Comics on Film: Ranking the Different Versions of Lex Luthor We've Seen So Far

Comics on Film: Ranking the Different Versions of Lex Luthor We've Seen So Far

Mar 26, 2015

In the wide and diverse pantheon of comic book supervillains, there are few with as much interpretive room and staying power as Lex Luthor. Much like his nemesis Superman, who innovated the superhero itself back in 1938, Lex Luthor has proven to be the foundation upon which hundreds of other comic book supervillains are at least partially based. First appearing in April 1940's Action Comics #23, Luthor's most singularly defining characteristic has always been his brilliance.

Whether you're looking at the Golden Age version that largely served as a mad scientist, to the career criminal of the 1970's, all the way down to the cunning corporate mogul of the 1990's and 2000's, the shade of Luthor's evil has always evolved with the times in which he's been brought to life. Unfortunately, his legacy when adapted into mediums outside of the comics hasn't always reflected what's made him such an enduring character.

In that spirit, and in honor of getting our first-ever look at Jesse Eisenberg as the character in next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we thought we'd take a look at six iterations of Luthor that have appeared either on film or television, to give you an idea of the legacy that Eisenberg will be adding his name to.


6) Lyle Talbot in Atom Man vs. Superman (1951)

A character actor from the 1940s and 50s, Lyle Talbot actually has the distinction of being the first live-action performer to play two DC Comics icons: Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin, and as "Luthor" -- he hadn't yet been named "Lex" -- in 1951's Atom Man vs. Superman. Now, don't confuse Talbot's position on here with the idea that he's the worst Luthor. It's just that in comparison with the other performers that would follow, Talbot didn't have all that much to work with.

He was basically a mad scientist foil for Kirk Alyn's Superman to face off against. Most of the major developments for Lex Luthor that would make him unique and long-lived would simply come later.


5) Gene Hackman in Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Believe me: you won't find a stronger proponent for the original two Superman films than me, but most fans would likely agree that Gene Hackman's relatively campy performance is a little more befitting of a 1960's Batman episode than the first legitimate entry in superhero cinema. It's not all Hackman's fault, as the actor is absolutely magnetic when you watch his performance. The failure here is also in the writing.

Although the script for the original films succeeded immensely in translating Superman himself and his supporting cast to the screen, their take on Luthor, unfortunately, proved to be very misleading about the character and would pervade peoples' perceptions of him for over thirty years.


4) Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns (2006)

Case in point, director Bryan Singer's quasi-sequel to the original film borrowed far too heavily from the intelligent-yet-irreverent iteration of Luthor. While Spacey gets generally higher marks for bringing his trademark sense of cold viciousness in a few short scenes, again, the writing does little justice to the performer's capabilities, as well as Luthor's history which -- by this point -- was revolutionized twenty years prior in the comics to great effect at the hands of writer/artist John Byrne.

That's the general problem with Superman Returns, though: it seeks to return the character to an older conception that was no longer in step with the character that so many fans had gotten to know since the 1986 revamp, as well as how he was explored in other media even by this point. Such as...


3) John Shea in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1994)

Lois & Clark was the first other-media adaptation of Superman to include the sweeping changes made to the comics from just seven years prior, and the show is better for it. John Shea's performance as Lex Luthor, who served as the primary antagonist in the first season before making a few guest appearances, embraced much of the new vindictiveness that Byrne introduced in the comics, and that had been maintained well into the 2000's. While Shea is often overlooked as Luthor due to some other questionable elements of the series as a whole, he definitely adds to its overall luster.

While it's unfortunate that Shea would only be a part of the main cast for one season, he proved that a chief antagonist for Superman could be diabolical without necessarily being over-the-top, and when Shea's business-like composure is broken in a few places with an animalistic anger, you can see exactly what he brought to the part. He may not have been bald for that first season, but he still had it wear it counts.


2) Clancy Brown in Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000), Justice League (2001-2004), and Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006)

A number of actors have given voice to Lex Luthor in animation over the years, but never quite as effectively as actor Clancy Brown. Much in the same way that many fans feel that Mark Hamill provided the definitive take on the Joker for his vocal performance in Batman: The Animated Series, Clancy Brown is in equal measure for bringing Luthor to life with his smooth and even baritone, especially when lines are boomingly punctuated with furious rage that could give a thunder clap a run for its money.

Just as much as Brown's voice fit in so well with the character design, the writing for Luthor in these animated appearances also embraced both the scientific ingenuity in addition to the cutthroat business acumen, resulting in a Luthor that easily ranks as one of the most definitive portrayals of the character to date.


1) Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville (2001-2008, 2011)

Although Smallville likely dragged out the origin story of the Man of Steel unnecessarily over ten seasons and 200 episodes, it's hard to argue with the top of a long pedigree when you see it. In addition to snappy writing and a dedicated performance, Michael Rosenbaum's slow descent from decent human being to a darkly disturbed supercriminal was arguably the best part of watching Smallville's first seven seasons. Originally featuring a friendship between Clark and Lex, Rosenbaum would occasionally flash his true and destined nature in shocking ways that were both dictated by the writing and uniquely accentuated by his own performance.

The most ardent Superman fans will tell you in many ways what Smallville got wrong about the character that they love, but after ten seasons, there was plenty that they got right as well. The evolving conflict between Clark and Lex was given the overtone of tragedy, since we had gone from seeing Lex as a protagonist to watching him slowly devolve, culminating in an act of murder that showed him take his rightful place as the pillar of evil in the DC Universe. Because of that, Rosenbaum takes the top spot for his portrayal on television.


How screenwriter Chris Terrio and director Zack Snyder choose to exploit Luthor in next year's Batman v Superman is anyone's guess at this point. Because of Eisenberg's relative appearance of youth when compared with his Luthorian colleagues, this Luthor may be a prodigy that has made his presence known earlier than ever before. Still, with a lot of mystery surrounding the film that's now just about a year away from bowing in theaters, it's very easy to see that he has a lasting legacy that he's already conributed to in a small way with a single picture.

Hopefully, the character in motion will be just as threatening as he should be, since Lex Luthor is the only character in comics who, as a mere mortal, has managed to become the arch enemy of the most powerful being on the planet.

No pressure.

Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, the Junior Editor at, and a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.




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