Kryptonite was introduced to the Superman Family mythology in 1943, not in the pages of DC Comics but as a part of the radio serial, The Adventures of Superman. Kryptonite, radioactive fragments of Superman’s home planet of Krypton, has been central to Superman stories ever since. Although kryptonite’s been put to a lot of uses through the years by the countless storytellers who have helmed the adventures of Superman, Superboy, and Supergirl, its primary purpose has always been to bring a touch of vulnerability to the otherwise invincible characters. Kryptonite robs Kryptonians of their superpowers.
Lex Luthor has used kryptonite time and again to, temporarily at least, defeat his old enemy Superman. Batman wears a chunk of it in a ring just in case he has to take down his old friend. Radio, television, movie, comic strip, and comic book writers have relied on it to try and find ways to make stories about an invulnerable character interesting, as well as to make the threats faced by the god-like superheroes from Krypton seem somewhat challenging.
Kryptonite has to be handled carefully, however, or else it can quickly turn into nothing more than a gimmick for writers looking for an easy storyline. Silver Age Superman Family comic books are filled with cases like this. In those days, Kryptonite proliferated to the point that the classic green version of the element was just one of many. In addition to green kryptonite, there was also blue kryptonite, white kryptonite, gold kryptonite, silver kryptonite, red kryptonite, and every conceivable mash-up of those primary forms. Each version of kryptonite worked in different ways, and produced different effects on Superman/Superboy and his cousin Supergirl.
Sometimes the utter madness of the kryptonite frenzy produced something weird and wonderful enough to be memorable. Red kryptonite was particularly good at this. Unlike green kryptonite, which pretty reliably robbed Kryptonians of their super powers, red kryptonite tended to have less consistent effects. In one case, Superman was rendered vulnerable on only the left side of his body; in another, Superman was transformed into a Super-ant-man with the head of an ant. Red kryptonite has been used to split Superman into two beings — one an evil Superman, the other a good Clark Kent — a split that’s been reused many times throughout the years. (The ant-head Superman is one of the greatest things ever, although it’s not as good the lion head Superman, a condition that, alas, was not caused by red kryptonite but by a magical curse.)
It was all pretty stupid. And wonderful.
The CW’s Supergirl has already made good use of kryptonite in its first season. There’s the traditional green-K, of course, which is life-threatenting to Kara (Melissa Benoist) and her Kryptonian kin. We’ve also seen blue-K; in this case, a version of the element created by the D.E.O. to capture Bizarro Supergirl. This week, finally, it’s red-K’s time to shine.
Instead of transforming Kara into an ant queen or giving her two heads, red-K makes Kara sullen and angry. She gives up her red and blue costume for a black jump suit and decides to be mean and nasty to her family and friends. The episode is clearly meant as a tribute to the dreadful Superman III (1983), in which exposure to kryptonite brings out the dark side of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. It also comes off as more than a little reminiscent of 2007’s Spider-Man 3, in which Tobey Maguire’s wall-crawler dons a black suit and temporarily turns into a jerk.
Fortunately, Benoist pulls off the change better than Reeve and Maguire did, and successfully transforms the nerdy Kara into a sexy, arrogant, and volatile character. She comes on strong to her love interest James (Mehcad Brooks), drops Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) from her office window, calls her sister’s (Chyler Leigh) motives into question, and — in a bit of commentary on one of the traps a show like this can easily fall into — turns her back on the boring and generic alien-of-the-week.
Benoist shows a good bit of range in this episode. Her red kryptonite-inspired villain manages to avoid the camp that usually accompanies this sci-fi trope, and her redemption and contrition is marked by some realistic complications. Relationships were damaged by her behavior; the status quo is shaken. Her apologies sound like the apologies given after a night of drinking, and are met by the gracious but wounded responses that such apologies sometimes elicit. Kara wasn’t in control of herself when under the influence of red-K, but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t hurt those she loves.
I’ll admit that I would have liked to have seen a little more of the Silver Age red kryptonite, just as I would have liked to have seen more of the fun Silver Age Bizarro when blue kryptonite came on the scene a few weeks back. An ant-head on Benoist’s Supergirl might have been too much, I admit, but I’m still looking for this show to hit a few more lighthearted beats.
That being said, however, “Falling” is an excellent installment of this always-entertaining series. This little dose of red kryptonite does just exactly what kryptonite was always supposed to do. It makes Supergirl vulnerable. Not vulnerable to fists and bullets, mind you, but vulnerable in a far more human sense: to broken hearts and misplaced anger and feelings of inadequacy and regret, and to the dangers of life and love.
Kryptonite, somehow, always managed to make Superman seem like a bigger hero by making him more human. In “Falling”, red kryptonite has the same effect on Supergirl.