The Joy of Lex

SAM (age 3): Who is that?
DAD: That’s Lex Luthor.
SAM: Is he the bad guy?
DAD: He is the bad guy.
SAM: Then why isn’t Superman fighting him?

Lex Luthor is the greatest, and most difficult to define, villain in the comics universe.

In 1940, when he was just Luthor, he was a mad scientist, much like many other mad scientists of the day.  He created amazing machines and planned to use them to take over the world.  There was a lot of that going around in the 1940s, when there were plenty of scientists, mad or not, and they very much did take over the world.  People understandably were nervous about technology and its ability to shift the balance of power in the world.

The idea was, if Superman was Strong and Good, then his nemesis must be Smart and Evil.  Lex created Superman robots, Superman clones, anti-Superman rays, all matter of ingenious devices for no other purpose but to destroy Superman.  (In one of the many delicious plot twists of the the stunning Red Son, Superman comes to the realization that, if not for his existence, Luthor would have been able to use his vast intellect to solve every problem humanity faces — he would have been the greatest leader in human history.)

In the 1980s, John Byrne re-created Lex as a businessman, a tycoon, the head of Lexcorp.  Again, it fit with the times — the villains of the 1980s were men like Gordon Gekko, bloodthirsty capitalists who cared nothing for people, lives or even businesses — they yearned only for money.  Again, it’s a good foil for Superman because it’s natural strength vs. economic strength.

In the 2000s, Lex became President of the United States.  One has to wonder what took him so long.

On Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League, they put all of these visions together to arrive at the fullest, most complex version of Luthor yet.  This Luthor is hugely wealthy, employs millions of people, controls the economy of Metropolis, runs for president and, when the mood strikes him, finds time to tryto destroy Superman.

Maybe that’s what makes him interesting: he actually has other things to do besides destroy Superman.

The conversation quoted at the top of this entry occurred while Sam and I were watching one of the first episodes of Superman: TAS.  They were taking great care to show who Lex is, how his business is constructed, how he’s an important and vital member of the community, not some penny-ante thug with a crazy plan — all of which completely baffled my (then) 3-year-old son.  He couldn’t understand Lex, Lex’s legitimate business, he couldn’t understand that not even Superman can just fly into Luthor’s penthouse suite and punch the guy who employs more people than anyone in Metropolis and also controls municipal government.  How do I explain to my son that you can’t punch someone merely because they’ve risked the lives of millions of people in their pursuit for power, that, in fact, in our country men are greatly rewarded for that kind of behavior

(Note: I began this piece before I was aware of the president’s speech on Iraq tonight.)

When I was a kid I kept hearing about the Mafia and how there were these terrible criminals running organized crime in America, and everyone knew who they were but they were still running around free.  I just kept wondering “If everyone knows who they are, why can’t the police just walk in and arrest them?”  Like those Mafiosos, Lex is too smart to get caught in any of his nefarious schemes, and, more often than not, Lex’s schemes for power-grabs backfire on him in ways that have nothing to do with Superman’s interference.  The Lex Luthor of Superman: TAS  and Justice League is no two-dimensional bad-guy.  The Joker is a psychopath in a garish costume, Sinestro is an evil guy with a magic ring, Mr. Freeze is a guy with a gun; you can see those guys coming a mile away.  But Lex?  If you foil a Lex Luthor scheme, chances are it’s because he wanted you to foil it because it somehow serves his greater plan.  Only the Lex Luthor of Justice League could devise a presidential bid that’s actually a distraction to divert attention from his REAL plan.

As the earlier Luthors served their times, this Lex serves ours.  A brilliant scientist, who is also the head of a multinational corporation and also president of the United States?  The only thing that sounds out of place there is that we would have a brilliant man as president.  Just as we once felt suspicious about science and capitalism, we now as a nation are starting to get the same sense of ill-ease about our corporate-owned political leaders.  Despite their rhetoric, we get the feeling that maybe they don’t have the best interests of us, or the Earth, in mind when they make their decisions.

(The climax of Season 1 of Justice League Unlimited features a jaw-dropping team-up of Luthor and Brainiac that plays to both of their strengths — Brainiac wishes to destroy the universe (yes, the universe) and Lex seeks ultimate power — and in this case is offered the chance for godhood.  The — ahem — “surprise reveal” of the team-up is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in children’s programming.)

For some reason, for the live-action movies, Superman, Superman II, Superman IV and Superman Returns, Warner Bros neglected every possible valid aspect of Lex Luthor.  In these movies, Lex is not a scientist, a businessman or a politician.  He’s a fop, an opportunist and a jerk.  Far from being a genius, he’s not even bright.  His plans are ridiculous, obtuse and fatally short-sighted.  He is, in fact, the opposite of a genius — he is a man who keeps saying he is a genius.  He’s a blowhard and a poser, vain and obvious, surrounding himself with morons and sycophants to make himself feel smarter.  The Lex of the animated show doesn’t have a two-bit hussy and a slobbering idiot in a straw boater for a staff, he seeks out and hires the best and the brightest people in the world (a strategy that sometimes backfires for him when they get wise to his plans for universal domination).  What does it say if I’m watching the $200-million-plus Superman Returns and I keep wishing I was watching a cartoon instead?

Christ, in Superman they wouldn’t even present him as bald!  It seems obvious to me that the screenwriters of the first Superman movie never even bothered to read one of the comics they were supposedly adapting.  I can just see the first meeting between Mario Puzo and Alexander Salkind:

M.  So, Superman, blue suit, right?
A. Yes, and the red cape.
M. Super-strong or something, right?
A. Good-looking.  The ladies like him.
M. Right.  And who does he fight?
A. Um, let me — Ilya!
I. (from the other room) Yes?
A. Who does Superman fight?
I. Lex Luthor.
A. Lex Luthor.
M.  (writing it down) L-e-x, L-u-t-h-e-r.
A. That should be an “o” in Luthor.
M. What?
A. Nothing.
M.  So this Luthor guy, what’s he like?
A.  He — Ilya?
A. Come in here so I don’t have to shout!
(Ilya comes in)
I. What.
A. Tell us what Luthor is like.
I. He’s a, a guy.
A. Yes?
I. And he hatches evil plots.
M. Mm.  Yes?
I. What.
M. That’s it?
I. And he’s bald.
(M winces)
M. That’s going to be a tough sell.  They’re never going to get Hackman to shave his head.  Does he have to be bald?
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25 Responses to “The Joy of Lex”
  1. 8bit_brains says:

    Yeah, Bruce Timm gave us the definitive Batman and Luthor in my oh-so-humble opinion. As much as I love Gene Hackman’s Luthor, the powers that be should have definitely used the DCAU style Luthor. Oh well, considering John Singer’s involvement, I am surprised that Superman Returns was even watchable.

    Oh, gotta love how Luthor ended his animated career, taking down a “god” that Superman couldn’t. Would have been nice to see what he ended up doing with that little item that he aquired though.

  2. medox says:

    Absolutely. The animated Luthor was a wonderfully insidious villain. Plus Clancy Brown had just the perfect voice for him.

  3. gdh says:

    I think the lack of compelling villains is one of the main reasons I never liked super-hero comics. With a few exceptions like Lex, super-villains are unsatisfyingly ridiculous. They certainly don’t match up to the sorts of villains we encounter in the real world. Their crimes are too ostentatious and absurd for their defeat by the heroes to resonate in any meaningful way. Who cares if Batman can solve The Riddler’s elaborate puzzle and save the city? — It’s an absurd situation that doesn’t map to the real world. It’s much more satisfying to see a fight against a more realistic villain like President Callahan or at least a villain like Lex who, while not exactly realistic, at least provides the sort of conflict which means something in the real world.

    • Todd says:

      They certainly don’t match up to the sorts of villains we encounter in the real world.

      Well, you can hardly blame a comic-book character for acting like a cartoon. We are, after all, talking about adolescent power fantasies. In our adolescent power fantasies, we can simply identify the bad guy, walk up to him and punch him out. In real life, however, the bad guy is hard to identify and even harder to punish.

      That said, The Riddler is an utterly stupid villain that gets totally taken down on Seanbaby’s Superfriends page.

      • gdh says:

        Silver Age super-hero comics, like Elvis movies, can be quite entertaining if taken on their own terms, with their inherent insanity acknowledged and fully embraced. But I was born in ’83, so by the time I was a teenager most super-hero comics had started taking themselves far too Seriously for their own good. I have nothing against serious comics, it’s serious super-hero comics that don’t quite work for me. When adolescent power fantasies take themselves too seriously, the silliness and implausibility of them becomes all the more obvious. The strain on my suspension of disbelief becomes too much.

        From what I’ve seen, the DCAU, particularly the various Batman cartoons, does a far better job than the comics of maintaining a fantasy world with its own more-or-less consistent rules that allows for some surprisingly intelligent and “serious” stories without trying to be so gritty or “realistic” that the result is absurd. But…

        I remember seeing a fantastic episode from one Batman series or another: Batgirl had been killed, resulting in Commissioner Gordon finding out Batman’s secret identity and bringing the police force crashing down on Wayne Manor to apprehend the vigilante nutjob who got his daughter killed. This on a kids’ show! (It was all just a hallucination brought on by Scarecrow’s magic fear-gas, of course.) It was a great episode, but I found that it made me think too much about the underlying assumptions of Batman’s world. Why exactly do the police, and indeed the people of Gotham, tolerate all this spandex nonsense? How has Batman succeeded in keeping his identity secret all this time? He never slipped up once? And who the hell does he think he is, drafting children into his war on crime? The less serious the plot, the easier it is to ignore such questions.

        I still find that the super-hero comics I enjoy the most are either ultra-meta meditations on the genre itself, like Watchmen and Planetary, or works that embrace the absurd conventions of the genre to comic effect, such as The Tick and NextWave and anything with Deadpool in it that’s written by Gail Simone.

      • robolizard says:

        The Riddler, yes leaves Riddles, runs around in a green suit covered with question marks and all in all makes quite a pitiful real world villain. However, he isn’t a real villain. He is absolutely fictional and the riddles and Batman’s subsequent solving of them are fun to watch. He was my favorite villain when I was a child, a mind working technically and oddly, like the Joker only with beloved beautiful riddles. Its an interesting thing about all of these comics. They take ideas written for children and attempt to make them serious. No wonder characters like Speedball have a hard time staying consistent, and Jeph Loeb made the Riddler and Calendar Man absolutely sick.

        • Todd says:

          The Riddler was a perfect villain for his time, when comics were actually comic and were light-hearted escape, not violence-soaked psychodramas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but personally I’d like to see more comics be a little more light-hearted today.

          Twenty years ago, the ubitquitous headline was “Bang! Zap! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” These days, it’s more like “Slash! Stab! Comics Aren’t Remotely For Kids Anymore!”

          At my local comics shop here in Santa Monica, the entire store is overwhelmed by oceanic tides of adult titles, rape and murder and psychosis and angst; the kids’ titles are given one spinner rack at the front of the store.

          • robolizard says:

            Yeah, at mine too [Boston]. Most interesting part is that most of the comics are those unpurchased from the early 90’s and late 80’s. A clear sign at who is buying these things.

            The psycho drama genre seems like an overt bid for respect. Ah well.

  4. megachef says:

    I can totally see that conversation taking place.

    I remember reading something with Brian Bendis where he was talking about his first meeting for the Spider-Man animated series that followed the first movie, and the first question he was asked in this meeting was, “Does it have to be a spider?”


    Oh, also, animated Lex is indeed great, with excellent work by Clancy Brown, and I appreciate that Timm and company added to the mythos by introducing Mercy, yet another animated character who was later put into the comics a la Harley and Montoya. Mercy doesn’t get as much play as the other two, but I like the character.

    Todd, did you ever get a chance to see the “Apokolips . . . Now!” two-parter? Man, it’s a gut punch, but in a totally awesome way.

    • Todd says:

      “Apokolips…Now!” was the first episode I watched over my son’s shoulder that made me think “Wow, there’s a lot more to this show than I thought there was.”


    from The New York Post, April 14, 2005:

    Lex Perv Bust

    They weren’t able to nail him on all those world-domination plans, so they finally got him on a morals rap (kinda like the Al Capone deal).

  6. ghostgecko says:

    >>>In the 2000s, Lex became President of the United States. One has to wonder what took him so long.

    I beleive he was asked that question at one point in the animated JLU and said that would be a step DOWN in power for him.

  7. craigjclark says:

    A brilliant scientist, who is also the head of a multinational corporation and also president of the United States? The only thing that sounds out of place there is that we would have a brilliant man as president.

    Not only that, but a president who believes in science would almost presuppose that he — gasp! — doesn’t believe in God.

    Also, I seem to recall that Hackman did get bald in at least one of the Superman films. I actually liked the fact that he was vain enough to wear a wig.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Hackman goes swimming in the pool in the first film, and it’s revealed he’s bald.

      I loved that he made a pool in an abandoned subway.

      • Todd says:

        It is unquestionably revealed that Lex is bald in the first film. What I don’t understand is why he couldn’t have been played like that to begin with — except that the filmmakers felt a certain contempt for their material.

        Granted, the Superman/Clark Kent aspect of the movie works marvelously and there is much wit and invention on display. But why not give Superman a real villain instead of the Three Stooges to fight against?

        • greyaenigma says:

          I think that’s partly why Superman II is so much fun — he’s got real serious enemies. And in Superman III he’s got himself. And Richard Pryor. And a computer. And crazy cyborg lady. It’s a winner.

          It would be nice to see the movies use the ostensibly above-board Luthor tycoon.

          I don’t suppose you’ve seen any Smallville? I tried watching it for a while (longer than I’d like to admit) on the dramatic grounds that, rather than watching how Clark Kent came to be Superman, the show was actually about how Lex Luthor came to be the lovable ultimate nemesis we’re all familiar with.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    I recommend McCloud’s Strength and Morrison’s new Superman series. In the latter, Clark Kent follows Luthor around in prison while they each try to keep each other safe during a riot, all while Lex tells Clark how he destroyed Superman. It’s a fun layering of perceptions.

    The — ahem — “surprise reveal” of the team-up is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in children’s programming.)

    Barring the various Superfriends turning into monsters? But yeah, I know what you mean.

    I look forward to your piece on the Ultra-Humanite.

  9. robolizard says:

    What always struck me interesting about Luthor was that it was a parable of Brain vs. Brawn meant for children, but in this case brawn was the good and brain was the evil, a questionable idea for children, but ironically appropriate with almost a Werthamic type of flair for a superhero book. Also when it all comes down to it Superman’s main power is how hard he can hit something, its always fun to see him go up against a character of far greater depth.

    Just a quick recomendation–> Kurt Busiek’s ‘Up Up and Away’ has probably on of the best versions of Luthor presented in the comics, and it points out that with Superman gone, the center of his life is still eradicating him, or even a possible version of him [like in 52]. All in all his hatred for Superman is hinted at at being more of a self hatred, that not with all of his brains or his hardwork can he achieve what Superman is, something without work. There is a great moment in All Star Superman where Clark Kent is interviewing Luthor on death row, and Luthor chooses to do the interview at the gym, wherein he points out that his muscles are real and earnt, unlike Superman’s.

    As for an earlier comment here, for some reason mainstream comics always see depth as how much angst they can give a character, irregardless of history or meaning [Killing off Animal Man, giving the Question cancer, making Plastic Man’s sense of humor be a cover up for his guilt for abandoning his son… bah…] Luthor stands above and the rest for being actually a character with a personality.

  10. toliverchap says:

    Superman TAS vol 3 easter egg commentary

    I found this on the web and it’s pretty cool, if you go to the special features section in the first disc of the Superman TAS vol 3 and highlight the main menu then arrow right it will highlight superman’s shield and you get a bonus commentary track for Apokolips … Now! Part 1. Since you mentioned watching this show I figured you have the DVDs and might get a kick out of extra commentary since most of Timm and pal’s commentaries are pretty good, both informative and funny.

  11. yetra says:

    Thank you yet again for another lovely, thought-provoking and interesting analysis. You’ve caused me to change my personal role model from Karl Rove to Lex Luthor. Not that I *like* Karl Rove, but that kind of behind-the-scenes-controlling-everything-power is very appealing, although I would hope that I would use my powers mainly for good instead of evil. Oh, I should probably just stick with my plan to take over Killer Films.

    Anyhow, I definitely need to bring Superman: Red Son to the top of my “to read” pile. It’s been on the wishlist since August, after another friend piqued my interest in it. This pushes it up in priority.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is dead on

    I was wishing Kevin Spacey’s Lex was more like Timm’s while I was watching “Superman Returns,” too. The thing I love about Timm’s version, especially during the final season of JLU, is that he can be stuck in a room with countless super-powered psychopaths, all of whom could snap him in half in a second, and yet none of them can touch him, because he’s always five steps ahead of everybody.