Superman is the world’s first and arguably greatest superhero. When he was introduced in 1938 in the pages of Action Comics #1, he was a crusader for the innocent and the oppressed. His enemies back then were corrupt businessmen and politicians. By 1940, however, comic book readers were itching for more formidable foes for the Man of Steel to face. It was this need for a more diabolical mind that birthed the character that, to many, is Superman’s defining villain: Lex Luthor. However due to dissatisfaction from fans over how and how much Luthor has been depicted on film, this most iconic of Superman’s rogues may not make an appearance in the upcoming Man of Steel reboot. I believe this would be a major injustice to fans and to the character of Superman himself.
Introduced in Action Comics #23, Luthor has taken many forms throughout the years, as comic book characters are known to do. In the beginning, known simply as Luthor, he was a genius scientist bent on world destruction. His master plans of world domination were ever more elaborate and were orchestrated from his flying city. Jump to 1986 and we find a new Luthor; one that harkened back to Superman’s roots: an evil corporate executive with an ever-increasing thirst for power-and hate for Metropolis’ favorite boy scout. Ever since, the comic book versions of Lex Luthor have slid back and forth between these two extremes: underground, insanely smart criminal, or high-powered evil executive with an endless budget. All the while, fans have eaten it up. No matter which version of Lex he faces, Superman is always pushed to his physical, mental and emotional limits.
The Superman film universe is a very different story…
When the now-iconic film Superman: the Movie opened in 1978, the world was introduced to a different Lex Luthor. The ego was there, sure, as was the hatred for what Superman stood for. However the character frankly lacked vision. Touting his intellect during most of the film, Luthor’s plan involves causing an earthquake to sink California so that the new western seaboard, all apparently owned by himself, would see an increase in property value. Seriously? I would have been more impressed with a Dr. Evil approach: Threaten to nuke Metropolis (oh yeah, Lex hijacked nukes) if 1 Billion dollars is not delivered right away!
For his next scheme in Superman II, he takes an even lazier approach. The Earth has been invaded by General Zod and Company. Superman has retreated to a location unknown to his foes and they are furious. Enter “Lexxy Baby”. Luthor offers to give away the whereabouts of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in exchange for… Australia. It doesn’t take a genius level intellect to know that three evil supermen from outer space don’t need to honor any sort of agreement like that. I would imagine, if I were Lex, I would be pulling for Superman in that fight. After all, one is easier to beat than three.
Lex is MIA in Superman III and II prefer to pretend Superman IV didn’t happen, so we’re going to jump straight to the most recent, and I believe most pitiful depiction of Superman’s arch-nemesis: Superman Returns. In the opening scene of the film, we see Lex Luthor do something brilliantly wrong: swindle an old, dying woman out of her fortune. This looks promising! Now a legitimate millionaire with untold resources at his disposal, Luthor immediately sets about…another dastardly real estate scheme. This time, he plans to use Kryptonian technology to grow a Kryptonite island in the Atlantic which he will then sell to the masses of earth who are dying for a bleak rock to live on. Right.
The genius of Richard Donner’s original Superman film could be the topic of an entire course at film schools everywhere (and probably has been); and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is a fitting and poetic love letter to Donner’s universe. However, none of these films has given us Lex Luthor as the creators of the character envisioned or how the men and women who write him today have evolved him. Luthor is a complex character, full of tragedy, heartbreak and determination. His past demonstrates a man who may have become Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton if it wasn’t for a few key events. He is obsessed and single-minded; always four steps ahead with plans so unthinkably terrible no one would see them coming. This is the villain the Man of Steel deserves. This is the mere earthling who could push Superman to the brink; to the edge of what he is capable of then throw him off. Audiences are more cynical these days and expect a lot more from their stories. Not to mention comic book fans expect to see their favorite characters come to life, not be watered down for a mass audience.
A true interpretation of Luthor would show audiences the three dimensional character we know him to be and the character that, I submit, brings Superman down to earth. General Zod may have his turn in June 2013, but I can only hope that for the sequel, audiences everywhere will find out why Superman needs Lex Luthor.
This article was first posted on August 25, 2012