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Kryptonite: Superman’s true strength

by Winston Perez

Kryptonite is what makes Superman, well, super!

No, not just that green crystalline stuff that is a remnant from his dying planet. The concept of Kryptonite – the weakness it creates. The struggle it engenders. The mounds and tonnage of ill effects it unleashes faster than a speeding bullet. Kryptonite. In Superman’s world, it’s the diamond-hard stuff — pressed into shape by granite forces deep inside the crust of the comic book fantasy world. In our world, it’s human weakness.

Kryptonite is part of the super sauce that makes Superman the greatest superhero ever created.

My Concept Modeling work involves getting to the essence of film projects and in 2010 I did a model on Kryptonite and Superman: Kryptonite is critical to Superman. Why? Because it is his weakness that makes Superman strong as a character; it is the obstacles buried in his story and ultimately Superman himself, that make him relatable to us. Writers recognize this as a character device.

In Concept Modeling terms, Kryptonite is a “negacept” which I defined as a concept that defines its nature by the negation of another concept. It sounds heady, I know, but it just means that if superman is super, Kryptonite makes him “unsuper.”

If there is nothing to fear, there is no drama. Without a weakness, Superman also becomes boring – invulnerability is dull said Superman’s early editor, Dorothy Woolfolk; some credit her for Kryptonite.

Weakness defines true strength

How do you write about strength? You set it against weakness.

One of the movie’s posters shows Superman in police cuffs. It works on a psychological level because it hints at his unexpected weakness. We know he could snap those cuffs off like paper-mache bracelets. So what is holding the Man of Steel back? Hard to believe but it’s the soft, mushy stuff: aspirations. Ideals. Goodness. What a twist: This strength-linked-to-his-goodness is his Kryptonic-weakness. If he is to stand for the good he must accept the weakness it creates — holding true to those ideals despite the cost – doing, not what he can do, but what is right. Not what’s best for him but best for others.

In cultural terms, his weakness is, unexpectedly, Truth, Justice and the American Way. How is that a weakness? Because the bad guys don’t follow those rules; rather they scoff at them and throw them back in his face. Yet the good stick it out. True strength is found in overcoming the bad in spite of “moral handcuffs.”

The Homeland: Great Krypton

Superman’s story is America’s story. We left a Krypton-great nation, across the sea, and a vast distance, to a new world – alone. In time, after finding ourselves, we would become the greatest, most powerful nation on earth. We did it through might but also through a moral fiber, imperfect as we are — hard work, integrity, principled dedication.

It’s a side note, but it is the reason his cape must be red. His costume is basically the U.S.A.’s own red, white and blue. When he is depicted flying through the blue skies and white clouds, red is the only color that works. What’s the purpose of the cape? It’s how Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conveyed the feeling of flying for a flat page. How do you show flight dynamics in a comic book? A red cape works.

The Kryptonite is his personal journey

Superman’s journey is fueled by the aspirations he holds within a modern world that might not be ready for him. The mystery source of such super strengths fuels his search for his own identity and the super-sized mission that he must grow into and accept. A Superman, super alone, super burdened. It’s a type of Kryptonite, separating him from the easy joy he should have given his superpower gifts.

A quick recap: You can’t stand for truth, if you don’t know the truth of who you are. You can’t be about justice, if you’re not willing to abide by hard-set principles. You can’t take a stand for the “American Way” if you are . . . an alien? Oops.

That’s right, in our film world of green-monsters-from-outer-space and the like, we forget that Superman was one of the first aliens and perhaps the only one, until Star Trek’s Spock, that we aspire to be like. (All you Trekkies are nodding, right?)

Our number one sci-fi enemy may be an alien but, surprisingly, our number one comic book hero is also alien. Yet if you dive into it more deeply, it is another link to us – we are truly a nation founded on immigrants. Being an alien, becoming one of us, and believing in the “American Way,” Superman super-stamped our traditional principles as universal ones in the 40’s and 50’s. No small influence there.

The Kryptonite in our lives?

All of us have some drama in our lives. Victory is about winning. But glory is about winning in the face of eminent failure. Kryptonite makes the super glorious possible. That is the lesson in Superman for all of us. Our weaknesses, as we struggle to overcome them, can make us stronger. Super struggles can force us to become super strong.

Who would have “a-thunk it?” Kryponite also turns a comic book story into a contemporary fable. Could it be that our daily struggles can make us a little greater? Or that our weaknesses can make victory super sweet?

“Really,” you may be thinking, “life lessons from a comic book character?” Well, I was a bit cynical too: Truth be told, I talked to Warner Bros. about the project when it was first announced. I was concerned because it is easy, today, to make the film cynical; for example, we don’t go around promoting “Truth, Justice and the American Way” anymore. Any cynicism would be Kryptonite for the project. Their response: “Chris Nolan is definitely not cynical.” I say good for him. Superman is indeed super; so are Producer Christopher Nolan, Director Zach Snyder and Writer David Goyer. It’s crystal clear: they are super concept guys.

Winston Perez

About Winston Perez

Winston Perez is the founder/CEO of Concept Modeling, perfecting ideas in film, biz & tech. His clients include NBC/Universal, Interscope, Warner Bros. For more information about Winston, please check out The New York Times article. For questions, please email Winston@conceptmodeling.com.

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