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Lex is More: Bringing Lex Luthor to the Screen…

I’ve been swamped with real-world work this week, so announcing that Zach Snyder would be directing the new Superman movie and that General Zod would be the primary bad guy on Monday (and a plot synopsis on Tuesday) really threw me for a loop. Anyway, I cobbled together some thoughts on bringing Superman to the big screen. I’ll hopefully have some more general thoughts early next week.

Lex Luthor shouldn’t be so hard to get right on the big screen. I mean, it’s not from lack of trying. The character is more than just Superman’s arch-enemy, he’s a member of his supporting cast. More than the Joker to Batman, Luthor is inexorably linked to the Man of Steel – no matter which enemy is invading Metropolis, Luthor is usually helping them or hindering them or figuring out a way to turn the events to his advantage. As such, he has appeared in all but one of the live action Superman films released over the past three-and-a-half decades, even where he isn’t the main adversary (as in Superman II, where he attempts to manipulate Zod’s vendetta against Superman). And yet, despite being portrayed by two incredibly talented actors – Kevin Spacey and Gene Hackman – the big screen never managed to essence of Luthor’s character. Zack Snyder was earlier this week named director of the Nolan Superman reboot, and although General Zod was named the villain of the film I’d be fairly certain that Luthor will put in an appearance. So, how do you do Lex Luthor right?

Green there and done that?

Truth be told, Luthor is – like Superman – a character that has gone through many subtle reinventions while retaining a core set of attributes. He was introduced as a red-head petty thief, until an artist’s mistake gave him his distinctive chrome dome. He has also been a mad scientist and the wearer of green and purple battle armour to physically challenge his adversary. He has been an anti-hero who is motivated by a core set of fundamental beliefs (that Superman’s presence stunts humanities development, and makes him a “god” to be opposed lest he ever attempt to impose his will) and a remorseless sociopathic villain (at one point killing hundreds of people by dropping them out of the sky just to make sure Superman was gone). Writer John Byrne during his Man of Steel reboot defined Luthor as a businessman. Jeph Loeb made him President of the United States. Geoff Johns made him an out-and-out supervillain mad genius. It’s easy to understand why he’s a tough character to get a grip on.

And yet the movies rendered him as nothing more than a real estate conman. “The greatest criminal mastermind of our time,” was a title that the Hackman iteration of the character claimed for himself, but it felt a little bit of an exaggeration given that he had a grand total of two henchmen and was re-introduced in Superman Returns conning an old lady out of her life savings. Granted, he does steal a nuclear weapon in Richard Donner’s Superman, but in the most comical fashion possible – he escapes prison in a hot air balloon. In fact, he mind is almost singularly devoted to property schemes – from turning California into an island in Superman through to claiming Australia in Superman II and even making his own Kryptonite island in Superman Returns. It became pretty stale pretty quickly, particularly when these were the types of schemes that the Joker would carry out in the Adam West Batman!

Along the way, this left little room for exploration of why Lex Luthor was the perfect foil for Superman. I mean, what’s the point of supervillains if you can’t juxtapose them against the heroes? Bryan Singer’s X-Men demonstrated Xavier wanted equality through peace, while Magneto wanted to rule through force. The Dark Knight set up the Joker as an agent of chaos against Batman’s stoic order – while comparing their insanity. Batman Begins contrasted the use of fear by both the Scarecrow and Bruce Wayne, and demonstrated how Ra’s and Bruce were both dedicated to justice. Even Burton’s Batman Returns gave us the Penguin and Batman who “could have been bunkies at prep school” as children of the rich families of Gotham, the only difference being that the Penguin was “a real freak” and Bruce had “to wear a mask”. Even Spider-Man II pit the arachnid-themed hero against an eight-legged adversary.

I never bought the idea that the exact opposite of Superman, the Man of Tomorrow, was a wig-wearing real-estate trickster and self-publicist. Sure I appreciate that Superman is the guy who is entirely altruistic and fights for “truth, justice and the American way” as opposed to Luthor’s unchecked and unrepentent capitalism, but that’s a really superficial opposition, isn’t it – especially when it’s played in so comical a fashion. Now if Superman found himself squaring up against Gordon Gekko – that is a conflict I would like to see.

More than that, though, the movies never really explore why Lex is in such stark opposition to Superman. Aside from some casual interest, you get the sense that Hackman was just an evil dude whose schemes happened to have the potential to be spoiled by Superman – it could just as easily have been the Flash or Green Lantern or Batman. The truly great superhero films explore the co-dependence between heroes and villains – who the film wouldn’t be the same if you chopped-and-changed them. Sometimes it’s superficial – Tim Burton’s Batman suggested that the Joker and Batman created one another and thus shared a bond. X-Men Origins: Wolverine used the hackneyed “they’re brothers” bit. The Dark knight hinted at a symbiotic relationship between Batman and the Joker (my favourite theory about the character being that the Joker knows he can’t kill Batman because that would end the comic book). Lex is just a random conman who has no interest in Superman.

Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns probably came closer to explaining just why Superman offends Luthor so much and why Luthor is so deeply fascinated by the character:

Do you know the story of Prometheus? No, of course you don’t. Prometheus was a god who stole the power of fire from the other gods and gave control of it to the mortals. In essence, he gave us technology, he gave us power.

So we’re stealing fire? In the Arctic?

Actually, sort of. You see whoever controls technology controls the world. The Roman empire ruled the world because they built roads. The British empire ruled the world because they built ships. America; the atom bomb. And so on and so forth. I just want what Prometheus wanted.

Sounds great Lex, but you’re not a god.

Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind. No, I don’t want to be a “god”. I just want to bring fire to the people. And… I want my cut.

Maybe the next big screen Luthor shouldn't be so comical...

It’s a great explanation and one which writers will typically whip out when they want to portray Luthor as a complex character (although there have also been shallow reasons given – the most ridiculous being that Luthor and Superman were friends until Superman saved him from a lab explosion, an explosion which made him bald). That doesn’t make him a good guy (as his actions are those of an unashamed sociopath), but it does illustrate he might have a point. After all, would you trust somebody flying around with that sort of power? Even if he is altruistic, what happens if he snaps one day? More than that, what does his presence say about us – that we will never be able to match his accomplishments and we shouldn’t try, or that he will simply take care of our every need?

For me, the core comparison between Luthor and Superman is that Lex is the very pinnacle of human accomplishment. Be it exploring the realms of mad science and cloning evil versions of the Man of Steel, or being a captain of industry, he’s among the very best of people out there by any objective measure. Before Superman was the last child of a dying planet, his origin was that he was a hyper-evolved human from the future (the two origins are merged in Mark Millar’s superlative Red Son – Superman is the last son of a dying Earth sent back in time) – so painting Lex as the among the most talented individuals on the planet presents him as an interesting figure. Indeed, Lex believes himself the hero, which is a fascinating role for a bad guy – the fact is that, were Luthor a character in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or even Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, he could easily be a hero. A morally ambiguous hero sure, but a good guy nonetheless.

That’s a rich and complex character right there, and yet that motivation or exploration has barely been mentioned on screen. Even when Kevin Spacey outlined the character’s hatred for the Man of Steel, you got the sense that it was an afterthought, that he just wanted to articulate his hatred in terms more eloquent than “because he keeps sending me to prison”.

Luthor is a key part of the mythos. And it would be a shame to exclude him. He deserves a chance to be shown at his full potential. While I, along with a lot of others, breathed a sigh of relief when I found out he wasn’t going to be the primary villain of the reboot, I do hope he is present in some manner or other. After all, that bald head of his has never really been given a chance to shine.

7 Responses

  1. Too. Fucking. Right.

    It was a shame because I always thought that Spacey really was THE guy to pull Luthor off. But at the end of the day Singer was too paralyzed by Donner’s vision to bring one of his own.

    Here’s hoping that Synder can cut loose.

  2. Lex has always been, to me, someone that never was as compelling and interesting as the Joker. So many times I thought, “Why is this guy such a popular villain and why, of all possible villains does he pose the biggest threat to Supes??” Oh well what’s a hero without the villain right? I just wish for someone more formidable.

    I’d be all for someone new to pit Superman against. Especially with someone like Snyder on board, why would we get retreads of the same villains?

    Oh by the way (don’t hate me yet) but I’ve tagged you in this neat Meme called 15 DIRECTORS…I bet you’ll have some fun with it:)
    Here’s my Meme: http://www.goseetalk.com/?p=7009#more-7009

    • The fact that Lex IS the biggest threat to Supe’s is a testament to the man’s resolve to undo Superman.
      In the Silver/Bronze/Modern Age version, at least. The Golden Age Lex was more of a threat to the WORLD.

      He’s at his best when he’s thoroughly a threat to both.

  3. It’s interesting to not that in Golden Age Lex Luthor’s FIRST appearance in Action Comics 23, he was a rich leader of an organization that set out to fan the flames of a global war to position himself to rule what’s left.
    I’m not sure where and when the “bank robberies” started…

    And it’s worth pointing out the SILVER AGE Lex was characterized by his hatred/ plots to “DESTROY SUPERMAN!”

  4. And I like to think the the Silver Age Lex’s mind was affected by the chemical explosion, making the young Superboy semi-responsible.

    Think about it: what if the Silver Age Lex saw himself as a Gilgamesh-like figure that this Superman-god undermined the ambitions of.
    Like physically preventing him from reaching god-hood.

    That along with mind-damaging chemicals made him the single minded guy of his era.

    Have you read the Superman vs. Lex Luthor paperback?

    • I must confess that I haven’t. I have only flicked through a handful of the Golden Age Archives, I am almost ashamed to admit.

      • I was surprised his FIRST appearance featured him trying to set off a world war that would leave the world in state where he would rule the broken pieces of.)
        (Kinda like what he said he would do when the Kryptonite Meteor hit in the Public Enemies movie.)

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