SLIDESHOW: Lex Luthor, The Badness and the Baldness
SLIDESHOW: For being the greatest villain of the Superman universe, Lex Luthor, at least in his Silver Age incarnation, had the worst reason for turning evil. It's all about hair follicles. Even as a kid I didn't get it. “But Superboy saved him,” I always thought. “He'd be dead if it wasn't for Superboy.” But who else can Superman turn to for a good battle? Brainiac? Bizarro? Mr. Mxyzptlk? The Japateurs? Superman has always had a villain problem and the default winner has been Lex Luthor.
1950: He first appeared onscreen in “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot, who had recently finished a stint as Commissioner Gordon in 1949's “Batman and Robin” serial, and was about to appear in one of the worst movies ever made: Ed Wood's “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Apparently in the 1930s, Talbot was also instrumental in starting the Screen Actors Guild. His Luthor is even-keeled, never raises his voice. But for much of the movie he appears ...
... like this. That's the titular Atom Man on the right, which, to producers at the beginning of the atomic age, must have sounded cooler than “Lex Luthor.” Besides, the plot involves Luthor pretending to go straight by buying a TV studio, so he needs a secret identity. But that's the best he can do? A glitter tub with transmitter ears? From a guy who can invent everything from rocket ships to synthetic kryptonite to transporter beams?
1966: Jackson Beck, the voice of Bluto in the classic “Popeye” cartoons, and narrator of both “Adventures of Superman” on the radio (“Faster than a speeding bullet!” etc.) and Woody Allen's great mocumentary “Take the Money and Run,” became the second actor to take on Lex, in Fimation's “The New Adventures of Superman.”
1978: Ah, what a joy! Gene Hackman took the role because Brando took the role of Jor-El, but Hackman got all the good lines. “It's amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.” “Otis, it isn't that I don't trust you …. I don't trust you, Otis.” “That's krytponite, Superman. Little souvenir from the old hometown?” At the same time, Hackman refused to do what Brando had done in “Apocalypse Now”: shave his head. So they styled his hair as if he were wearing many different toupees.
But he does show off his pate at the end. When he's serving notice. To you. That these walls ...
1988: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted Lex Luthor as less evil scientist than normal CEO. This meant he wouldn't wind up behind prison after every issue because CEOs don't go to prison. A brilliant commentary on our culture. The Lex Luthor of Ruby-Spears' Superman (above) was the first adaptation to follow this conceit. Voiced by Michael Bell, who was also the voice of the Parkay margarine tub in commercials of the era, this Lex also has a fondess for milkshakes.
1993: John Shea's Lex Luthor, in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” was also a CEO, who battled Superman for control of Metropolis and the affection of Teri Hatcher's Lois Lane. He almost won the latter.In the premiere episode above, Luthor is enjoying a cigar by the fireplace when he stops to stare down a rattlesnake. Yeah, I know.
1996: The first episode of “Lois & Clark” ended with a tete-a-tete between Superman and Luthor outside Luthor's office and “Superman: The Last Son of Krypton” does the same. Luthor here is voiced by Clancy Brown, a good actor doomed to be forever known as Capt. Hadley, the sadistic prison guard of “Shawshank Redemption.”
2001: “Smallville”'s Lex, Michael Rosenbaum, loses his hair in the kryptonian meteor shower that pummels Smallville but becomes friends with Clark Kent, who saves his life in the first episode. This is a Lex with Daddy issues: a spoiled son who grows into his evil genius to become ... doesn't he become POTUS? Eventually? Rosenbaum, by the way, was the best actor on the series.
2006: “Superman Returns” was less reboot than grand recycling effort on the part of Bryan Singer. He was continuing the great Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve movies. But Kevin Spacey, above, is more terrifying, and much less funny, than Hackman's Lex ever was. He reveled in the badness and the baldness. By the way: Between them? Hackman and Spacey? They have four Academy Awards. That's: Luthor 4, Superman 0, if you're keeping score.
1950 Henchman: “Why is the most brilliantly diabolitical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?”If Luthor's evil genius has always been recognized, his choice of henchmen has generally been suspect—although the first, Carl (Rusty Westcoatt), was at least efficient. Westcoatt also played a henchman in the “Batman and Robin” serial in 1949. It was the age of henchmen.
1966 Henchman: In Filmations' Saturday morning cartoon, Lex's henchman is Blinky, whose strongest trait is cackling.
1978 Henchman: Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty in “Superman: The Movie.”What more could anyone ask?
1987 Henchman: Unfortunately, by 1987 Beatty's Otis is gone, replaced by Lex's nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer, hot off playing Ducky in “Pretty in Pink”). Everyone looks horrified here. They should. Check out “Honest Trailers” version of “Superman IV.” Or check out my review. We pretty much say the same stuff.
1988 Henchwoman: Here's Lex's henchwoman in the Ruby-Spears cartoon. She's sweet, a bit of a dingbat, and serves milkshakes. Consider her a dumber, sweeter, less booby version of...
1978 Henchwoman: Miss TessMACHAAAAAAH! I'm surprised they didn't rate the movie “R” for Valerie Perrine alone. But she was Superman's first kiss. Lois couldn't be bothered with Clark, while Lana Lang was hanging out with that stupid Brad dude. Do we ever find out what happens to Miss Teschmacher? In “Superman II,” she's in the Arctic with Lex, heading south, and ... that's it. Eve, we hardly knew ye. Enough.
2011: Here's Lex in another update, the straight-to-video “All-Star Superman,” where he finally succeeds in killing Superman. Not by weakening him but by making him too powerful.
2015: A hue and cry went up over the Internet (as hues and cries tend to do) when Jesse Eisenberg was cast as the latest incarnation of Lex Luthor; but 1) he's a good actor, who 2) plays smart well. In fact, one wonders if Eisenberg will ever be able to play dumb again. He is a bit young for Lex but then so are most of our digital age CEOs. It fits the times. The real question, though, is this: Is he smart enough to outwit the dumbing down of the Man of Steel by director Zack Snyder? FIN.