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.” On the other hand, who else can Superman turn to for a good battle? Brainiac? Like a green, computerized Luthor. Bizarro? Absurd. The Japateurs? Superman has always had a villain problem and the unintentional winner of this dilemma has been Lex Luthor.
1950: Lex Luthor 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 some of the worst movies ever made: Ed Wood's “Glen or Glenda?,” “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” etc. 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? And does anyone ever wonder why someone who can invent a transporter beam 16 years before “Star Trek,” can discover the Phantom Zone 11 years before DC Comics, and can create everything from flying saucers to rocket ships to synthetic kryptonite, why such a person needs to steal jewelry?
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 LL, in Fimation's “The New Adventures of Superman.” Initially he required help from magicians like Merlin; but increasingly he relied on his own evil genius.
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. What did you do?” “That's krytponite, Superman. Little souvenir from the old hometown? I spared no expense to make you feel right at home.” 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. His Lex was amused and slippery, with just a hint of evil. He's the funniest part of the movie.
And he does show off his pate at the end. Here, above, he's serving notice. To you. That these walls ...
1988: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted Lex Luthor as less evil scientist than worse-than-average CEO. This allows Luthor the cover from which to, you know, machinate. He wouldn't wind up behind prison after every episode 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 perennially battled Superman for control of Metropolis and the affection of Teri Hatcher's Lois Lane. He almost won the latter battle. In the premiere episode above, Luthor is enjoying a cigar by the fireplace when he stops to stare down a rattlesnake. 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 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? Let me know, fans of “Smallville.” 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 Gene Hackman's Lex ever was. He reveled in the badness and in the baldness. If Hackman's Lex only appeared once without toupee (at the end), Spacey's Luthor only appeared once with toupee (at the beginning). By the way: Between them? The two actors have four Academy Awards. That's: Luthor 4, Superman 0, if you're keeping score.
The Henchmen: “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 and henchwomen has generally been suspect—although the first, Carl (Rusty Westcoatt), may have been thin-moustached but was efficient. Westcoatt also played henchmen in the first “Superman” serial as well as “Batman and Robin” in 1949.
1966: In Filmations' Saturday morning cartoon, Lex's henchman is Blinky, who is good at cackling. Dig the crazy highwaters on Lex.
1978: Most people go through their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with anyone that Gene Hackman (as Luthor) had with Ned Beatty (as Otis) in “Superman: The Movie.” What more could anyone ask?
1987: By 1987, that role was reduced to Lex's nephew, Lenny, played by Jon Cryer, who was 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. What else can be said?
1988: Here's Lex's henchwoman in the Ruby-Spears cartoon. She's sweet, a bit of a dingbat, serves milkshakes. Consider her a dumber, sweeter, less booby version of...
1978: Miss TeschMACHAAAAAA! I'm surprised they didn't rate the movie “R” for Valerie Perrine alone. But she was smart. She was also 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 her? In “Superman II,” she's in the Arctic with Lex, heading south, and ... that's it. We never see her (or her likes) again.
2011: Here's Lex in another update: the straight-to-video “All-Star Superman.” And here he finally succeeds in killing Superman. Not by weakening him but by making him too powerful. He gets him close to the sun, and Superman absorbs too much energy, and eventually becomes pure energy.
2015? “Man of Steel” is playing “The Dark Knight” game by reserving the arch-enemy for the sequel. So who should play Lex Luthor in 2015 or '16? All the geek sites are asking and all the geeks are telling. But mostly they're guessing bald actors, like Billy Zane, who wouldn't be bad. But look at Hackman and Spacey. You don't have to go bald to be bad.
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