#11 –Lex Luthor
Action Comics (various comic book titles, tv shows, cartoons, films, and video games, 1940-now)
Aside from the Ultra-Humanite, Lex Luthor along with the Joker, who was introduced in the same month/year, was the OG (original gangsta) supervillain of comic book history. However, the 1940’s wasn’t quite the time of intricate well thought out writing and professionalism we see today in comics, so naturally Luthor resembled a completely different person in his first appearances (for the worse). Luthor started out as a mad scientist with red hair who used futuristic technology (even living in a flying fortress) to cause war between the world’s nations for no real reason. By today’s standards that kind of depth would be considered a joke. Thanks to an artist’s mistake of drawing him bald and several adaptations to the character, Lex has gone on to become DC’s most recognizable mega-villain.
Nowadays Luthor resembles the apex-intelligent archetype of comic book roles like Dr. Doom, Iron Man, and Batman (probably having been an influence in all of those character’s super intellectual aspects in the long run). He has no superpowers other than his superior mind and whatever he decides to build or plan with it. Every once in a while Luthor will don his Iron Man-like exosuit to even the odds of brawn vs. brawn with his arch-nemesis, Superman, but the thing that makes Luthor unique is his politically correct public persona. First of all, Luthor doesn’t hide behind a typical costumed dual identity (mostly because his intellectual prowess feeds his enormous ego to gargantuan proportions) but his true juxtaposition is comparing the Luthor the public knows against the Luthor behind closed doors. For Batman, outing a criminal by any means necessary isn’t a problem, but Superman plays by the rules and it proves to be a more difficult task to match wits with the silver tongue of Luthor especially when the public adores him.
His origin stories have varied but the one constant is; (whether or not he has humanity’s best interests in mind) the “real Lex Luthor” greatly despises Superman for nonchalantly tossing aside the rules of human limitations with ease and becoming a self-proclaimed savior (a role Luthor would have been more suitable for given his hard earned credibility). I think in many ways this is what makes Luthor so relatable despite his enormous ego and unrealistic knowledge of everything that is science; He is human. Superman is an alien-made-God in the form of a popular, handsome, quarterback-type with arrogance to boot. Luthor has to go through human struggles like the rest of us but no matter how self-made, charitable, or sacrificing Luthor is, he is still but an ant in a world where Superman exists (and that PISSES HIM OFF!!). He’s more of a symbolic criticism of the hero rather than a full-fledged “bad guy.” Although due to his uncontrollable ego, his noble intentions are always corrupted into taking a darker path out of jealousy. When it comes down to helping humanity out or killing Superman; he’ll choose killing Superman every time.
The modern age Lex was evolved from mad scientist to a corporate businessman type in the 80’s (the epitome of bad guys for the times). Originally Lex was an abused child of poverty in the slums of Metropolis who used the little inheritance money he got from his parents deaths to further his education and build his business, LexCorp, as a self-made man. In later re-writes, Luthor is born from a wealthy family and even becomes friends with a younger Clark Kent while spending some of his adolescent years in Smallville (…like how he was in the show “Smallville”). Once his father dies, he returns to Metropolis and starts LexCorp, which is so powerful on a corporate level that it controls the media in Luthor’s best image. Once Superman arrives, The Daily Planet, a rival in the media, steals some of Luthor’s glory which immediately sparks some hatred towards him because of his loosened grip on the people of Metropolis as its publicized hero. In this modern telling, Luthor is responsible for the creation of 3 super powered villains of Superman (Metallo, Bizarro, and indirectly Parasite). After wearing a kryptonite ring as protection for so long, Luthor manages to contract terminal cancer from the radiation it produces. After faking his death, cloning his own body, and selling his soul to a demon; Luthor turns himself over to trial in which he is found acquitted of all accounts of prior villainy because of falsified evidence that a rouge Cadmus scientist had cloned him and did awful things in his image (I’ll have to remember that one if I ever go to court…).
Now that he had a clean slate, Luthor went into politics in the early 2000’s era. When Gotham City was destroyed by an earthquake, Luthor jumped in to help rebuild which he in turn used to acquire the deeds to a majority of the land in his name. When Bruce Wayne protested against this and Luthor’s run for presidency, Luthor arranged for Bruce’s love interest to be assassinated which also framed Bruce for the murder. Lex’s time as the President of the United States can be seen in interpretations of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and the comic based animated movie, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Although both radically different, both President Luthor adaptations are very strong villains that ultimately turn the army (and/or some of the superhero community) against the Justice League’s heavy hitters. In the Public Enemies story Luthor injects himself with a Venom steroid/liquid Kryptonite hybrid and uses an Apokoliptian battlesuit in a last ditch effort after his plan to frame him fails. In JLU, Luthor arranges the Cadmus agency (a military organization designed to bring down the Justice League), hacks the Justice League’s satellite to fire down upon the Earth unprovoked, is finally revealed to be merged with components of Brainiac unbeknownst to him, and comes considerably close to killing the original seven members in this form.
After his presidency gruesomely ended so did LexCorp as it was sold and bought by Wayne Enterprises. In hiding, Luthor took the alias, Mockingbird, to form a blackmailed Secret Six team on his behalf. When Alexander Luthor Jr. (an alternate reality version of himself) dies at the end of the events in Infinite Crisis, Luthor again goes to the public and proclaims he was not responsible for the crimes he committed. He then starts the Everyman Project, a procedure that allows ordinary citizens to have superpowers as a gesture of good faith to the people. The project was a success but when his own staff sabotaged his results for the procedure, declaring his DNA inefficient, Lex switched off the powers of every single person that volunteered for the Everyman Project in a fit of rage. This resulted in a lot of the Everyman volunteers falling from mid-flight and plummeting to their deaths as well as racking up a huge death toll in Metropolis. When confronted about this act, Luthor takes the artificial metagene out of desperation and is given the powers of Superman, but is soon depowered himself.
Skipping ahead in time, Luthor got another get out jail free card by going back to square one in the New 52 reimagining of DC Comics’ new continuity. Here he is pretty much the same, but tasked by the U.S. government to bring down the differently viewed alien Superman (who is now seen as an unwelcome being that scares the crap out of people because he’s way too powerful). After creating a monster called “The Hybrid” from Superman’s DNA, the creature infected citizens with a virus and killed many bystanders before Superman could stop it. For this, Luthor was put in prison, but somehow he broke out and assembled a team of supervillains to defeat the Crime Syndicate (a parallel universe’s “evil” version of the Justice League that had seemingly killed the regular Justice League). After personally killing some and defeating the rest of the reality jumping threats, saving the world, as well as saving the Justice League; Luthor was AGAIN viewed as a hero despite all past offenses. Currently Luthor has discovered Batman’s secret identity and has blackmailed his way into becoming a member of the Justice League (riding his current wave of popularity to new highs). I personally love this idea. He’s always been a wolf and sheep’s clothing. Now he’s a wolf in Justice Leaguer’s clothing.