Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman PodcastNetwork.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.
Since Superman is the most well-known fictional character in the world, the term “*blank* is my Kryptonite” is even more common than the more traditional “*blank* is my Achilles Heel.” It refers to weakness, as in a weakness to shoe-shopping, a popular sport or even something life threatening like adrenaline-fueled acts, smoking or Dunkin’ Donuts. Superman traditionally has three specific weaknesses that counteract his powers and can prove life-threatening. The first is magic because his powers are physical and magic can affect him just as strongly as it would any other mortal. The second is red sunlight because the Earth’s yellow Sun is soaked up in his cells and gives him his superhuman abilities while an older red star such as the one Krypton circled would keep Kryptonians Earthbound … or is it Krypton-bound?
Finally, Superman is weak to Kryptonite, which is a radioactive piece of his home world that produces a specific level of radiation that will hurt and potentially kill Superman while apparently leaving Earthly humans alone. But where did Kryptonite come from and how has its effects changed during the chraracter’s 70+ year history?
Superman fans attribute most of his continuity to the comics, and rightly so since they’re usually correct, but the property has spanned other media and some of the best ideas have boomeranged back to their comic book roots and then been expanded upon. For instance Jimmy Olsen was first introduced early in the popular radio series that ran in the 1940’s. In the comics, Superboy was raised in Smallville somewhere in Middle America and it wasn’t until the 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve that the town was specifically set in the state of Kansas in all subsequent continuities.
Kryptonite was introduced in the radio series on June 6, 1943 when actor Bud Collyer took a vacation, but producers still had to put out a program. To explain the substitute actor’s different voice, Kryptonite was introduced for the first time as a green glowing meteor that not only weakened Superman and consequently altered his tone, but had the potential to kill him.
Oddly enough, there was an unpublished comic book story by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in 1940 that would have been called “The K-Metal from Krypton” about an object that robbed Superman of his powers while granting superhuman abilities to normal people. But since it never saw print, it isn’t considered canon. That story was also going to have Superman unmask for Lois, but an editorial decision precluded it in order to maintain the status quo. It was slated for Superman #8 (November 1940), but the previous issue actually had an advertisement for a toy ray gun that was made from “that amazing metal from Superman’s birthplace, the planet Krypton.”
Fast forward to November 1949 in the comic book Superman #61 and we have the first printed introduction of Kryptonite when an evil fortune teller hexed Superman to weaken him when in fact he has a red piece of meteor in his turbin that actually got the job done. It wouldn’t be long until that brand of Kryptonite would become the classic green variety. Although it was incredibly rare at first and only came to Earth as one piece, it soon became a common cache that even street-level villains could procure just in case they encountered the Man of Steel during minor capers.
By the 1950’s and 60’s and under the editorial auspices of the breakthrough DC Comics commander in chief Julius Swartz, readers were treated to a whole new kind of Superman, complete with a number of versions of Kryptonite. After the traditional Green-K that weakened Superman, there was a red variety that passed through a cosmic cloud as it journeyed from Krypton to Earth. The Red-K would have a random effect on Kryptonians that would last 24-48 hours. These effects included power-loss, gigantism, dwarfism, lunacy, multiple personality disorder, excessive hair growth, blindness to colors other than green, ant-headedism, dragonism, extra limb … ism, and so on. Basically Green-K would kill you, but Red-K would kill your social life.
Next there was the dreaded Gold Kryptonite which would permanently rob a Kryptonian of his super powers. Due to its irreversible nature, it was only used in the most extreme circumstances, including a handful of “imaginary tales” from the era. Gold-K halted Superman’s ability to process the energy of a yellow Sun, which is how the people of Krypton would photosynthesize their abilities on Earth.
Blue Kryptonite affected only Bizarro, the imperfect duplication or “clone” of Superman in a similar way that Green-K weakened Kal-El. White Kryptonite hurt Kryptonian plant life. Orange Kryptonite gave super powers to earthly animals. And if that isn’t encroaching the ridiculous parameters yet, there are a few other versions that were only used on very rare occasions to execute out-of-this-world plots that only the Silver Age of comic books could contain.
Once Superman’s continuity was completely rebooted in 1986, Kryptonite became a far rarer element on Earth. When Krypton exploded and the fetal Kal-El was rocketed toward Earth, one small piece of the green rock impacted and stuck to his ship. Superman’s Earth father, Jonathan Kent, buried the ship until it was found by Emmett Vale and the Kryptonite was used to power the cybernetic maniac Metallo. Lex Luthor discovered what this green glowing rock could do to his nemesis, so he snagged it and fashioned a gemstone to place in a ring that he would wear on his finger to keep Superman at bay. Although it seemed to have no effect on humans, it turned out that prolonged exposure had given him cancer, which nearly killed him. But that’s a whole other story.
Ultimately, having come to terms with his differences to Batman and his need for brutal, vigilante tactics, and finally trusting a hero of equal caliber, Superman bequeathed the ring unto him. If a Superman, with all his might, were ever to turn to evil or be controlled by the worst of villains, he wanted the power to stop him to lay in the hands of someone he could trust with his life. In all the attempts at recreating Superman’s new continuity since 1990, only Superman’s death and Batman’s Kryptonite ring have survived the test of time.
Red Kryptonite was nearly used in Superman III when Richard Pryor’s character failed to recreate the element, but it was feared that the audience would misunderstand the premise that brought us back to a green color, even though the effect turned out to be apathy instead of pain and imminent death.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman brought new uses for Red-K, but it primarily created a similar sense of apathy as the synthetic Green-K from Superman III. It was then used to focus a laser that transferred Superman’s powers to Lois Lane. Later in the TV series Smallville, it broke young Clark Kent’s inhibitions allowing him to be brutally honest with his feelings in the face of his friends and family, even to the point of endangering his identity as a human as well as the safety of those he loved.
Smallville also played with the effects of other colors of Kryptonite too. Black-K had the ability to split a person into two separate people with one good and one evil. Blue-K would remove a Kryptonian’s abilities as long is he or she was near enough to the rock. There was even Gemstone-Kryptonite that allowed Clark to get people to do anything that he told them to. The biggest change in the show’s beginnings was that when the baby Kal-El arrived on Earth in his rocket ship, he was accompanied by a full meteor shower worth of Kryptonite, most of which was green. The effect of the Green-K on humans was prevalent in the earlier season providing most of the super powered villains for Clark to face.
In DC Comics “New 52” continuity, which is just getting going, Kryptonite was used as a power source on Krypton, but was still poisonous. It’s similar to nuclear power on Earth which is one of the most powerful sources of energy, but can still be deadly to people.
There are still a number of other variations, mostly used in one-off stories, but never revisited, which is the only reason they aren’t mentioned here. What are your favorite Kryptonite stories, and do think that Kryptonite will have a role in the upcoming film?