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Lex Luthor

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Lex Luthor is a DC Comics supervillain and archenemy of Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Luthor first appeared in Action Comics #23 (1940). His history has been retconned several times since then, with his current canonical origin being Mark Waid's 2004 miniseries Birthright.

The (usually) bald-headed Luthor has been Superman's main foe for most of the superhero's existence and has unveiled countless plots to destroy him and take over the world. Originally Luthor was a mad scientist but has since been rewritten as a Machiavellian industrialist and white-collar criminal. For a brief period in the early 2000s, he was president of the United States.

Luthor is one of several Superman characters with the initials "LL," including Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Lori Lemaris.

Luthor has been featured in most adaptations of Superman outside comic books. In the film series of the late 1970s and 1980s, Gene Hackman took a comical approach to the character. In Smallville, a retelling of Superman's early years, a young adult Lex is played by Michael Rosenbaum. The role of Lex Luthor will be played by Kevin Spacey in the upcoming movie Superman Returns.

Contents

Versions

Original Luthor

Missing image
Lexluthor_292.jpg
The Silver Age Lex Luthor's origin, from the cover of Superman (volume 1) #292, October 1975. Art by Curt Swan.

When Luthor first appeared, he was portrayed with a full head of red hair; however, in 1941 Luthor came to be portrayed as completely bald after an artist's mistake. Shuster preferred drawing bald villains anyway, so the more striking appearance was adopted and became a Luthor trademark. (When the DC multiverse began to take hold in the 1960s, the red-haired Luthor was said to be the bald Luthor's Earth-Two counterpart, Alexei Luthor.)

The original Luthor of the 1940s (who didn't have a first name) was one of many pulps-inspired mad scientists who plotted to take over the world, or destroy it, through the use of various diabolical schemes. He donned disguises a few times, but generally he preferred to make himself known to the world as his master plans came to fruition... until he was foiled, time and time again, by the Man of Steel. He soon became Superman's greatest foe, the antithesis of everything Superman stood for; and even though his plans for world domination were repeatedly dashed, he always managed to get away (or escape from prison) to threaten the world time and time again.

Luthor's originally stated goals were to kill Superman and to take over Earth as a stepping stone to dominating the universe. Over the years, Luthor came up with every conceivable plan to destroy Superman: he has synthesized kryptonite; traveled back in time; summoned beings from the fourth dimension; created robots, clones, and genetic monstrosities; allied himself with the alien super-computer android Brainiac; animated kryptonite rocks; detonated H-bombs; and has masqueraded and taken on a number of aliases. Although none of his schemes worked permanently (though one classic non-canonical "imaginary story" from the 1960s called The Death of Superman has Luthor finally killing Superman with Kryptonite after lulling him by pretending to go straight), Luthor's persistence has made him Superman's most troublesome foe.

In Adventure Comics #271 in 1960 (written by Jerry Siegel), the Silver Age origin of Luthor is first revealed, along with Luthor finally gaining a first name, "Lex." It was revealed that when Luthor was a teenager, his family moved to Smallville, with Lex becoming a large fan of Superboy. In gratitude and to encourage Lex's scientific pursuits, Superboy built for Lex a fully stocked laboratory. There, Lex began an experiment in creating an artificial new form of life, along with a cure for kryptonite poisoning. However, when a fire caught in his lab, Superboy mistakenly used his super-breath to extinguish the flames. This rescue attempt spilled chemicals that caused Luthor to go prematurely bald and destroyed both his kryptonite cure and his artificial life form. Luthor attributed Superboy's actions to jealousy and vowed revenge. First, he tried to show Superboy up with grandiose technological projects to improve the life of Smallville's residents, which time and again went dangerously out of control and required Superboy's intervention. Unwilling to accept responsibility for these accidents, Lex rationalized that Superboy was out to humiliate him and vowed to spend the rest of his life proving to the world he was Superboy's (and later Superman's) superior by eliminating the hero.

This origin first made Luthor's fight with Superman a personal one, giving him a dimension beyond his previous mad scientist archetype and suggesting that were things different, Luthor might've become a more noble person; these elements were played up in various stories in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Elliot S! Maggin's text novel Last Son of Krypton.

Though he was a noted villain and an evil mastermind on Earth, Luthor was revered as a hero on the alien world of Lexor, where he used his scientific genius to rediscover the planet's technology and rebuild society for the inhabitants. Luthor used the planet as a base for his operations to strike against Superman. The last such attempt on Lexor destroyed the planet and killed all of its inhabitants, including his wife there. Though aggrieved, Lex refused to accept that he was responsible and blamed Superman.

In Action Comics #544 in 1983, Lex was given a makeover for Superman's 45th anniversary in comics, by gaining a purple-and-green colored battlesuit that gave him the ability to take on Superman singlehandedly.

Superman himself has acknowledged that Luthor is a man of his word who would honor promises he made. Luthor had a younger blond-haired sister, Lena Thorul (shamed by Lex's criminal acts, the Luthors disowned him, moved away and changed their name to the anagram "Thorul"), an empath who grew up unaware of her familial connection with the noted villain. Protective of his sister, Luthor had strived to hide his connection and had been assisted towards this end by both Supergirl and Superman.

In much the same way that Superman and other heroes has evil analogs on the parallel world of Earth-Three, Luthor had a heroic counterpart there. Luthor was the only superhero in that world's history, and reluctantly decided to adopt a heroic identity to combat his world's analog of the Justice League, the evil Crime Syndicate of America. This version, who eventually married the Lois Lane of Earth-Three, died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but was survived by their son, Alexander Luthor Jr.

Modern Luthor

Missing image
Lex2000.jpg
Cover to Lex 2000 #1, featuring Lex Luthor as President of the United States. Art by Glen Orbik.

In 1986, John Byrne's "reboot" of Superman's mythos in the miniseries The Man of Steel rewrote the character of Lex Luthor from scratch, intending to make him a villain that the 1980s would recognize: a corporate white-collar criminal (the idea was originally suggested by Marv Wolfman).

In the post-Man of Steel mythos, Luthor was born in the Suicide Slum district of Metropolis. In his younger years, Alexander Joseph "Lex" Luthor had opened a large insurance policy on his parents, and soon had them killed in a prearranged car accident. Using this money and his natural genius, he designed and built an experimental airplane, which eventually led to the formation of a multi-national corporation called "LexCorp".

Lex became the most powerful man in Metropolis until Superman arrived. When terrorists attacked a society gala aboard his yacht shortly after his arrival, Luthor observed Superman in action and then tried to hire him as a bodyguard. But when Luthor admitted that he'd anticipated the attack but allowed it to occur in order to witness Superman first hand, Mayor Berkowitz deputized Superman to arrest Luthor for reckless endangerment. Luthor vowed to destroy Superman for this humiliation, and he has since devoted much time and energy to that goal. Luthor was a man driven to be the best, having fought his way up from lowly beginnings by his own (dubious) efforts, and was resentful of how Superman was given his powers by random fate of birth. Superman survived subsequent attempts Luthor made on his life, but had never been able to prove Luthor's role in the attacks.

Luthor soon acquired the only sample of kryptonite on Earth from the Kryptonite-powered cyborg Metallo, whom LexCorp abducted just before Metallo succeeded in killing Superman. Fashioning a ring from the alien ore deadly to Superman, Luthor began wearing it constantly to ward off his enemy. Unfortunately, Luthor suffered from a severe cancer in the 1990s, caused by long-term radiation exposure to his kryptonite ring. (Before Man of Steel, kryptonite exposure had not been thought to be harmful to non-Kryptonian life forms).

Luthor's hand had to be amputated to prevent the cancer's spread, but unfortunately by then it had already metastasized; it was eventually determined that the disease was terminal. Luthor faked his own death shortly afterward by taking his personally designed jet, the Lexwing, on a proposed trip around the world and crashing it in some mountains, using this as cover for the transplant of his brain into a healthy clone of himself which he then passed off as his hitherto unknown, illegitimate Australian son and heir, his deception helped by his new body having a full head of red hair and a beard. Later, when his new body also grew terminally ill due to the instability of the cloning process that was used, he had his brain again transplanted into a new cloned body that resumed the identity of the original Luthor.

Lex Luthor had cultivated a popular image as a great philanthropist. He had been instrumental in reverse-engineering alien technology for use in general consumer goods, upgrading Metropolis into a true "city of tomorrow." When Gotham City was destroyed by an earthquake and then abandoned by the American government in the late 1990s, it was LexCorp that took up the massive task of rebuilding the city. Later, Luthor also played an instrumental role in assisting the Justice League in recharging the sun during the Final Night storyline.

Lex became the 43rd president of the United States in 2000, winning the election on a platform of promoting technological progress (his first action as president was to take a proposed moratorium on fossil-based fuels to U.S. Congress in hopes of putting "a flying car in every garage"). Despite Luthor's more villainous traits, he was assisted by the extreme unpopularity of the previous administration due to its mishandling of the Gotham City earthquake crisis.

An early triumph of his political career was the Our Worlds At War crisis, in which he coordinated the US Army, Earth's superheroes and a number of untrustworthy alien forces to battle the story's villain Imperiex.

In 2004, Luthor overplayed his hand. In an attempt to blame Superman for a kryptonite meteor approaching the Earth, he instead raised questions about himself. In desperation, he used a variant of the "super-steroid" Venom (a steroid mainly used by Batman villain Bane), and an Apokaliptian battle-suit to battle Superman directly. Unfortunately, the madness that is a side effect of Venom took hold, and he revealed his true colors during the battle. The final straw was the revelation that Talia Head, the acting CEO of LexCorp, had sold all the company assets to the Wayne Foundation. He has since gone underground, leaving the presidency to his vice president, Pete Ross. Luthor's machinations in Villians United, a lead-in to the Infinite Crisis event, further suggest that Lex will continue to return to a personality and stature similar to his pre-Crisis incarnation.

A 2004 12-issue miniseries, Birthright, once again altered aspects of Luthor's history, such as Luthor's youth in Metropolis and his first encounter with Superman, in favor of reintroducing pre-Crisis elements from the Silver Age, such as Luthor's scientific genius and a failed friendship in Smallville with a younger Clark Kent. 2005 saw the release of the mini-series Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, which showed the motivation behind Luthor's distrust of Superman.

Luthor is currently believed widowed, having apparently killed the mother of his infant daughter, Lena.

In the late 1990s JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel, an updated version of Earth-Three and its version of Luthor were reintroduced to the post-Crisis DC Universe. In this version of events, the heroic Luthor travelled from his Earth (located in an antimatter universe) to the mainstream DC Earth, and asked the Justice League to help him rebuild his world. However, since "evil always wins" in this alternate world, the attempt failed, and Luthor resigned himself to being the only noble character on his Earth.

Recently, Lex Luthor has formed a group of supervillains including Black Adam, Dr. Psycho, The Calculator, Talia Head, and Deathstroke in order to protect themselves from the Justice League after discovering several members of the League actively altered the minds of various villains to either erase memories and/or make them less of a threat to society. This plot thread will be covered in the mini-series Villains United by Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham.

Luthor in other media

  • Actor Gene Hackman played the role of Lex Luthor in the 1978 movie Superman, and in two of its three sequels. Hackman's portrayal of Luthor is more lighthearted and comical. More of a conman hustler than a scientific genius, his depiction borrows significantly from another DC Comics character, Funky Flashman. This is evident by the fact that this Luthor had a dim-witted sidekick named Otis (much like Flashman's Houseroy), wears a hairpiece to cover his baldness, promotes himself with hyperbole, and is somewhat cowardly when he can't talk his way out of trouble. Hackman's performance in the role is consistently strong, even when the screenplay is not.
  • In the late 1980s and early 1990s syndicated television show Superboy, Luthor began as merely a scheming super-intelligent college student, played by Scott Wells. At the beginning of the second season, Luthor's personality took a dark turn as he killed a businessman and tried, unsuccessfully, to take his place via plastic surgery. This version was played by Sherman Howard. Howard's portrayal of Luthor harkened back to the mad scientist Luthor of the comics. It was later revealed that Luthor murdered his abusive parents in order to protect his sister Lena, whom he loved more than anything in the world. Her apparent death caused him to go insane and plan the destruction of all life, with only robot duplicates of himself and his sister remaining. It turned out that she had faked her death because she was ashamed of Luthor's notoriety as an evil criminal and wanted to be free of him. This caused him to reject her, although the robot duplicate of himself tried desperately to right everything in Lena's eyes.
  • In the 1990s television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Luthor was shown as an evil businessman for the first time in other media, and played by actor John Shea. Clark Kent/Superman spent a good deal of the first season trying to prove that Luthor was corrupt, while Luthor tried to find Superman's weakness. At the end of season 1, just as Lex was about to marry Lois Lane, the truth about Luthor's evil nature was revealed and Luthor took his own life to avoid going to jail. Later in the series, Luthor was brought back from the dead by a devoted scientist (played by Denise Crosby). As a side effect of his resurrection, Luthor lost his hair, thus bringing him in line with the other incarnations of the always-bald Lex Luthor. This time, Superman prevented Lex from "avoiding justice" by taking his own life again, and sent him to prison. He later escaped through a complicated plot involving a clone of the President of the United States, discovered Superman's secret identity, and was killed (for good this time).
  • In the 1990s cartoon Superman: The Animated Series and the subsequent Justice League animated series, Luthor was voiced by actor Clancy Brown of Highlander and Buckaroo Banzai fame. Luthor in this version was again a corrupt businessman, and again his hatred of Superman ultimately brought down his empire. After he was revealed as a criminal and lost his business empire (in the first season of Justice League), his characterization turned more toward the original conception of the character as a criminal genius obsessed with destroying Superman. Later, Luthor's character turned in an opposite way of his comics counterpart; he was pardoned after helping the Justice League on a certain occassion and implied to the press that he was thinking of going into politics. In the second season of Justice League Unlimited, Luthor announced he was running for President of the United States. Whether he'll succeed like in the comic books is yet to be seen.
  • The 2000s television series Smallville features a Lex Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum, whose history echoes many previous versions of the character. As in the Silver Age, Lex is one of teenaged Clark Kent's closest friends. This Lex, however, is heir to his father's fortune, once again invoking the corrupt businessman version of the character. (Much about the father, Lionel Luthor, is clearly based on the actions and life of the comic book Lex Luthor.) As a young boy, Lex was caught up in the explosion of baby Kal-El's rocket ship as it landed on Earth from Krypton. The explosion caused Lex to lose his hair (Clark being indirectly responsible for Lex's hair loss is similar to the Silver Age comic mythos). When Clark was a teenager, and still learning how to deal with his emerging superpowers, he rescued Lex when Lex's car crashed through a bridge rail and plunged into water below. The two bonded, and Lex, living in Smallville as he ran his father's local business interests, considered Clark a "little brother." In addition, due to his exposure to either Kal-El's ship or to the abundant kryptonite in the Smallville area, Lex possessed a superhuman immune system. The depiction of the inevitable corruption of Lex and the development of his future enmity with Clark is a major plot arc of the series.

Full Name?

Luthor's full first name has over the years been variously spelled as Alexis, Alexei, and Alexander (currently his official first name), but originally "Lex" was not intended to be short for anything.

In Smallville, his full name is Alexander, after Alexander the Great, the historical general whom Lionel Luthor most admires and encourages his son to pattern himself after.

External links

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