It’s one of the oldest questions in superhero writing: how do you make your hero un-super enough to have drama in your stories? When you’ve got a protagonist who can outrun speeding bullets, etc., it’s hard to give him a sufficient enough challenge to make the audience keep reading. And, like in so many other things in life, it’s hard to avoid falling back on an easy answer.
The easy answer for this question has been to give the hero a “weakness.” It worked for Homer in the Iliad, so well that the Achilles’ Heel has come to be a shorthand for the hero’s weak spot, and, perhaps cognizant that they were forming a similar modern mythology, the writers of the Superman radio show reintroduced the meme when they came up with kryptonite.* The green metal (or mineral; the writers could never quite decide which) quickly became an all-purpose plot device, an easy way to defray the Man of Steel from simply omnipotenting his way out of any situation. In the Superboy series running in Adventure Comics, the concept expanded to include an entire rainbow of Kryptonite, with varying effects for each color. Flip through a random Weisinger-era comic, and you’ll find that the villain has been able to locate a hunk of the green (or red, or blue, or chartreuse) stuff in order to stymie our hero just long enough to stretch the story to eight pages. It got rather ridiculous; one can accept Lex Luthor having his own private stash, but when bank robbers are carrying a supposedly rare (and radioactive) mineral from a dead planet billions of light years away in their pockets like rock candy, it harms the suspension of disbelief. (To say nothing of the crooks’ marital affairs.)
The writers eventually recognized the corner they’d written themselves into, and in the 1970s, did away with the concept almost altogether, reducing all but a small sample of the world’s kryptonite, of all colors, to harmless rock; a funny scene from that story involves Superman munching down on a piece of “Kryptonite” flashed at him by a mugger who’s a bit behind the news cycle. John Byrne’s 1986 revamp did away with the Kryptonite rainbow, leaving only the plain green variety, and reduced the Man of Steel’s power levels enough that his enemies could properly challenge him. (Although in recent years, Superman’s powers have been approaching his more fanciful Bronze Age feats, and Jeph Loeb recently reinserted the rainbow Kryptonite idea, giving Lex Luthor a whole glove of the stuff, so where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.)
Superman wasn’t the only DC hero to suffer from “Gasp! My One Weakness!” syndrome. Martian Manhunter, as I discussed on Monday, was weak against fire, so much that a single lit match was enough to hold him at bay in the Silver Age. Wonder Woman, in a weakness that showed more of William Moulton Marston’s sexual proclivites than perhaps we wanted to see, was rendered helpless if bound at the wrists (and she had those ever-so-convenient bracelets, not to mention that golden lasso, to boot). Aquaman couldn’t survive out of water for longer than an hour. The original Green Lantern’s ring was useless against wood, and the Silver Age version did it one better by being useless against anything colored yellow. The early Justice League comics often contain a scene where the villain traps the heroes by running down a checklist of their weaknesses (“Green Lantern, your prison is constructed of yellow metals! Superman, yours is Kryptonite! Green Arrow, yours has a magnet that seals your quiver to the floor! Atom, you’re six damn inches tall!” etc.). Even more ridiculous were the scenes where, by sheer coincidence, the menace du jour would be covered by a yellow force field at the same time as a flash fire broke out mere yards from an as-yet undiscovered deposit of kryptonite. This kind of thing happened to the League on a regular basis; it’s a wonder why the Earth *wasn’t* conquered.
Even the Marvel bullpen, who replaced physical weaknesses as a plot device with soap opera drama and neuroses, wasn’t above falling back on the old tried-and-true. Thor reverted to his human guise of Don Blake if he lost his hammer for longer than a minute; Cyclops’s optic blasts could be blocked by ruby quartz; Iron Man, in the early days, had to wear his chest plate all the time and recharge it regularly to keep his heart beating. Even the Hulk had the annoying habit of changing back into Bruce Banner at the most inconvenient times (like, say, when the Lava Men were attacking the military base).
Going back to Homer, it’s worth noting that *SPOILERS* Achilles dies at the end of the Iliad, and so his weakness is pretty much a one-time thing. With serial characters, it becomes more of a problem; yeah, Brainiac can build a whole army of robots out of Kryptonite, but you know that Lois Lane will drop a lead apron over them from a helicopter or something, because the next issue’s already gone to press.
I note, with more than a little fanboy pride, that Spider-Man doesn’t have a weakness. Or at least not a physical one (although I do recall that the Spider-Slayers were always stocked with some gas or other that was supposedly a good spider-killer); his psychological weaknesses of guilt and over-responsibility are more than enough. And, perhaps of greater significance, I’m mentally running through Grant Morrison’s JLA run at the moment, and I can’t think of a single instance when he used Kryptonite to challenge Superman.** He simply made the threats big enough. And that, I think, is a superior method of superhero writing. Superheroes, after all, are supposed to be allegory for triumphing over the staggering odds real life throws at us. Who here will ever have to worry about being ineffectual because of a rock, or a match, or a color?
The real world has challenges enough for any hero, super or otherwise. We don’t really need to go around inventing new ones.
*Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the Man of Steel, wrote a story in the early ‘40s called “The K-Metal From Krypton,” but it was never published, in large part due to the fact that it involved Superman revealing his dual identity to Lois Lane. One can’t help but wonder how the decriers of the modern Lane/Kent marriage would feel if *this* had been the established Pre-Crisis status quo.
**Okay, yes, there’s the torture chair Protex used in “New World Order,” but that wasn’t *really* Kryptonite, that was a telepathic suggestion convincing Superman the Kryptonite was there. That’s the villain (and the writer, who often has to take the role of the villain) being creative with the tools available to him. Although that same storyline has the *heroes* taking advantage of the Martian weakness to fire, so I guess it’s a wash.