When you say the word “villain”, only a few characters jump into mind. If you say Superman villain, there is only one that leaps into view, Lex Luthor, a bald megalomaniac business man, scientist and politician. He has been a villain in the Superman family of comic books since the 1940s. This article will focus on a brief background on the character and a few of the actors that have played the character in movies and TV.
The character first appeared in Action Comics No. 23 in April of 1940. He was a mad scientist whose plots use his intelligence for his own monetary gain. He had no personal resentment against Superman. In the beginning, Luthor was drawn with a full head of red hair. His baldness is attributed to a mistake by artist Leo Nowak when drawing the newspaper comic strip version of Superman. Possibly mistaking Luthor for the Ultra-Humanite or possibly a bald henchman that appeared in a previous story. Over the years Lex’s back story has changed to integrate Superman (Superboy) into his origin, giving him reasons to hate the Man of Steel and wanting him destroyed. In the Silver Age of comic books, Lex was a scientist who befriended a young Superboy, but when a lab fire breaks out and Superboy tries to save Lex, his life’s work is destroyed, and the chemical fire resulted in Lex’s baldness. Setting the stage for the animosity Lex feels towards Kal-El. In the 1980s, to make the character more relatable to the readers, he moved away from being a scientist and more of a businessman. John Byrne modeled the new Lex Luther after evil corporate executives, specially Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Later, he goes into politics and wins the US. Presidency. As his story progresses, the two sides of Lex are combined into one. Not just a brilliant scientist or a rich corporate executive, but both. A scientist, whose inventions have made him a powerful corporate executive.
As one of the most recognizable DC villains. it isn’t unexpected that Lex would be part of any media representation of Superman. Below are just some of the actors who have depicted the character in TV and Movies and my personal opinions on the portrayal.
Lyle Talbot (Superman vs Atom Man serial, 1950). In the second serial starring Kirk Alyn as Superman, Lyle Talbot played mad scientist Lex Luthor and Luthor’s alter ego Atom Man. Talbot had previously played Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin.
Gene Hackman (Superman movie series with Christopher Reeve starting in 1978): This version is modeled more after the original character from the Golden Age of comic books. A mad scientist who holds no true animosity against Superman, but just needs him out of the way so that his schemes are not thwarted by the Man of Steel. Although bald, he is shown wearing several wigs throughout the movies depicting how the character was originally drawn. This Lex is corny and often played for laughs. It is hard to take the character seriously as a true threat to Superman. As much as I love Superman: The Movie and Superman II, Lex is my least favorite part of the series.
Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns 2006) : A continuation of the Christopher Reeve stories, but now played by Brandon Routh. Spacey plays a similar character to Gene Hackman, but with a bit more depth to the character and not quite as cheesy. He is a bit darker but still with a bit of humor. It would have been interesting to see what Spacey would have done with the character had the sequel been made.
Jesse Eisenberg (DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman 2014): Probably my least favorite depiction of the character. Played as a totally unhinged character who is not only brilliant, but crazy. The character purposefully manipulates Batman and Superman to become enemies and to fight to the death, while he creates Doomsday in the crashed Kryptonian ship. I feel like Jesse was channeling the Joker more than the cool, calculating brilliance that is Lex Luthor. It was just a bit too over the top for me.
Scott James Wells (Superboy, 1988-1992): In the first season, Lex is seen as a college student along side Clark, whose main interest is in fixing College football games and making Superboy look bad in the eyes of the public. But in the season one finale, we get to see the silver age origin come to fruition. In an attempt to save Lex from a lab fire, Superboy accidentally causes Lex to go bald. Blaming the Boy of Steel for his loss, he gains a more intense hatred towards the character and vows to destroy him, no longer satisfied to just humiliate Superboy, but now wants him dead. I have no real feelings toward this depiction. I was in college at the time myself and only saw a few episodes here and there.
John Shea (Lois and Clark The New Adventures of Super Man 1993-1997) Jenette Kahn, head of DC Comics, tried for years to sell a new Superman TV series. Leslie Moonves and Deborah Joy Levine helped get the new series greenlit at ABC by presenting a new angle for the series that would focus on the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent/ Patterned somewhat after John Byrne’s reboot of Superman, Lex Luthor was again a charismatic but corrupt business man. The first season of the series dealt with mostly human villains tied to Lex Luthor and using technology and far out conspiracies. John Shea’s Lex had a full head of hair. However, due to the long commute between New York and Los Angeles, Shea left the series after the first season but made four guest appearances between seasons 2-4. A fifth season was planned but ABC cancelled the series, leaving it in the company of so many other shows that ended on a cliffhanger that was never resolved.
Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville, 2002 – 2011): In my opinion, probably the best portrayal of the character. A mix of conflicting feelings and ambiguous morality. Being saved by Clark Kent from a car accident, he befriends the farm boy. But his overwhelming curiosity and past abuse from his father, Lionel Luther, cause him to cross the line toward a darker path. It is easier to create depth of character when you have 10 seasons to do so, but Michael Rosenbaum brought a new humanity to the character. No longer an evil megalomaniac, but a complex character whose friendship with Clark Kent was the only thing that was really keeping him in the light. When that trust is broken, he dives into the darkness, destined to become the archnemesis we know and love.
Jon Cryer: (Arrowverse Supergirl); Jon plays up the comedy a bit, but still with a certain darkness. At first, I was disappointed in the casting choice, but after seeing Jon in action as Lex, I came to like the performance. Not quite as complex as Michael Rosenbaum, his characterization still has enough depth to make him interesting. Retaining the overwhelming hatred of things “Super”, he is a master manipulator in using his intellect to achieve his goal of ridding the world of the Kryptonian do-gooders.
Wolé Parks (Superman and Lois, 2021) The latest depiction, known as Captain Luthor, is an alternate Earth Lex who is trying to stop Superman before he can destroy the Earth, as he did on his planet. Armed with a War suit that gives him flight and enhances strength, along with a roster of other super weapons. I am excited to see where this character goes. This Lex is doing what he believes is right. Not for his own personal gain, but for the benefit of the world. As he begins to learn that this Superman is not like the Superman from his Earth, will he be able to get over his vendetta or will his need for revenge be too strong?
The Loveable Luthors
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