Homelander, Black Adam, Omni-Man — it’s like you can’t shake a stick these days without tapping the bicep of some evil version of Superman. And that’s leaving out the evil or darkly conflicted versions of the actual Superman in projects like Injustice, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, or the Snyderverse movies.
In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn't stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).
The going Hollywood wisdom is that the classic, morally infallible, effortlessly do-gooding Superman doesn’t sell blockbusters, even though it’s been roughly three decades since anyone actually put that version of the character on the big (live-action) screen. But Superman the Hero of Heroes isn’t the only thing we’re losing here. When we make the Man of Steel an antihero, it also muddles his villains.
And it’s really too bad that Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to do a standard Superman story, because the world could use a lesson in how to spot a Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor, the celebrity billionaire. Lex Luthor, whose company builds rockets to space. Lex Luthor, former president of the United States. Whatever my other, significant complaints about Batman v Superman, Snyder wasn’t wrong to look at the guy who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and think, “That’s my Lex.”
The tao of Luthor
Today’s Lex Luthor straddles the line between writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s mad scientist, who battled Superman with ray guns, earthquake machines, dirigibles, and death traps, and writer-artist John Byrne’s 1986 reinvention of him as a CEO of the “greed is good” era, who pitted his mind, his money, and the freedom it afforded him against the Man of Steel.
Just as Superman is one of our most elemental superheroes, Lex is one of our most elemental villains. Like the Joker, his origin story is negligible — its evolving details have never been material in the same way that mobster-thrown acid is material to understanding Two-Face, or the Kryptonian penal system is to understanding General Zod. We all understand that Luthor is a bad guy with wealth, and wealth confers power, and he uses it to do bad guy things.
But we would be wrong to mistake simplicity for non-specificity. There are megalomaniacs all over the comic book villain map: Darkseid, Ra’s al Ghul, Doctors Octopus and Doom, to name a few. The difference between Luthor and these other “power is power” baddies is that they want to be in charge.
To paraphrase occasional Polygon contributor Douglas Wolk, a guy who’s read every Doctor Doom comic ever, Doom wants to become not just a god, but God. He wants to rule all of existence because he believes it would be better that way. Darkseid is already a god, and still he is in perpetual search for the magical key that will let him replace the will of all people in the universe with his own.
But the thing about Lex Luthor is that he absolutely believes he’d be a better god than whatever is in charge at present. He just doesn’t want to do it.
The folks behind the Justice League Unlimited cartoon nailed it in “The Return,” an episode in which an omnipotent being demands that Lex state a convincing reason why it should not destroy itself and the universe together to escape its own existential hell. “If you do that you won’t see the end of it,” Lex responds. “That’s why I stay in the game. My purpose, if you will, is to see where it’s all going.”
Lex wants to live forever. He wants to satisfy his curiosity about anything he deems interesting. He wants to make his own purpose without the constraint of morality, death, or time. He certainly doesn’t want to spend his life controlling the lives of others or overseeing the universe. He simply wants to be powerful enough to do whatever he wants.
But if that was the only thing he wanted, we wouldn’t still be talking about him. He’d be a concentration of immense power, but unshaped, unweaponized, maybe even neutral. What makes him such a vital tool for understanding modern life — from the rich men who shape our world with their whims to the people who lionize them for doing so — is that even the power to do anything isn’t enough for him.
All shall love Lex and despair
“In just a few short generations,” he tells the godlike being in Justice League Unlimited, his voice dripping with frustration, “my name will be forgotten. Even the greatest of us can’t compete with time and death.”
Lex won’t rest until everyone who knows anything holds him in the same superlative regard he holds himself. When people think of Lex Luthor, he wants them to think of a winner. Of a man who is smarter than everyone else. Of a man who could exceed all comers at any pursuit, if only he chose to bend his superior intellect and resources (which, he would say, he acquired using his intellect) to the pursuit. He assumes everyone else wants what he has, but no one is smart or daring enough to grasp at it. That if he is hated, it is from jealousy. If he is ignored, it is from idiocy.
He wants to do whatever he wants, and, crucially, he wants to be adored for being the guy who can do whatever he wants.
pic.twitter.com/iZUukCVrl5— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 14, 2023
This, although it’s immaterial to my larger point, is exactly why Lex will never rest until Superman’s memory is cursed.
Superman has the power Lex has always craved, but uses it to act in the collective interest. Lex assumes all people act from self-interest like him, and sees the Man of Steel as the world’s most powerful virtue signaler. Lex believes that Superman has had power handed to him and doesn’t deserve adoration, while he, who worked his whole life to get where he is, does. The reader, of course, can see over and over again that even though Lex is one of the world’s most capable minds, he still built his empire on exploitation, idea theft, and never owning up to a mistake when he could let someone else take the fall for him. And after all, Lex doesn’t seethe over the philanthropy of Bruce Wayne’s generational wealth, nor does he dedicate his criminal career to destroying him.
This is what has allowed dozens of creators since the 1980s to turn Lex into a depressingly prophetic playbook for the social-media-enabled, attention-seeking billionaire. Lex’s big, DCU-shaking moves since taking on the Evil CEO archetype include buying a newspaper to quietly silence it; publicly cultivating the message that aliens are less than human; turning a disaster capitalist’s eye to a ruined Gotham City; and running for president, winning, turning the apparatus of the state against his enemies, and then making deals with devils to grab for more.
Over the last few months, as story after story of Twitter’s internal meltdown hit the news, writer Joshua Williamson introduced a plot in which Lex Luthor murders a psychic in order to wipe the world’s memory that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. Why? Lex has turned over a new leaf and admitted that the world needs a Superman — so he’s going to bend his superior intellect and resources to the pursuit of a better Superman. After all, how hard could it be? He’s already an expert on the Man of Steel.
“The world needs to believe you are a god,” he tells Superman afterward, hands in the pockets of his thousand-dollar suit, feet on the tiled floor of his penthouse office suite, in words that echo every Hollywood attempt to re-create Superman for a presumed-cynical audience. “That you are above them, not one of them.”
I used to think it was comic-book-patented unrealism that Luthor could commit so many crimes in front of two of the world’s greatest investigative reporters and keep walking away without seeing the inside of a courtroom. But when Lex Luthor became president of the United States, for example, he actually had to put his businesses in the charge of a neutral trustee, so maybe DC wasn’t thinking big enough.
Move fast and break things
In college, I had a classics professor who laid out his personal throughline that united all heroes: They hold the power and will to break rules. In a story that ends well, like the Odyssey, heroes demonstrate why and what rules should be broken. In a story that ends in tragedy, like the Iliad, a hero demonstrates why and what rules should never be broken.
Not all superheroes are selfless do-gooders, but the genre’s sheer variety is itself a result of its simplicity. A superhero is a character who does superhero stuff, and so each superhero is a chance to define what heroism is. With great power comes great responsibility, and every Spider-Man, or Superman, or X-Men, or Green Lantern story is a chance to hold forth on how to use power responsibly. The other side of that coin, well, you get it. In an infinite variety of supervillains, each one is a chance to explore and identify the irresponsible use of power.
When our cultural conversations cluster around a reduced variety of those definitions — say, if the most mainstream superhero projects are about antiheroes — our broad understanding of heroism can become considerably muddled. Insert a joke about monocultures here.
We need Superman, not just to give contrast to characters like Black Adam and Homelander. Not just to be “the light to show the way,” as Marlon Brando’s Jor-El stentoriously put it in 1978’s Superman. We need Lex Luthor, as a vehicle for creators to say with their whole chest, Wouldn’t it be terrifying if a billionaire acted like this? Not because the billionaires will listen, because they won’t — but so that we can see them coming.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Phillip Kennedy Johnson wrote a story in which Lex Luthor wipes the world’s memory of Superman’s secret identity. The Action Comics #1050 story was actually written by Joshua Williamson. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.