A Worthy Foe
With The Man of Steel coming out today, everyone around this joint is pretty excited. And in light of the fact that Zack Snyder has, to all appearances, benched Luthor for this movie, he’s unquestionably Superman’s most famous and frankly greatest foe.
Luthor has been around for nearly as long as Superman himself, and the character has been through a number of changes throughout his 73 year history. The comic version of Luthor has shifted from a mad scientist to an armored supervillian to a corrupt tycoon. But today we intend to focus on the Luthors of the screens, both big and little.
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
In his first appearance outside of comics, Luthor (this is the only name he’s given in the credits) is a portrayed by Lyle Talbot, who also played Commissioner Gordon in a Batman and Robin serial. Depicted here as an evil genius, similar to his initial comics incarnation, he is the mastermind of a criminal organization terrorizing Metropolis. In order to get Superman out of the way, he synthesizes Kryptonite. This is pretty damned impressive since, at the time, this was still a very new concept. But wouldn’t you know it? Superman pulls through in the end and Luthor gets his ass handed to him.
Super Friends (1973-1986)
Voiced by Stanley Jones (who also did the voices of both Riff Raff AND Worsworth on Heathcliff), this version of Luthor is arguably the most popular. As leader of the Legion of Doom, Luthor commanded evil counterparts to each member of the team of heroes. He more or less defined the idea of the cartoon supervillain, he and his cohorts alternated between perpetrating elaborate, expensive heists for profit and planning the destruction of the Super Friends. While he was undoubtedly a brilliant man (as evidenced by his jet-pants) but he wasn’t exactly a brilliant tactician. He consistently left room for the Super Friends to exploit the same weaknesses in his plans, week after week. Also, I think that Lex Luthor, like the supermarket by my house, was receiving some kind of subsidy or tax break for employing the mentally handicapped. He routinely had his ass handed to him by Superman.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Ah, the sleazy real estate swindler Luthor. As goofy as that sounds when I say it to myself, this is the Luthor I grew up with so it’s very close to my heart. It still amazes me that they convinced Gene Hackman to play the part, he was at the top of his game and no one would have blamed him for turning down this role. Then again, these are the same people who got Brando to play Jor-El, so I suppose getting Hackman was small potatoes. Nevertheless, he nailed the part. He gave Luthor a rascally charm, and that was all it took to turn him from an unrelatable megalomaniac bent on world domination to a loveable bastard trying to game the system in the real estate business… even if he planned to kill millions in the process. Sadly, his plan was foiled and when Superman started handing out asses, Luthor received his own.
Superman II (1980)
This time around, Luthor is not the primary antagonist, that honor goes to General Zod and company. Luthor is still a presence throughout the movie, but he’s an opportunist who switches sides at the drop of a hat. Once again, he’s primarily interested in obtaining a sizable chunk of valuable land but this time he attempts to earn it by riding on the coattails of Zod.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Oh, god… why did I go and remember this? Luthor busts out of prison once more with the help of his nephew Jon Cryer. Seriously. The two of them steal a strand of Superman’s hair and use it to create a Nuclear Man, a beefy bleach-blonde supervillain whose power rivals, perhaps even exceeds, Superman’s. I’m being totally honest, these things happened. He eventually winds up back in prison, working the same rock pile from whence he came. What bothers me most about this film’s Luthor is that, despite still being Gene Hackman, his only apparent goal is the destruction of Superman. He’s not the same Lex we’d fallen in love with back in Superman I and II, he’s just a prick. Plus, he hangs out with Jon Cryer. That drives motherfuckers insane.
DC Animated Universe (1996-2006)
Lex Luthor, like every other DC property, was probably captured most perfectly in the DC Animated Universe. Voiced by Clancy Brown throughout, he originally appeared on Superman the Animated Series, was a recurring villain on Justice League, and was a pivotal part of the follow-up series Justice League Unlimited. Throughout these three series, Luthor evolved from a businessman with a grudge against Superman for stealing his thunder into a fiendish madman leading an organized super-crime organization.
Normally acting from behind the scenes, Luthor created or bankrolled several of the animated Superman’s villains and allied with nearly all of them at one point or another. Most notably, Luthor aided and abetted the would-be world conqueror Brainiac. When things get out of hand, Luthor allies with Superman to stop the power hungry supercomputer but Brainiac stores a fraction of himself within Luthor. Since every bit of Brainiac contains the whole of his consciousness, Luthor is effectively a slave to Braniac. Even once he’s separated from the actual Brainiac tech, Luthor feels an emptiness he seeks to fill by becoming host to this Kryptonian intelligence once again. To this end, he overthrows Grodd as the leader of the Secret Society in order to use their resources in his quest.
Eventually, Luthor does manage to resurrect Brainiac, and without spoiling the great twist (and also because it’s a lot more complex than I’d presented) it doesn’t work out very well for him. He ends up teaming up with the Justice League, particularly with Batman and Superman, to combat the largest threat the universe has ever seen. And he actually ends up saving the day, in his own egotistical way.
The guy from Sorority Boys and an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia played Luthor on this show. He did the Flash’s voice on the aforementioned Justice League cartoon, so for that I’ll ignore Smallville. I think it was on the CW. I’m not sure if my TV gets this channel because I’ve never tried to watch it. Neeeeeext.
Superman Returns (2006)
This poorly received continuation of the Superman I and II storyline (which wisely ignored the events of parts III and IV) featured Kevin Spacey in the role of Lex Luthor. Once more attempting a massive land-grab, Luthor planned to create a new continent using the same Kryptonian technology that allowed Superman to create the fortress of solitude. He decides to hipster it up a bit this time around and instead of keeping a buxom bombshell on his arm, he starts hanging out with Parker Posey. Kevin Spacey made a brave choice in his portrayal of Luthor and decided to play him as a catty little bitch instead of a power-hungry smartass. It didn’t work out terribly well.
However, at least he didn’t get his ass handed to him by Superman this time… he just ended up stranded on a desert island with Parker Posey.
Could be worse, right?
So, although it doesn’t look like Luthor will be showing up in Man of Steel, there’s always hope for the sequel.
See you in a couple of years, geeks.
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