SAM (age 3): Who is that?
DAD: That's Lex Luthor.
SAM: Is he the bad guy?
DAD: He is the bad guy.
SAM: Then why isn't Superman fighting him?
Lex Luthor is the greatest, and most difficult to define, villain in the comics universe.
In 1940, when he was just Luthor, he was a mad scientist, much like many other mad scientists of the day. He created amazing machines and planned to use them to take over the world. There was a lot of that going around in the 1940s, when there were plenty of scientists, mad or not, and they very much did take over the world. People understandably were nervous about technology and its ability to shift the balance of power in the world.
The idea was, if Superman was Strong and Good, then his nemesis must be Smart and Evil. Lex created Superman robots, Superman clones, anti-Superman rays, all matter of ingenious devices for no other purpose but to destroy Superman. (In one of the many delicious plot twists of the the stunning Red Son, Superman comes to the realization that, if not for his existence, Luthor would have been able to use his vast intellect to solve every problem humanity faces -- he would have been the greatest leader in human history.)
In the 1980s, John Byrne re-created Lex as a businessman, a tycoon, the head of Lexcorp. Again, it fit with the times -- the villains of the 1980s were men like Gordon Gekko, bloodthirsty capitalists who cared nothing for people, lives or even businesses -- they yearned only for money. Again, it's a good foil for Superman because it's natural strength vs. economic strength.
In the 2000s, Lex became President of the United States. One has to wonder what took him so long.
On Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League, they put all of these visions together to arrive at the fullest, most complex version of Luthor yet. This Luthor is hugely wealthy, employs millions of people, controls the economy of Metropolis, runs for president and, when the mood strikes him, finds time to try to destroy Superman.
Maybe that's what makes him interesting: he actually has other things to do besides destroy Superman.
The conversation quoted at the top of this entry occurred while Sam and I were watching one of the first episodes of Superman: TAS. They were taking great care to show who Lex is, how his business is constructed, how he's an important and vital member of the community, not some penny-ante thug with a crazy plan -- all of which completely baffled my (then) 3-year-old son. He couldn't understand Lex, Lex's legitimate business, he couldn't understand that not even Superman can just fly into Luthor's penthouse suite and punch the guy who employs more people than anyone in Metropolis and also controls municipal government. How do I explain to my son that you can't punch someone merely because they've risked the lives of millions of people in their pursuit for power, that, in fact, in our country men are greatly rewarded for that kind of behavior?
(Note: I began this piece before I was aware of the president's speech on Iraq tonight.)
When I was a kid I kept hearing about the Mafia and how there were these terrible criminals running organized crime in America, and everyone knew who they were but they were still running around free. I just kept wondering "If everyone knows who they are, why can't the police just walk in and arrest them?" Like those Mafiosos, Lex is too smart to get caught in any of his nefarious schemes, and, more often than not, Lex's schemes for power-grabs backfire on him in ways that have nothing to do with Superman's interference. The Lex Luthor of Superman: TAS and Justice League is no two-dimensional bad-guy. The Joker is a psychopath in a garish costume, Sinestro is an evil guy with a magic ring, Mr. Freeze is a guy with a gun; you can see those guys coming a mile away. But Lex? If you foil a Lex Luthor scheme, chances are it's because he wanted you to foil it because it somehow serves his greater plan. Only the Lex Luthor of Justice League could devise a presidential bid that's actually a distraction to divert attention from his REAL plan.
As the earlier Luthors served their times, this Lex serves ours. A brilliant scientist, who is also the head of a multinational corporation and also president of the United States? The only thing that sounds out of place there is that we would have a brilliant man as president. Just as we once felt suspicious about science and capitalism, we now as a nation are starting to get the same sense of ill-ease about our corporate-owned political leaders. Despite their rhetoric, we get the feeling that maybe they don't have the best interests of us, or the Earth, in mind when they make their decisions.
(The climax of Season 1 of Justice League Unlimited features a jaw-dropping team-up of Luthor and Brainiac that plays to both of their strengths -- Brainiac wishes to destroy the universe (yes, the universe) and Lex seeks ultimate power -- and in this case is offered the chance for godhood. The -- ahem -- "surprise reveal" of the team-up is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen in children's programming.)
For some reason, for the live-action movies, Superman, Superman II, Superman IV and Superman Returns, Warner Bros neglected every possible valid aspect of Lex Luthor. In these movies, Lex is not a scientist, a businessman or a politician. He's a fop, an opportunist and a jerk. Far from being a genius, he's not even bright. His plans are ridiculous, obtuse and fatally short-sighted. He is, in fact, the opposite of a genius -- he is a man who keeps saying he is a genius. He's a blowhard and a poser, vain and obvious, surrounding himself with morons and sycophants to make himself feel smarter. The Lex of the animated show doesn't have a two-bit hussy and a slobbering idiot in a straw boater for a staff, he seeks out and hires the best and the brightest people in the world (a strategy that sometimes backfires for him when they get wise to his plans for universal domination). What does it say if I'm watching the $200-million-plus Superman Returns and I keep wishing I was watching a cartoon instead?
Christ, in Superman they wouldn't even present him as bald! It seems obvious to me that the screenwriters of the first Superman movie never even bothered to read one of the comics they were supposedly adapting. I can just see the first meeting between Mario Puzo and Alexander Salkind:
M. So, Superman, blue suit, right?
A. Yes, and the red cape.
M. Super-strong or something, right?
A. Good-looking. The ladies like him.
M. Right. And who does he fight?
A. Um, let me -- Ilya!
I. (from the other room) Yes?
A. Who does Superman fight?
I. Lex Luthor.
A. Lex Luthor.
M. (writing it down) L-e-x, L-u-t-h-e-r.
A. That should be an "o" in Luthor.
M. So this Luthor guy, what's he like?
A. He -- Ilya?
A. Come in here so I don't have to shout!
(Ilya comes in)
A. Tell us what Luthor is like.
I. He's a, a guy.
I. And he hatches evil plots.
M. Mm. Yes?
M. That's it?
I. And he's bald.
M. That's going to be a tough sell. They're never going to get Hackman to shave his head. Does he have to be bald?