Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman PodcastNetwork.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.
Anybody who knows anything about Superman can tell you that his arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor. There’s a big debate among fans as to whether or not the character should be used in the upcoming Man of Steel film and its (here’s hoping) eventual sequels. I know I’m going to get some unruly reader comments for doing this, but the purpose of this article is to show not only why Lex Luthor MUST appear in the series, but why he most certainly WILL.
The Films So Far
The primary reason that some fans are demanding that Lex be excluded from future films is that he has already appeared in four of the last five Superman movies. Gene Hackman portrayed him in Superman: The Movie (1978) as a criminal genius in search of profit by buying inexpensive land in the way of Southern California desert, then launching a nuclear strike on the biggest geological fault line, thus turning his assets into valuable beachfront property at the expense of millions of lives on the western coast. He, along with his cronies Otis and Miss Tessmacher created a very slapstick take on the villain.
In Superman II (1980), Hackman’s Luthor escaped from jail and aided the Kryptonian Phantom Zone villains Zod, Ursa and Non against Superman. He was much more of a behind-the-scenes player, but his love of beachfront property at the right price still rang true. In exchange for helping the bad guys track down Superman at the Daily Planet and then the Fortress of Solitude, he was to receive ownership of the entire continent of Australia as well as Cuba. Besides facing the threat of death at Non’s hands every 20 minutes, he also failed to recognize that under the rule of Zod, Earth would most likely not have a monetary currency, let alone vacation destinations.
After skipping the third film installment, Hackman returned in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). When Superman decided to end The Cold War by throwing all of Earth’s nuclear weapons into the Sun, Luthor sought profit by dealing with the Soviets and helping to keep the threat alive. He also created Nuclear Man by cloning Superman and empowering him with the nuclear power of the Sun. The fourth in the series is almost universally accepted as the worst. In fact when Bryan Singer entered the picture for Superman Returns (2006), he intended his sequel to reflect a continuing story meant to take place five years after Superman II that ignored the two films that followed.
Kevin Spacey took over the role for Singer’s installment based on the first two films and continued the story of the land-grabbing version of Lex Luthor. This time, he returned to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to steal the Kryptonian crystals that held all the information that Superman needed about his home planet. Lex had discovered that with the introduction of moisture, they would grow and take on the traits of the minerals it came into contact with. He launched one of the crystals, encased in Kryptonite into the Atlantic Ocean to create a new continent that he alone would own and rent out to people. Once the rest of the crystals were used, most of the United States, Western Europe and North-Western Africa would be under water.
There were several flaws in the premise, such as the poor alien landscape that showed no signs of productive fertility, anything resembling resources and the simple fact that wiping out approximately a billion people would hardly leave Lex in a position to collect rent, let alone leave a worldwide economy that would even have a “slice of the pie” left for him to collect.
So if Lex Luthor has completely worn out his welcome in the films, what does the character still have to offer to the franchise? The answer is: PLENTY.
Even though Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey had ostensibly different takes on the character, they were essentially required to play a single version. But that’s only one of many Lex Luthor’s that have pervaded Superman’s history. In fact, the only traits all the versions share are a criminal mindset, a hatred of Superman and a hairless head (with one exception – keep reading).
In Lex’s first story in Action Comics #23 in 1940, he was a war monger and profiteer, but in a story that took place later but debuted one week earlier, he was described as a “Mad Scientist,” and that label stuck with him in the comics and other media until 1986, with the notable exception of the land-grabber from the Christopher Reeve films.
His origin was told in Adventure Comics #271 in 1960 where young Lex Luthor was helping Superboy by creating an antidote to Kryptonite. When his laboratory caught fire, Superboy saved the day by blowing it out, but unfortunately the wind from his super-breath knocked over a bottle of acid that when mixed with the antidote, caused all of Lex’s hair to fall out. And Lex has hated Superboy and then Superman ever since.
When you think about it, the sillier side of the Mad Scientist version of Lex Luthor was that he would create these fantastic machines, robots and even cybernetic armor and use them to do simple things like rob banks or try and fail over and over again to hurt or kill Superman. One thing we know for sure in this day and age is that true power in the world comes from wealth. So instead of building a million-dollar machine to riskily move forward like a pawn and get squashed every single time, what if he took one of those inventions, patented it, and sold it to the military for far more money than can be stolen with it?
The Modern Lex
In a way, that’s the origin of the modern Lex Luthor that first appeared in John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries in 1986. This time, he was the CEO of his own major company called “Lexcorp” and he employed half of Metropolis. The citizenry automatically assumed he was a good person with the best of intentions, but as writer/artist Marv Wolfman pointed out to me in an interview a couple of years ago, “What’s more evil than a Wall Street mogul?” What gave this version power wasn’t just his wealth, it was the near-sainthood that the populace bestowed upon him for all the good he regularly did for the city and its people, coupled with the blanketed naiveté toward his evil obsessions and generally being a jerk when the cameras weren’t rolling.
When the comics backtracked to tell this Lex’s updated origin, it was revealed that he was raised in Metropolis’s Suicide Slum, had an abusive father and a distant mother, and earned his fortune by using the money he gained by taking out a massive life insurance against his parents, then sabotaging their car to kill them. The cash went straight into his inventions so he could patent them, begin building his fortune and create his company.
This Billionaire version took off and became the norm for the character in all media afterward. It was John Shea (an unsung, but personal favorite of mine) in TV’s Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993) that first brought that version to TV in live action. Soon after Clancy Brown voiced the character as a Billionaire CEO in Superman: The Animated Series (1996). Most recently Michael Rosenbaum played Lex Luthor in TV’s Smallville (2001), but oddly enough his father Lionel Luthor, played by John Glover, followed the comic book version of Lex more suitably by also killing his parents after taking out a life insurance policy to build his business empire that young Lex would eventually inherit.
But the comic story didn’t stop there. That’s why it’s often referred to as the Never-Ending Battle. The Billionaire version hated Superman for entirely new reasons. Luthor had staged a terrorist attack at a party on his yacht which the mayor was attending, specifically to meet Superman for the first time and offer him a job. When Superman turned him down and then arrested him, he found his initial hatred for the Man of Steel due to public embarrassment.
Soon Lex came into possession of the ONLY piece of Kryptonite currently on Earth. He cut a piece out of it and set it in a ring he would always wear just to taunt Superman. By 1988, it was revealed that even though Kryptonite didn’t appear to affect humans like it did Superman, that the long-term exposure gave Lex inoperable cancer, but his hand was removed to extend his life and replaced with a robotic appendage, which is why Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex on Smallville wore a glove in all the scenes in Smallville that were set in the future.
He later faked his own death and had his brain, eyes and spine removed and a new body cloned around it so he could return as his own illegitimate Australian son, Lex Luthor II, complete with long locks and red hair. He was eventually hit by a virus that only affected clones, but returned after making a deal with Neron, who was essentially the DC Comics version of the Devil.
After a brief marriage and the birth, loss and retcon of his daughter Lena, he became President of the United States in 2000, only to lose his office when he went crazy from further Kryptonite poisoning. After the reboot in 2006, he once again returned to his “Mad Scientist” title, which brings us to DC’s new 52 where Lex has been contracted by the military to track down and neutralize Superman. It’s hard to say where he’ll go next, but I assure you, there are plans in motion.
Why the World Needs Lex Luthor
There are so many different takes on different versions of this character that have not been seen on film EVER. So saying that he’s already been “done to death” and shouldn’t enter into the films fails to acknowledge all that he has to offer. For instance, we have yet to see the Billionaire version on the Silver Screen, and he is certainly different from the Hackman or Spacey version, or even the Golden and Silver Age Comic Book “Mad Scientist” type. Now technically, the Spacey version came into a fortune in the start of Superman Returns, but the business mogul angle was never remotely explored.
In fact, one of the things I’ve been loving more and more about all the things I’ve learned about Man of Steel is that Nolan and Goyer are reimagining the world of the character to fit in the modern age, and taking (so far as I can tell) appropriate measures to alter the ordinary worlds of Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis, while still paying homage to what has come before. What this ultimately means is that any take on Lex Luthor that will enter the new film series may be an almost completely new version of the character, although I still expect them to pay homage to several of the versions that have come before.
Although Superman was the first Superhero and in many ways the best, a hero tends to be reflected by the antagonists he faces, and unfortunately Superman doesn’t have a rogues gallery that can stand up to some other major characters.
Take Batman for example. Batman has *hands down* the best assortment of villains in all of comicdom. In the same way that Batman’s character is based on psychological trauma, so are most of his primary villains such as The Joker, a baddie who is obsessed with the number two, another who is incapable of committing a crime without leaving a riddling clue, and so on.
Alternatively, look at Spider-Man. Almost all of his villains are animalistic like him. Early on he faced bad guys like Chameleon, Vulture, Dr. Octopus, The Lizard and technically even the Green Goblin is from a fictional creature.
So Superman’s villains, many of whom I listed in my previous two colums, 'Man of Steel' Countdown: Villains Unite! (Part 1) and (Part 2), have to be able to give a hard time to the most physically powerful superhero there is. While you can take a character like The Flash with one superpower – speed, and give him single-power mirroring rogues like Captain Cold, Heatwave or Weather Wizard, how many unique villains can creators come up with that can actually give Superman a hard time? Or rather, how many who can stand the test of time and still be viable after 70 years?
If Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan has taught us anything with his Batman films, it’s that he builds his movies in worlds that don’t deal with supernature. Everything has some sort of physical sense about it. Even so, he, David Goyer and Zack Snyder are working in a world where a man can fly, and I know that they will do everything they can to get the audience to believe that his powers make sense. In the same way that the Batman Trilogy has chosen villains that the audience can buy into and avoided the likes of Poison Ivy, Clayface, or a version of Ra’s al Ghul that literally rises from the dead on a regular basis.
In the same way, Superman’s villains must reflect him and will most certainly pay homage to the character’s past, but Lex Luthor is by far the most realistic and most dangerous arch-nemesis that he is ever faced. Luthor gave Superman a hard time over and over and over again in the comics, but he’s a regular cast member. His best uses have often been while working behind the scenes of another villain. In those terms, not only can we have a new take on Lex Luthor that has never been seen on film, but he doesn’t even have to be the primary villain.
Man of Steel
There have been no official announcements about villains other than Zod and Faora in Man of Steel, and I don’t think he’ll be in this film, even as a cameo, because it would force the Nolan/Snyder team to prematurely cast the actor. However, there has been a recent rumor that Michael Cerveris (TV’s Fringe) may be a contender for the role in the sequel, even though it’s unlikely anyone is being considered unless Luthor does make an appearance in the first film.
Which actor would you MOST like to see shave his head and play Lex Luthor in the new Superman film franchise?