Like many readers of this site, I love comic books. I grew up reading them, so when Hollywood finally started to really get superhero movies right in the mid-to-late 2000s, I was overjoyed. Of course, I had been enjoying superhero movies long before Iron Man and The Dark Knight. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up watching superheroes on television and in the movies when radiation was the key element of heroic transformation and spandex was the fashion standard.
Going back to the 80s, these comic book movies have their own Kryptonite that causes problems for them. It seems that one of the best ways around a mysterious substance or miracle solution is to encounter an unknown element, or to discover a new one if you don’t have the expertise to just create it in your own home laboratory.
And this got me thinking… where do all these unknown and new elements come from?
The Answer: They just make that shit up. (But there might be a little truth buried in it, after all.)
The first time I noticed this trend in superhero movies was in 1983 when I saw Superman III in theaters. Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) uses the Vulcan weather satellite to probe deep space in order to find a chunk of Kryptonite. (On a side note, I’m still not sure how Gus managed to use a weather satellite to probe deep space, let alone change the weather rather than just observe it, but that’s fodder for another column altogether.) The satellite returns a list of ingredients, including plutonium, tantalum, xenon, promethium, dialium, and mercury (yet no krypton, go figure). It also listed a fraction of a percent of an unknown element.
Because Gus was a lifelong smoker, he decided to change that unknown element to tar. The result was a Kryptonite-like substance that basically turned Superman into a douchebag rather than simply destroying him.
Most of the items on the list of Kryptonite ingredients (including plutonium, tantalum, xenon, promethium, and mercury) are existing elements. All of these elements are found in nature, including plutonium, which would be a logical byproduct of the massive solar explosion that destroyed Krypton. The only odd ingredient in the list is dialium, which isn’t an element at all, but rather a genus of tropical legumes. I have no idea how that got to Krypton, but there you go.
Cigarette tar is actually a mixture of thousands of different chemicals that form a brown, sticky residue that will stain teeth, clothing, and smokers’ lungs. It is primarily composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, though the percentages of each varies with the brand of cigarette.
It’s no wonder Gus created douchebag Kryptonite rather than proper Kryptonite when you consider those ingredients.
Twenty-seven years later, in the film Iron Man 2, Tony Stark encounters a similar plot device when he creates a new element based on a design by his father during the 1974 Stark Expo. Where does this new element come from? Let’s read how director Jon Favreau explains this via his commentary track:
“In our movie, if you take one piece of metal and you shoot a laser at it, and light’s been accelerated, whatever that means. I thought light was a unified, was a constant, the speed of light was a constant. We’re apparently accelerating the light here and making the laser shoot the thing and whatever it is, it turns into another element. All that’s important. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about this. Just know that he made another element based on his dad’s thing, and he did because he’s Tony Stark. That’s his super power. He’s a genius.”
What could these unknown elements be?
The reality is that no element is truly unknown. The periodic table of elements is organized by atomic number, meaning it categorizes elements according to the number of protons in the atom’s nucleus, which determines the element’s properties. For example, the six protons in carbon’s nucleus causes it to exhibit very different properties than nitrogen, which has seven protons in its nucleus. There are no elements in between the known elements because an element cannot have anything but a whole number of protons.
Elements exist beyond uranium, which has 92 protons in its nucleus, but they tend to have short half-lives, which is the time it takes for half of a sample size to decay into elements with fewer protons. In other words, while these elements with higher atomic numbers than uranium can be created in a laboratory, they aren’t found on Earth because they’ve already decayed. However, it is conceivable that these elements could evolve in a massive nuclear explosion in space, say one powerful enough to wipe out Superman’s home world.
So, it is possible that the Vulcan satellite detected one of these heavier elements in the sample of Kryptonite, but it really would not have been unknown. It just wouldn’t be available on Earth outside of a laboratory. However, Tony Stark could have created one of these elements with a relatively stable half-life, but it would not be a new element only theorized by Howard Stark in the 70s.
Is there really no new stable element to be discovered?
Actually, there is. Even though atomic nuclei get more and more unstable the heavier they are, scientists have speculated about an “island of stability” for some elements starting around element 120. (Currently, the element with the highest atomic number that has been observed is element 118, temporarily called Ununoctium.) While most of the elements beyond uranium disintegrate within microseconds, the theoretical island of stability might yield isotopes with half-lives lasting anywhere from minutes to millions of years.
Using what Favreau jokingly refers to as “movie comic-booky technology,” all things are possible. This technology also potentially explains where the Vibranium comes from to make Captain America’s shield and the chemical properties in the Adamantium in Wolverine’s skeleton.
If superhero movies and comic books are to be believed, perhaps Tony Stark created one of these ultra-heavy elements in his lab to replace the palladium in his portable arc reactor. Could this newly created element by Tony Stark also be the missing ingredient in Kryptonite?
Movie comic-booky technology says it just might be the case. At the very least it would have worked better than tar.