Lex Luthor has the distinction of being one of the greatest and simultaneously most underappreciated antagonists in fiction. Despite his renown in comics, Luthor’s portrayal in other mediums tends to be mediocre at best. He is either well depicted but not a standout, or is depicted so badly that it begs the question: how is he still relevant?

To understand why multimedia depictions of Lex Luthor have such a spotty record, one must first figure out why he is “all that” to begin with. This is easily traced to the comics of the past 25 years.

Reflection Of A Time

Despite his continued presence for over seven decades in the realm of comics, Luthor is very much the archetypal mad scientist. While there is hardly anything wrong with that archetype on its own, it is hardly noteworthy as well. It wasn’t until the mad scientist was made a character trait as opposed to the overall picture that Luthor began to shine differently. Luthor, the mad scientist, gave way to Luthor the powerful and corrupt businessman.

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This interpretation has been the predominant depiction of Luthor in most media since John Byrne first introduced the concept in the 1980s. While his business savvy was certainly at the forefront, Luthor’s mad genius was equally present. Now, his death traps and intricate plans had the budget to be carried out with no one asking questions about plausibility.

A Tuesday morning for Lex.

It is certainly a clever way of modernizing a mad scientist. After all, in a world where capitalism is treated as dogma, would a brilliant person give in to altruism? Or would that same person simply look out for themselves, perhaps at the expense of others? Byrne certainly had good reasoning to have Luthor lean to the latter. It was the 80s after all.

The Best of Mankind, the Worst of Mankind

Subsequent writers on the Superman books have focused on Luthor as a contradictory figure. Most villains in other rogues galleries might have existential dilemmas about being who they are. Others simply relish and embrace exactly what they are.

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The Joker has no qualms about being Batman’s arch enemy. Mr. Freeze might detest what he’s become, but he uses his tragedy to justify his criminal acts. Ares, the god of war, has no dilemmas about being the literal embodiment of everything Wonder Woman is against. Sinestro, despite that he was once a hero, is so pompous and full of himself that he views himself as a model. He is something Hal Jordan and the rest of the Green Lantern Corps should aspire to be.

Luthor is unique because out of all the villains; he is the one with the most potential to be a hero… and he wastes it. Grant Morrison illustrates this beautifully throughout his All-Star Superman series. Luthor is a tragic villain because he wants to be Superman. He could cure diseases. Luthor could save the world if he were a selfless person, but he is not.

He is so jealous that someone like Superman exists that he can’t fathom anyone being better than him. Even at something like being a good person; because Lex wants to be loved as Superman is loved. However, he lacks humility, an essential characteristic of Superman. All the flaws he sees in Superman are reflections of his own soul. As far as I know, no other villain in comics possesses this nature.

Even godhood cannot satisfy his hatred.

Cinema/Live Action: where did it go wrong?

The most famous depiction of Luthor before Byrne’s revamp in the 80s was Gene Hackman’s performance in the Richard Donner SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE from 1978. It’s a classic film and the prototype of all comic book movies since.

Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor was perfectly in keeping with the comics of the time. “Greatest criminal mastermind of our time” and all that. He was the perfect contrast to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and it works perfectly within the film.

The problem, however, began in this very movie. Ever since this film was made, a running gag or even continuous assumption regarding Lex Luthor has been his greed for land.

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It is not especially interesting, but it played well… in 1978. After the decline of the original Superman film series, director Bryan Singer thought it entirely necessary to rehash SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in its entirety. The result? A reboot/sequel/remake, SUPERMAN RETURNS.

This film featured the fantastic Kevin Spacey in the role of Lex Luthor. Rather than play up any aspect from Byrne’s interpretation or go in an unexpected direction, the movie redoes Lex’s demeanor and motivation from the original 1978 film. Hardly anything to write home about. It was disappointing, to say the least.

New actor, same performance

That being said, it couldn’t possibly begin to compare to the monster that was to hit general audiences and fans in 2016…

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Focusing on just Lex despite the myriad problems the movie has is not very difficult. After all, a hero is only as good as the villain he battles. Jesse Eisenberg, despite his talent, gives us a performance for the ages for all the wrong reasons.

His take on Luthor is Joker-esque, a mad scientist with little to no actual motivation for wanting Superman to be killed or defeated or enslaved. His aims throughout the movie make no sense. He mentions his father occasionally and insinuates that his hatred for Superman is because he wasn’t around to save him from his father’s wrath.

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At another point, he begins to wax poetic about notions of power and gods and demons which deliberately sounds a lot deeper than it is. None of the “depth,” however, aids the character of Lex. His mad scientist turn towards the end of the movie has no build-up. Any reason why he is sought for aid is mired in questions with no convincing answers.

TV/Animation: foreground savior or background gem?

For all the mediocrity and failures in cinema, animation and TV have been a mostly bright spot for depictions of this character. Producer Bruce Timm would use Byrne’s take on Luthor in SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and the subsequent JUSTICE LEAGUE (UNLIMITED) series.

Voice actor Clancy Brown brought an intimidating gravitas to the character that could easily be thought of as *the* iconic portrayal of this character. Despite all the great episodes in all three series, Luthor’s excellent portrayal is hardly talked about.

The reasons for this are open to any fan’s interpretation. Since it is one excellent performance in a sea of great performances, it is to be expected that overshadowing would occur.

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Still, it is commendable that the shows were able to balance many aspects of Luthor quite seamlessly. It treated him as a three-dimensional character instead of a cardboard cutout. No easy task, given the previous history. It is curious how Luthor seems to have excellent portrayals on the small screen, not just in animation.

Another TV depiction that bears mentioning is Michael Rosenbaum’s performance on the hit television show, SMALLVILLE. I’ll confess to never having completed viewing this series. That being said, Rosenbaum’s Luthor was one of the highlights anytime he was on screen.

He exhibited all the traits of the animated incarnation mixed with a personal stake in all the proceedings. This was due to his close friendship with Clark Kent, a factor that would be explored in yet another medium.

Video Games: uncharted territory?

DC Comics has only just begun entering the world of video games. The games where Lex has most stood out have been the INJUSTICE games by Neatherrealm Studios, famous creators of the MORTAL KOMBAT series.

The advances in technology and the increase in the budget have allowed this studio to produce stellar fighting games with incredible cinematic story modes. INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US centered on an alternate reality wherein Superman has become a tyrant alongside his Justice League teammates and Lex Luthor himself.

Black Hole Sun

This was an interesting new take on the character for such a high profile product. Various comic book reboots of Superman’s origin have depicted Luthor as a possible childhood friend of Superman’s, but this game and its tie-in comics decide to twist the myth.

In this story, Luthor is presented as a lifelong friend to Superman before and during his ascendancy to power. However, in private, he is depicted as deeply torn by his loyalty to his friend and his refusal to subjugate the world. It is a much more nuanced approach to the character than one would expect from a video game. Sadly, this approach is lost in the bigger story. All the same, it deserves some recognition for breaking the mold and giving depth to this character.

The Future of Lex Luthor

The last few years have been some of the best years for this character. In comics, Lex has been making waves and headlines for being the star of DC’s 2013 event series, Forever Evil. In that story, he does what he always said he’d do if Superman weren’t around: save the world. It was certainly unexpected but hardly unwelcome.

An unexpected turn of events.

This later gave way to Luthor joining the cast of the monthly Justice League comic book and recently becoming the co-star to Superman in the monthly Action Comics book as part of the DC Rebirth initiative. Not many seem to call attention to the fact that *the* major archenemy of the world’s greatest superhero has become a hero in his own right. Even despite the initial transition being mired in petty glory seeking. Recent story arcs seem to indicate that Lex might harbor a dark secret which could potentially revert him back to being the super-villain we all know him to be.

Nevertheless, the character comes across as revitalized in the comics medium. He’s done things that no other characters (on the side of villainy, anyway) can claim to. People often consider the Joker to be the greatest DC super-villain and there might be an element of truth to that. Regardless, Lex Luthor stands as one of the most significant characters in the DC pantheon. Let’s hope writers and directors can start adapting this character with the appreciation he deserves.

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One Comment

  1. Kristen Brand

    September 6, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    Fantastic article! I completely agree that the movie portrayals are hugely disappointing while the DCAU version is excellent.

    Reply

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