when the show launched, most listeners were hearing about Superman for the first time. Once again, the gimmicks worked for awhile. But with that kind of writing schedule, writers hit the wall fast. Scrambling, they found their solution in the form of a glowing green rock from Superman's home planet, Krypton. Fittingly, they dubbed it kryptonite.
The show's writers brought the Man of Steel to his knees with kryptonite. He was powerless in its presence and the longer the exposure, the closer he came to death. He was vulnerable, a potential target of even the most common criminals. He had limits. No doubt the writers exulted, unable to see the new problem they had created for their future counterparts. Less rock than radioactive turd, kryptonite opened the door to a multitude of (bad) new stories.
When The Adventures of Superman ended, Action Comics writers were still under the gun. Not bulletproof like their hero, they feverishly raced the deadlines, churning out story after story, keeping newsstands heavily stocked with tales of the Man of Steel. Plot lines grew thinner and thinner, and they too embraced kryptonite. And every time this crazy rock surfaced, Superman came closer to death - but death remained impossible: dead characters earn no paychecks.
DC's writers couldn't kill Superman, but they began to run out of wacky, zany ways to end kryptonite stories. Desperate once again, they hurriedly cooked up an answer: lead. Wrapped in lead, kryptonite holds no sway over Superman. Lead renders it harmless. Perhaps a rushed writer found himself stuck in a kryptonite box and, searching for inspiration, capitulated to an answer right under his nose: the tip of his pencil. But in his haste he chose one of the most available metals on earth, one of the most common on Superman's adopted home.
Kryptonite plots again became more frequent. And with them, of course, came more lead. With lead paint encircling every pencil on every desk in every corner of the world -- and Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, is a journalist for God's sake -- the storylines thinned again. Kryptonite was overused and lead was too easy. Lost in lead mines, writers spastically grabbed at a new answer. But unbelievably, they settled on an old one: better kryptonite.
A rushed writer found himself in yet another lead box and, searching for inspiration, he found his answer right underneath an artist's nose: colored pencils. He and his colleagues sprinkled Superman's world with countless colors of kryptonite, each with its own unusual effect. All of these new rocks shared two qualities: they were all unaffected by lead and they were all utterly stupid.
Red kryptonite was a lump of the good, old-fashioned green stuff that passed through a radioactive cloud of some sort on its journey to earth. Every piece was different. In one issue it caused Superman to endure psychedelic, mind-bending hallucinations. In another it morphed the hero into embarrassing shapes. Each piece of red kryptonite affected Superman for only a day, at which point he returned to his normal state (no doubt because his writers couldn't find a graceful exit from these crappy plots).
Gold kryptonite was green kryptonite's weaker cousin. It removed Superman's powers -- rendering him human -- but without dropping him on death's doorstep. Narratively, gold kryptonite allowed Superman to become a moving target instead of just lying on the floor.
Blue kryptonite was a storytelling nightmare. It was to the villain Bizarro -- a sort of "reverse" Superman -- what green kryptonite was to Superman. Bizarro is a goofy, backasswards villain, unworthy of a place in Superman's rogues gallery. Once more: a writer found himself a villain short and, searching for inspiration, freebased some red kryptonite. In some issues blue kryptonite put Bizarro down and in some it just made him an easygoing guy. As long as it brings an end to Bizarro stories, it's nothing less than the best kryptonite ever.
Author and comic writer Peter David put the nail in the lead coffin of kryptonite's absurdity with his invented send-up in Supergirl #79: pink kryptonite, which makes Superman gay. But then again, why not? Truth, justice, the American way and gay pride is a better storyline than some that have spilled blue and red ink on paper. What else? Maybe periwinkle kryptonite, for Disco Superman, just in time for the 1978 Richard Donner film.
For us mortals, "kryptonite" works without the cape and the big red "S." It's a moral weakness, a character flaw. It's the idea that we're powerless in the face of this vice or that guilty pleasure. It sounds cool when we describe our shortcomings this way, appropriating Superman's virtue for ourselves: "cigarettes are my kryptonite." This kryptonite is metaphorical, a weaker, abstracted copy of a space rock that serves as a totem. But it makes more sense as a metaphor than as an object that's just a cheap, flimsy deus ex machina.
Everyone's got their kryptonite. Everyone's powerless in the face of something. Sex, drugs, money -- those are high end character flaws. But just as Superman's classic writers made "real" kryptonite into something bigger than it deserved, so metaphorical kryptonite turns out to be more deflationary. Our moral integrity is better undermined with things more mundane, such as catnaps or Friends reruns or jelly donuts. Mephisto delights. Screw the scheming, work, and showmanship that go into Faustian bargains.
This is a searing attack on a pillar of Superman mythology. But I beg complainants to do this: see Zach Snyder's Superman retake, Man of Steel. It's solid and it's fun. And it's great to see a writer solve the whole character limit thing once and for all -- without kryptonite. Instead, Snyder opts for two better, time-honored solutions. He lays down better backstory, and he introduces better villains. I'm going to see it again. And I'll enjoy it again -- with my kryptonite: Twizzlers.