Now that Lex Luthor is starring as one of the heroes in the ongoing Justice League title, the character is getting even more of a spotlight than the one he received as a key character in the recently finished event comic Forever Evil.
That level of importance in such high-profile comics would seem to indicate Lex Luthor is a particularly compelling character. First introduced in 1940, Lex has always been portrayed as Superman's greatest enemy — not only in comics, but cartoons, TV shows and feature films.
But what makes a non-powered human so enticing and long-lasting? Why would Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns put him at the center of one of DC's best-selling titles?
Origin and Motivation
When Lex Luthor first appeared in 1940's Action Comics #23, he was simply a mad scientist who wreaked havoc with the weapons he invented.
But Lex's persona has changed quite a bit in the almost 75 years since. In modern interpretations of the character, Lex Luthor is a super-genius who's built a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that assists him in his nefarious schemes. He's powerful and rich, often bearing more resemblance to a white-collar criminal or crooked politician than the costumed super-villains familiar to comic readers. At one point in the comics, the villain was even elected president of the United States.
One of the most common elements in Lex Luthor stories is his deep hatred for Superman. One 1960's comic blamed the hatred on the fact that Clark Kent and Lex Luthor knew each other as boys, and Lex blamed his hair loss on Superboy. Other comics have explained the disdain on various scenarios relating to Lex's ego, not liking how easily the world begins trusting Superman to save them.
Creators we asked said that ego — and a willingness to do almost anything to achieve his goals — is what makes Lex Luthor such a great nemesis to Superman, who was raised by farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent to be humble and to hold back his powers.
"For Luthor, no praise, no success, no achievement is ever enough, because there’s a big hungry hole in soul," comics writer Grant Morrison told Newsarama. "His need for acknowledgement and validation is superhuman in scale. Superman needs no thanks, he does what he does because he’s made that way. Luthor constantly rails against his own sense of failure and inadequacy…and Superman’s to blame, of course."
"Lex doesn't know how the Kents made Superman by making Clark a decent human being," said Paul Cornell, who wrote Lex as the main character in his Action Comics run. "Coming from an abusive household himself, he's been beaten into wanting to save everyone, not help everyone."
Mark Waid, former DC editor and writer who's worked on Lex multiple times, said Lex Luthor works well as Superman's nemesis because one is a distorted mirror of the other.
"Lex Luthor's a terrific character because he's everything that Superman could be, if you stripped away all of Superman's ethics and morals," Waid said. "He is smart, he is clever, he is intense, he is resourceful, and he is undying. And he's inspirational in his own weird way. That's what makes him a great mirror image of Superman.
"And it's probably one of the reasons that Superman is so bothered by him, is because deep down, in his heart, Superman has to wonder if this is a road he could have gone down," Waid said.
Cornell pointed out that the ethical contrast between Lex Luthor and Superman help translate their decades-old characters to modern audiences, making Lex relevant even today. "He's about good parenting. He's also a critique of unfettered capitalism," Cornell said. "Tony and Bruce are liberal capitalists who believe they have a duty to help others. Lex would only ever give in order to be seen giving, though he genuinely wants a better world."
"Superman is us at our best," Morrison said. "Luthor is us when we’re being mean, vindictive, petty, deluded and angry. Among other things. It’s like a bipolar manic/depressive personality – with optimistic, loving Superman smiling at one end of the scale and paranoid, petty Luthor cringing on the other."
Not Quite Powerless
Keith Giffen, a prolific DC writer who's worked on both Justice League and Superman, said the main problem with Lex Luthor is that he's not powered — in a world with aliens and supernatural beings who can do almost anything imaginable.
"If you just look at his power set, he doesn't really stack up against Superman, who is one of the most powerful heroes on earth in the DCU," Giffen told Newsarama. "He's just a man, and he has to go up against Superman. I mean, if you just look at it that way, it doesn't make sense. Sure, he's super-smart, but so is Superman. Plus Superman can fly and punch and see through walls and everything else."
But writers of Superman and Justice League comics during the character's 74-year history have found a way to turn that "human" weakness into a strength — and a defining characteristic of Lex Luthor himself.
"He's all human weakness," Cornell said. "He thinks of himself as a champion of everyday humanity, someone who's got where he is through intelligence and hard work.
"Superman, naturally superior without having to try, is an insult to Lex's ethos," Cornell said.
Waid said that Lex's super-genius powers sometimes make up for his lack of super-brawn. "If you give Lex Luthor a can of orange juice and a radio, he can build a weapon that can paralyze a city," Waid said. "He may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can certainly build something in a half an hour that can do better than that.
"He's shown himself more than once to be a near match for Superman if he wants to be," Waid said. "It's just that that's generally not the direction he goes."
According to most creators who've guided Lex Luthor's development over the years, the character believes he could do so much more to save the world, if only he didn't have to work so hard to rid the world of Superman.
"Lex Luthor … at his core, believes himself to be the hero of the story," said Smallville screenwriter Bryan Q. Miller, who's been handling the television version of the character in the show's comic spin-off, Smallville Season 11. "He’s smart. He has an innate sense of righteousness and superiority. None of those traits scream 'villain.'
"He may do very bad things," Miller said, "but Lex always has a higher-purpose/justification for them. To borrow from something else with a bit of a twist, he sees himself as both the hero we need and the hero we deserve. And he’s super-rich. All that together makes him a very dangerous man."
"The story that most defines Luthor for me," Morrison said, "turns out to be, as usual, a Len Wein piece with Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson – Superman #248. This blew me away when I was a kid. Lex Luthor cares about humanity? He’s sorry we all got blown up? The villain loves us too? It’s only Superman he really hates? Genius. Big, cool adult stuff.
"The divine Len makes Lex almost too human, but it was amazing to see this kind of depth in a character I’d taken for granted as a music hall villain," Morrison said.
But if Superman really was gone, would Lex Luthor actually turn to good and save the world? According to the creators we asked, the answer is "probably not."
"He says he'd do great things, apart from what this other guy is doing, which somehow prevents him," Cornell said. "He's Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne with a narrowly crusading turn of mind… He's about two notches from being a hero."
In the DC Universe, there have been alternate earth versions of Lex that turned to good, but the main Earth Lex has always been portrayed as someone who might believe he's saving the world — and sometimes does — but will always fall toward the role of villain.
"I suspect that if Superman didn't exist, Lex would just pick something else as the reason he's not the benevolent ruler of the world," Cornell said.
New 52 "Hero"
Yet one creator isn't quite ready to write off Lex's chances at heroism — or at least, he isn't ready to give away the end of his current Justice League story.
Beginning this summer, Geoff Johns is continuing to craft the fairly new version of Lex Luthor (from DC's rebooted "New 52" universe) as a member of the Justice League. In last month's issue, Lex proved to the Justice League that he wants to be part of the team (by wearing Wonder Woman's lasso as he said it), but he admitted that one of his motivations is his own ego.
But right now, it's clear to everyone in the DCU that Lex Luthor can save the world, because he just did save the world, during Johns' just-finished seven-issue mini-series, Forever Evil. Now, Luthor is "feeling like he is the world's greatest hero and that he belongs with the world's greatest heroes, and he's going to give it a go," Johns told Newsarama.
According to Johns, he'll have a few things working against him. First, he'll have to deal with the other members of the Justice League, as well as organizations (like A.R.G.U.S.) who act as liaisons with the team. "Tensions will rise with Luthor on the team," Johns said. "[Batman and Lex are] two guys that have massive, massive egos, and are used to being the alpha dog … Luthor adds so much drama to the center of what the Justice League's all about."
And then, once Lex Luthor's working on the side of heroes, there are new challenges that he didn't have to face as a villain. "He doesn't have any experience being a superhero," Johns said. "Ultimately, that's a big part of what he's going to deal with in Justice League, is what happens when he has an arch-enemy, or when he's going to get attacked by somebody, and they hit him on a personal level? When he puts himself out there, it becomes very clear to him that he's going to experience things, when he's on the Justice League, that he never really considered."
So will he continue being a hero for awhile? Was he even a hero to begin with? And is he doomed to always turn into the nefarious, manipulative super-villain everyone expect? Ultimately, the answer may be less important than simply enjoying the journey to the eventual answer — both for the readers and for Johns himself, even if he knows how it will end.
"I think any writer of Superman has to love these two enemies equally," Morrison said. "We have to recognize them both as potentials within ourselves. I think it’s important to find yourself agreeing with Luthor a bit about Superman’s 'smug superiority' – we all of us, except for Superman, know what it’s like to have mean–spirited thoughts like that about someone else’s happiness. It’s essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man-god armed only with his bloody-minded arrogance and cleverness.
"Even if you just wish you could just give him a hug and help him channel his energies in the right direction," Morrison said, "Luthor speaks for something in all of us, I like to think."