Who is the most powerful man in Metropolis? It depends on who you ask. For over eight decades, Lex Luthor has made his mark as one of the most effective villains in the DC Universe, using his criminal genius to increase his power and escape justice. Driven by his hatred and jealousy of Superman, Lex Luthor’s past is full of moments that not only shaped the Man of Steel’s destiny, but that of the entire universe at large. As we gear up for DC FanDome, let’s take a look at the ruthless history of Lex Luthor, the Greatest Criminal Mind on Earth.
His First Scheme
Comic book readers were introduced to Luthor in 1940’s Action Comics #23…or 1940’s Superman #4, depending on how you look at it. Superman and Lois first encountered him in Action Comics #23, but the villain’s return in Superman #4 hit the stands slightly earlier. Look at it this way—how many villains can say they have two first appearances? In Action Comics #23, Luthor manipulated several countries into starting a war and almost destroyed Superman with a death ray. Not bad for a first outing, and he did all this with a head full of red hair! Unfortunately for Luthor, the hair didn’t last long. The origin of Luthor’s iconic bald head is typically attributed to an artist error that originated in a November 1940 newspaper strip, before making its way to the comics in 1941’s Superman #10.
Luthor Gets an Origin (and a First Name)
Notice that we didn’t once use Luthor’s first name during that previous entry. That’s because readers didn’t learn it until 1960’s Adventure Comics #271. (That’s right, twenty years after his debut!) The comic established that Luthor’s first name was Lex, and that he had lived in Smallville during his youth, where he befriended Superboy. One day, Lex accidentally started a fire in his lab and called Superboy to help. When Superboy used his super-breath to extinguish the flame, some of the lab chemicals landed on Lex’s head, causing the boy genius to become permanently bald. Lex blamed Superboy for this and vowed revenge, beginning his descent into villainy.
In addition to giving Luthor his first name, this story was also the first to establish that Lex and Superman had been childhood friends. This idea has been reused in other Superman projects, like television’s Smallville and the Birthright limited series.
Gene Hackman Takes Lex to the Movies
In 1978, director Richard Donner revolutionized the superhero movie genre with Superman: The Movie. If you ask fans to quote the movie’s most memorable lines, chances are they’ll stem from Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Superman: The Movie’s take on the famous criminal genius balanced humor with a good deal of danger. Audiences enjoyed Hackman’s comedic bantering with his sidekicks Otis and Miss Tessmacher…and watched in fear as he almost destroyed California.
When Gene Hackman took the role, he did it on the condition that he wouldn’t have to shave his head. The filmmakers compromised by having the actor wear a bald cap during the climax, implying that Lex had been wearing wigs in all his previous scenes. Even more surprising, Hackman was billed before Christopher Reeve, a choice that Lex Luthor himself would approve of.
Luthor Gets a Warsuit (and Loses a Planet)
In 1983’s Action Comics #544, Cary Bates and Curt Swan raised the temperature on Lex’s rivalry with Superman by introducing Luthor’s iconic green warsuit. The issue starts as Lex flees to the planet Lexor to lick his wounds following another defeat from Superman. (Lexor was a planet where the citizens worshipped Luthor as a hero, and the red sun prevented Superman from interfering. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh recently brought it back in Future State: Superman vs. Imperious Lex.) Upon Lex’s return to the planet, he was shocked to find that his wife Adora had given birth to a son during his absence. Lex considered leaving his criminal life on Earth behind and settling down with his family, but he couldn’t let go of his hatred of Superman.
When the Man of Steel arrived on Lexor to confront Luthor, the ensuing battle accidentally set off a chain reaction that destroyed the planet, killing all of its citizens, including Lex Jr. and Adora. As Lex rose from the rubble, he swore vengeance on Superman with a memorable speech: “You’ve taken my family from me. You’ve taken my world from me. Until now, I always thought I hated you as much as any one being could hate another! But I was wrong. Until today, I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I’m coming for you Superman, and I have only just begun to hate!”
Yikes, remember when Lex’s feud with Superman was all about hair loss?
Luthor Becomes a Corporate Shark
Next to his first appearance, 1986’s The Man of Steel #4 is probably the most important Lex Luthor comic book ever published. After the reality-altering events of Crisis on Infinite Earths reshaped the DCU, Lex Luthor was transformed from a criminal scientist into a corrupt businessman. Pitched by Marv Wolfman, and fleshed out during Byrne’s The Man of Steel limited series, Luthor’s hatred for Superman was given new pathos. Now, Lex despised the Last Son of Krypton for taking his place as the most adored man in Metropolis.
Although Superman and Lois could see through Lex’s philanthropic façade, he was able to fool a majority of the city and stay out of jail thanks to the creativity of his lawyers. Lex’s colorful lab was replaced with a slick office boardroom, modernizing the villain for the corporate jungle of the 1980s. To this day, almost every media depiction of Luthor has drawn from this version, a testament to how effective this revamp was.
The Unauthorized Biography
From its iconic cover to its final panels, Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography is one of the most chilling comics you’ll ever read. A disgraced reporter named Peter Sands tries to revive his career by writing a salacious biography about Lex Luthor, but every discovery he makes leaves him more unsettled. Even if you thought Lex Luthor was a depraved sociopath before, this book finds new depths to his twisted and evil mind. Consider the scene where Sands interviews Luthor. If anybody ever needed to sum up who Lex was at his core, this quote from the interview offers a chilling glimpse: “I chose to become a god. I control human lives, instead of being controlled. I can destroy someone with a phone call. Which is why I can’t abide Superman. There is only room for one god on this planet.”
Eduardo Barreto’s moody illustrations make Lex look scarier than any monster under your bed, and after reading this one-shot thriller, you’ll never look at Luthor the same way again.
Luthor Becomes His Own Son (It’s Complicated)
Have you ever flipped through The Death of Superman and wondered why Lex Luthor looks kinda like a lion? Everyone went through a weird phase in the nineties. Some people grew mullets, others based their entire personality around the Macarena and Lex pretended to be his own red-headed Australian son. He also had a romance with Supergirl, who was going through a “protoplasmic refugee from another dimension” phase herself.
Look, the nineties was an insane period for comics and you really just had to be there. After prolonged exposure to Kryptonite poisoned Lex’s body, he did the only sensible thing—he faked his death, had his brain removed and placed in the body of a younger clone with flowing red hair. The world met Lex Luthor II in Action Comics #670 and his Australian accent created just enough uncertainty about his identity that everyone decided to just go with it. Lois and Superman remained skeptical of the new Luthor, but they had no clue he was the original until a whistleblower exposed the entire operation in Action Comics #700. During his trial, Lex blamed the entire thing on an evil clone and the jury surprisingly bought it.
Like we said, weird time.
Clancy Brown’s Animated Lex
In 1996, the Man of Steel found a new audience with Superman: The Animated Series, and in the process, a new generation was introduced to his slick-skulled archnemesis. Clancy Brown voiced Lex Luthor, bringing an intensity to the role that has stuck with viewers for decades. While previous animated depictions of the corporate criminal had gone for over-the-top villainy, Brown’s vocal performance brought a suave, calculated and nuanced take on Luthor. One minute, Lex could convincingly charm the public with a smooth display of words and expression, and the next he would erupt in a jaw-dropping tantrum.
Clancy Brown’s Lex continued to bedevil Superman in follow-up animated series like Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, giving viewers years of unforgettable battles. Memorably, this version of Lex was also frequently joined by chauffer and bodyguard Mercy Graves, who proved popular enough to make her way into the comics and other media adaptations.
Good help, it appears, is truly worth holding on to.
If you thought the 2000 Presidential election was chaotic in the real world, you should see how things played out in the DC Universe!
In Adventures of Superman #581, Lex Luthor held a press conference on the front steps of his Lexcorp tower announcing his candidacy for President of the United States. It would be an understatement to say that the news agitated Superman. Despite being a third party candidate, Lex actually won the election in Adventures of Superman #586, and the Man of Steel begrudgingly congratulated him.
Lex relished his new status and the way it changed his power dynamic with Superman. Now he had the adoration of the public he desired and Superman had to answer to him whether he liked it or not. This status quo played out for a few years until the power finally went to Lex’s head during the “Public Enemies” storyline. Lex overstepped and used the power of the presidency to attack Superman and Batman, donned his iconic warsuit and went on a mad rampage. The result? President Luthor’s cabinet quickly invoked the 25th amendment, ending the Luthor presidency once and for all.
Michael Rosenbaum Humanizes Lex Luthor
On October 16th, 2001, Smallville premiered and actor Michael Rosenbaum introduced fans to a more sympathetic side of Superman’s best-known villain.
Smallville was more than an origin story for Clark Kent, it also tracked the evolution of Lex Luthor. Rosenbaum’s Lex started off as a well-meaning entrepreneur who hoped to escape from his corrupt father’s shadow, and by the end of the series, he had evolved into a full-blown super-villain. Viewers were also captivated by the tragic progression of Lex’s relationship with Clark, as the duo slowly grew from best friends to worst enemies.
Today, Smallville fans cite Lex’s mental breakdown in season three, his murder of his father in season seven, and his triumphant return in the series finale as some of the character’s most defining moments. Michael Rosenbaum gave viewers a Lex Luthor that fans had sympathy for, and his villainous origin story continues to resonate.
Superboy, Lex’s Legacy
Lex Luthor is cruel, and he knows how to play the long game. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Geoff Johns’ time on Teen Titans. For years, Superboy believed he was a genetically altered clone of Cadmus director Paul Westfield, until he received a cryptic email in 2003’s Teen Titans #1. According to the message, Superboy was a genetic mix between Lex Luthor and Superman.
Luthor had sent the email to play mind games with the Teen Titan, and he succeeded. Conner began to doubt himself and worried that his Luthor DNA meant he was destined to become a villain. His worst fears came true in 2005’s Teen Titans #24 when Lex activated a failsafe in Conner’s brain, causing Superboy to go on a rampage against his Teen Titan teammates. Luthor broke down the cruelty of his plan in 2005’s Teen Titans #25: “Kryptonite and magic will hurt him—but that’s not what will destroy him. It will never be. You have to reach deeper. You have to find something he loves. Or create something he will love. He loves his boy. And when his boy turns against the Justice League’s children, when Superman buries those coffins…well, that…that will kill him.”
That’s petty, intense and horrifying—in other words, classic Luthor. Luckily for the Titans, Superboy was able to break through Luthor’s control. The experience shook Conner, but he continues to live as a hero, proving that his Luthor DNA doesn’t define him.
Lex Becomes Superman
At first glance, Lex Luthor becoming Superman might seem confusing. How could Lex become the thing he hates the most in the world? But it makes sense when you remember WHY Lex hates Superman. Luthor wants the power and adulation the Man of Steel has, and that jealousy drives his hatred. In 2016’s Justice League #52, Superman was believed dead and Lex decided to fill the void the Man of Steel left behind. Using a warsuit powered by an Apokolips Mother Box, Lex fought crime as the new Superman.
Lex Luthor told himself he was doing it because it’s what his comatose sister Lena would want, but everyone around him thought it was in bad taste. For his part, Lex did try to be a hero, albeit one without the moral compass the original Man of Steel had. As Superman, Luthor starred in Action Comics #957-972 where he fought alongside the original Man of Tomorrow (who was going through an identity crisis of his own).
Luthor’s stint behind the S ended in a rare moment of clarity and reverence when he realized that Kal-El was more of a Superman than he could ever be and relinquished the mantle. Of course, it should surprise nobody that Luthor’s newfound respect for Superman didn’t last long.
Superman might be more powerful than a locomotive, but Lex Luthor can shape millions of lives with just one phone call. His twisted genius has allowed him to go toe-to-toe with the strongest man on Earth, and he’s accomplished things other super-villains have only dreamed of. Think about it this way, how many villains can say they’ve been both Superman and the President of the United States? Whether he’s threatening world nations, plotting to destroy California, or running his global business empire, it’s clear that Lex Luthor is here to stay, whether Superman likes it or not.
DC FanDome returns on October 16, 2021! For more articles like this one, and to stay up to date on all the latest news, visit dcfandome.com.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.