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Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Review)

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.

Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo worked together on Joker, the rather wonderful reinvention of the Clown Prince of Crime which happened to almost perfectly synch up with the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. However, the pair had worked together before on a very similar story – an attempt to offer a more in-depth look at another iconic comic book villain. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel was originally released as a six-issue miniseries, but it has now been released as a graphic novel branded only Luthor, in an attempt to cash in on the success of the pair’s stand-alone Batman novel. In the form of a lovely hardcover with the covers relegated to the extras at the end, it actually makes quite a compelling read.

He needs to Luth-less to win this...

Lex Luthor has always had a bit of a hard time, to be honest. The fact that films like Superman and Superman Returns are intent on painting the character – Superman’s arch enemy – as little more than a real estate con artist certainly don’t help matters. I think part of the problem is that Lex stands as the primary antagonist of Superman. I love Superman, but he’s a shallow character. He may fight for “truth, justice and the American Way”, and he may be an icon, but that doesn’t make him an especially complex character. He’s simple and straight-forward, and I dare say that’s part of the appeal. He’s the very embodiment of moral certainty – a rather basic simplicity which some dismiss as “boring”.

As such, Luthor himself is frequently dismissed as a shallow creation, a character who exists to serve as a villain for Superman just because. The logic goes that if Superman is plain and simple good, Lex must be plain and simple bad. It’s an understandable position, but one which is relatively unfair. I’ve always seen Lex as something of a more complex character, who has more sophisticated motivations than simply being evil for the sake of it. In fact, he considers himself the hero of the piece.

"Call me, Lex... or Your Supreme Overlord... whichever works best..."

I mean, think about it all from the perspective of Lex Luthor. He’s worked hard all his life – studied and worked out and done his homework in order to become the very best person he could ever be. From a backwater town in the middle of Kansas, raised by an abusive father, he crawls his up to the top of the foodchain. He invests in local infrastructure and property – he helps make the city of Metropolis a better place to live. He builds skyscrapers that can literally touch the clouds, a towering example of human accomplishments.

And then this alien arrives from nowhere. He can fly, he can move faster than the speed of sound, he can shoot lasers from his eyes. Everybody loves him, because he dresses in a bright costume and fights crime. Why aren’t they at all suspicious? Haven’t they seen any science fiction or horror movies? This flying man could rule the world in an instant if he decided to. More than that, next to him everybody else is just an ant. Sure, he appears to be helping us now, but what does it mean beyond a slight drop in crime?

Superman is truly alien here...

What if he changes his mind? What if… tonight — he looks down at us and decides we’re not capable to manifest our own destiny? What if tomorrow he wakes up believing he knows what’s best for us? That it’s not enough to protect the world… when he can rule it? The only safeguard we have against that happening… is his word.

– Lex discusses Superman with Bruce Wayne

Azzarello knows that Luthor actually believes this. In fairness, we spend the first few issues inside Luthor’s head, so we come to understand his logic. “I see the end,” Luthor explains as he stares at the silent Man of Steel out his window. “The end of our potential. The end of our achievements. The end of our dreams.” It helps that Bermejo draws Superman as truly alien – his eyes are always glowing red and his muscles are almost monstrous. All the reasons that Bermejo was a poor choice to illustrate Wednesday Comics: Superman work almost perfectly here – we see Superman as Lex does, as a monster.

His intentions are all rather wonderfully articulated, and Lex talks a good game. He’s afraid of the way that Superman is built into a symbol or a myth. “Because when we’re faced with a myth? We can’t win.” His fervour against Superman is painted as an almost selfless crusade – as if he’s sacrificing all his time and money and, possibly, sanity, in an attempt to reveal Superman as the monster Lex is convinced that he must be. When Superman claims to see Lex’s soul, Luthor denies it. “Because if you could,” he remarks, “you would see a man who willingly denied himself happiness… who chose to give up hope… for the world. A world without a superman.” In his own eyes, Lex is a martyr here – a champion of the human condition. “I’m not interested in bringing him down,” Luthor assures Wayne, “but obsessed with bringing us up.”

Hope and fears...

However, Luthor is – for all his self-serving observations – a villain. Despite how seductive Azzarello may make his reasoning, he still must be judged by his actions. The novel draws us into his world, showing us the charity of Luthor. He knows the floor staff at his office, and pulls strings to help their children. He seems like a decent guy. Then we see the strings, the manipulative game he’s playing – how he makes people choose to work for him, without ever seeming like he’s suggesting it. And then we see the horrible consequences of his actions – the cost measured in lives.

The story does well to contrast Luthor with that other billionaire, the reclusive Bruce Wayne. In fact, the pair are arguably two sides of the same coin. Bruce shares Luthor’s suspicions about the Man of Steel – it’s been repeatedly stated over the years that Batman does keep a chunk of Kryptonite handy, “just in case” he ever needs to take care of Superman. The difference is that Bruce doesn’t let his own arrogance blind him to the good that Superman currently does, and would never play with lives as casually as Luthor does.

It’s interesting that Bermejo and Azzarello are able to bring such a dark aesthetic to the tale. Superman’s world is one of perpetual daylight, with glass-fronted skyscrapers reflecting sunlight, but the writer and artist bring an edge to proceedings. Most attempts to tell darker stories with Superman feel awkward – after all, he is a very straightforward do-gooder. At worst, attempts to tell darker and edgier stories can undermine his character. Here, thanks to the focus on Luthor, it works well. Metropolis seems a little darker and seedier than usual (but looks pristine compared to how Bermejo renders Gotham) – and it fits.

Lex's patience is on the Wayne...

More than that, the story actually players with a few darker elements. For example, Azzarello and Bermejo work with Winslow Schott – the villain known as “Toyman”. A few writers over the years have made the point that Toy Man is a Batman villain who thinks he’s a Superman villain, and the character has fluctuated wildly between the “innocent” and “cynical” iterations. It’s not that big a deal, for example, to make one of Batman’s villains a pedophile – for example, the Mad Hatter in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth and Jeph Loeb’s Haunted Knight. However, it somehow feels wrong when one of Superman’s adversaries is a “registered pedophile” – and yet it works here, perhaps because Lex is merely standing in the gutter as he looks at the stars.

Luthor is a fantastically well put together character profile of the main opponent of the Man of Tomorrow. It understands the character at his core, and even dares to look at the world through his own eyes. It’s a wonderful little story which is perhaps even better than the duo’s much-hyped Joker – after all, the Clown Prince of Gotham is nothing if he isn’t utterly unknowable. Luthor, on the other hand, is all too human and recognisable and flawed.

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