Lex Luthor: How one of DC Comics' most iconic and malevolent villains came into being
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Lex Luthor is one of the most iconic villains in the DC universe, second perhaps only to the Joker.
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To the public, Lex Luthor is the embodiment of the American dream. A billionaire industrialist with a rags to riches story, a noted philanthropist whose charities help those in need, and a genius whose research has led to several breakthroughs across multiple disciplines. To those that know him, he’s a manipulative, self-serving, egoist. And to those that really know him, he’s a merciless, megalomaniac bent on world domination.
“President?... Do you know how much power I'd have to give up to be President?” – Lex Luthor
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Lex Luthor is one of the most iconic villains in the DC universe, second perhaps only to the Joker. If the Joker represents our collective fears of chaos and anarchy disrupting modern society, Luthor represents our fear of the rich and the powerful. A one-percenter who uses his influence and resources to further his goals regardless of the cost to others; and usually escaping subsequent prosecution even when clear evidence of his crimes is presented.
Luthor is one of the only villains in the DC universe who fully understands the importance of public perception. This is why he funds so much charity work and ensures that it’s only his good deeds that stay in public memory by controlling practically all media outlets in his home city of Metropolis. While the Daily Planet was a notable exception, this proved temporary as Luthor would eventually own it as well.
This strategy of controlling the media appears to have served him well as Luthor, despite being known to be a violent criminal, has managed to win the United State presidency on more than one occasion. A move which was apparently undertaken in an effort to troll his arch-nemesis Superman, more than out of any desire to hold political office, at least not an elected one governed by rules and term limits. While the idea of a supervillain being President of the United States no longer seems as funny or as far-fetched as it used to be, Luthor was a surprisingly competent head of state and America thrived under his leadership, at least for a while.
But for all his public success, Luthor’s private life has been a string of unending failures. He’s been married nine times, divorced eight times and is now a widower. His ninth wife, the late Contessa Erica Alexandra del Portenza, was devious, ruthless, manipulative and an accomplished villain in her own right. On paper, they seemed to be the perfect match. Unfortunately for her, Luthor thought differently and when he was launching his presidential campaign, he decided to bury any embarrassing family disputes by burying her with a salvo of cruise missiles launched at her island mansion.
Prior to her demise, Luthor had fathered a daughter with the Contessa, Lena Luthor. A name she shares with both Lex’s younger sister (who she is apparently named after) and his aunt, partly because they are all essentially the same character in different continuities and partly because picking a second female name is apparently harder than anyone who doesn’t write comic books can ever imagine. I suppose we should just be thankful they are not all named Martha. Given how rarely Lena shows up in storylines, it’s probably safe to say that Luthor is essentially estranged from his family.
He’s also survived cancer brought on by extended exposure to a kryptonite ring that he keeps on him at all times as a deterrent against Superman. I should mention that he ‘survived’ by cloning himself a new body and then selling his soul to a demon in exchange for good health when his clone body deteriorated prematurely and left him completely paralysed.
Note: If a genuine mythical demon wants your soul in exchange for a magical favour, agreeing to such a deal because you believe the soul isn’t real is an odd thing for a purported super genius to believe.
Origin and Powers
At the time of his debut in Action Comics #32 (1940), Luthor was less of an industrialist and more ‘mad scientist’, albeit a seemingly fabulously wealthy one, since he created not one, but two “cities” for his own personal use. Luthor’s origins have undergone a few changes over the years, usually to make the character more grounded in reality and at other times to account for new canon continuity such as his presence in Smallville when a young Clark Kent was growing up.
In contemporary storylines, Lex and his younger sister Lena grew up poor in Metropolis, in an area sometimes referred to as Suicide Slum. Abusive parents and crippling poverty forced Lex to rely on his wits to survive, further honing his already sharp mind.
Even at an early age, Luthor shows all of the characteristics we have come to associate with the iconic businessman. Intelligent, charismatic, ambitious and manipulative, Lex quickly set out to make a name for himself, using charm and deception where possible, but not at all averse to using violence and intimidation through the use of enlisted goons where needed.
This vengeful and opportunistic streak fully manifests itself when Luthor apparently engineers the deaths of his parents by sabotaging their car and then using the profits from a large life insurance policy he had created in their names to found LexCorp.
The most recent retelling of Luthor’s origins states that he grew up wealthy in Metropolis, the son of a rich (but still abusive) industrialist. This change, at least according to me, significantly detracts from Lex’s character as a self-made man who started from nothing and did anything he had to do to get ahead in life.
Luthor’s humble origins are, in part, what contrasts him with Superman and one of the causes for Lex’s deep-seated dislike of him. Superman never had to earn his greatness. While Luthor struggled his way out of poverty, Kal-El simply had the good fortune to arrive on a world whose parent star imbues him with powers that seem almost God-like to the local inhabitants.
While Luthor has not traditionally wielded any form of superpower, he does have a genius-level intellect that has enabled him to match wits with the most accomplished heroes and villains around and still come out on top. In the DC universe, he is widely considered to be the smartest human to have ever lived. Following events that saw his consciousness merging temporarily with Brainiac, it is believed that he may possess an even greater intellect, although there is not much evidence to show that his heightened intelligence persisted after he and Brainiac were once again separated.
Over the years Lex has focused a great deal of time and resources on developing greater physical capabilities, both through genetic engineering and the construction of an armoured combat suit. In his ‘Warsuit’, Luthor is a credible threat even to Superman, thanks in no small part to the Warsuit’s array of kryptonite-based weapons.
But while the Warsuit is a marvel of engineering, to Luthor what it represents is even more important. The suit is a symbol of Luthor’s long-standing desire (and now his ability) to stand against a demigod on practically even terms.
Allies and Adversaries
You don’t get to the top without making a few enemies… and Lex has been at the top for a very long time. While there’s probably no shortage of superheroes who want to bring him to justice, the truth is that the Man of Steel remains the only person on earth that Luthor would even consider a legitimate threat to his ambitions.
Ever since the last son of Krypton made it his mission to protect the people of Metropolis, Luthor has made it his goal to either control or destroy Superman. On the surface, Superman’s animosity towards Lex is quite straightforward, Luthor is a selfish, power-hungry narcissist who would think nothing of killing thousands, even millions of people in order to further his own goals.
However, in Luthor’s eyes, Superman represents a greater threat to humanity than he could ever be. Luthor argues that ever since Superman arrived, humanity has grown increasingly incapable of solving its own problems, content to wait for solutions to be delivered from on high. At the very least, Lex’s concerns regarding Superman are akin to fears of how a socialist nanny state could damage the human spirit of ingenuity, industriousness and independence. At worst, this loss of agency comes with the added threat of the public coming to perceive Superman as a messianic figure, completely above question or reproach.
For Luthor, this reliance on the Man of Steel is one that he considers an existential crisis for all of mankind. With God-like powers and no force capable of countering him, what if Superman’s agenda were to ever change? If he should decide to take power for himself, how would… how could the world resist? It was this fear that led Luthor to research possible countermeasures and which eventually led to him discovering Kryptonite.
To his credit, Luthor’s prophecy proved true as in several storylines, Superman (or alternate/parallel versions of himself) do indeed install himself as the de-facto alien dictator of Earth, having come to the conclusion that humans were incapable of governing themselves effectively.
So what about his allies?...
Since Lex Luthor doesn’t honestly seem interested in (or capable of) making a friend, allies may be too strong a word for the people who fight alongside him. Perhaps a more accurate name for them would be ‘Future enemies’.
But despite Luthor’s personal disdain for others, he was certainly aware of the benefits and opportunities that teaming up with his fellow villains presented. As long as he was the undisputed leader of course. Over his extensive career of villainy, Luthor has either founded or led several major groups of villains, the three most popular being the Secret Society, the oh-so-creatively named Injustice League, and what I think is the most iconic supervillain team-up in comic-book history, The Legion of Doom.
To Luthor, the Legion and its roster of members are simply tools that he uses to further his own ends. For their part, the other members of the Legion are all too aware of what Luthor thinks of them. A fact that has led to several internal power struggles and even a few semi-successful coups.
Since the Legion has never really had a lasting victory to date, it’s unclear if Luthor would actually intend to hold up his end of the bargain if they ever really did win, but unlike Grodd in the video below… I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Character and Philosophy
The character of Lex Luthor is perhaps a typical example of a ‘Lawful evil’ archetype. Unlike other villains like the Joker or Doomsday, Luthor takes no specific pleasure in violence or chaos, using them only as a means to an end. And while he would kill anyone in the way of his plans without a second thought, in most cases this is done only out of expediency rather than out of any sense of malice. Does that make it even worse? I suppose that’s debatable.
I’ve said before that typically, the most interesting villain is a dark reflection of the hero, and Luthor’s relationship with Superman proves this perfectly. Beyond the posturing and philosophy, Luthor hates Superman because he is everything that Lex isn’t and he knows it. He is jealous of Superman.
Jealous of his powers. Jealous that Lois Lane loves Kal-El while she rejected his attempts to make her the 9th Mrs Luthor (she probably dodged a bullet there). He’s jealous of the public’s affection for him and jealous of how easily it all seems to have come to him. If he knew that Superman also had both a loving foster family and a happy childhood that helps him see the good in humanity in ways that Luthor is simply incapable of understanding, I honestly think he could lose his mind.
As a result of his lack of anything resembling a personal life or other interests, Lex pours all of his considerable intelligence and resources into a singular goal, the accumulation of power and influence. Not for any clear end goal, that he hopes to achieve, but largely because he lacks anything else that could give his life even a modicum of joy, solace or meaning.
Luthor is an avid believer in existentialist ideology and is a self-professed atheist, rejecting the idea of God with a line of reasoning that appears to be derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus’ famous trilemma.
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Even his bitter and obsessive rivalry with Superman is driven, at least partly, by Luthor’s desire to confront and defeat this self-appointed saviour of mankind and allow the course of humanity to be once-again shaped by human hands. Due to these beliefs, there are those who consider him to be akin to Nietzsche’s idea of the superior man, dedicated to the cultural, philosophical and technological advancement of humanity. But I think this interpretation misses some important details.
Existentialism is not intrinsically nihilistic and Luthor’s apathy towards indiscriminate killing in pursuit of his goals is not something any of the great existentialist philosophers are likely to have ever endorsed (at least not to my knowledge). He is perhaps more accurately portrayed as what such a philosophy would look like if followed through to its logical extreme. More a warning than an ideal to live up to.
In some non-canon storylines such as Superman: Red Son, where an infant Kal-El lands in 1950s rural Ukraine instead of Kansas and takes up with the Soviet cause, we get a chance to see what Luthor could have achieved in a timeline where standing against Comrade Superman makes him a hero to the American people instead of a Villain. While still egotistical and more than a little ruthless, in this world Luthor is a celebrated scientist who eventually becomes a president with dictatorial powers.
But despite my phrasing, this dictatorship is, in fact, a benevolent autocracy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union following Superman’s apparent demise, Luthor ushers in a new golden age of global peace, prosperity and technological advancement. Red Son perfectly depicts one of the most interesting aspects of Luthor’s character even in the main universe storylines. While he has never placed any value on individual human lives, it is also true that he cares deeply for the preservation and advancement of humanity.
It’s precisely for this reason that when the biggest galactic or universal threats come knocking on Earth’s door in the DC universe, Lex Luthor tends to find himself fighting alongside the ‘good guys’. However, it is important to remember that he is not saving the Earth out of a sense of duty or honour, but because he sees the world as his alone to control and he will not tolerate anyone trying to make a move on his territory.
To me, Luthor will always be the man who could have saved the world, but wouldn’t. To Epicurus, that would make him able, but not willing and therefore malevolent. And I’d say that description suits him perfectly.
If you’re interested in learning more about the character, these storylines are widely regarded as the best that Luthor has been involved in and should tell you everything you need to know about one of the best villains in the business.
Some of these titles are compilations of various storylines, while others are one-shots or mini-series
Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography (1989) – A journalist’s investigation provides a framing device for a closer look into the history of Lex Luthor.
Superman: President Luthor (2018) – This collection includes Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography and several comics that feature Lex Luthor’s first bid for the US Presidency
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2003) – This series focuses on what I think was Luthor’s second stab at taking the White House.
Superman: Red Son (2003) – While it’s not canon, I think the communist adventures of Kal-El is my personal favourite solo Superman.
Luthor (2005) – A collected miniseries of Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel.
All-Star Superman" #5 (2005) — Like Red Son, this storyline is not considered part of the main DC canon, but it was very well received, winning several awards.
Superman: Birthright (2003-2004) – This story provides modern retelling of Superman’s origins and of how he and Lex Luthor came to be life-long enemies. However, the story has not been treated as canonical by subsequent writers.
Forever Evil (2013) – Following the apparent death of most of the Earth’s superheroes, Lex Luthor re-forms the injustice league to prevent the Earth from falling into the hands of the Earth-Three supervillains, the Crime Syndicate.
See more from the series here.
About 100 copies of the Superman comic are believed to exist.
The Flash’s empathy even for those that he finds himself fighting against is an example of what differentiates him from most other comic book heroes who are entirely focused on protecting the innocent while punishing those they see as guilty, content to not involve themselves at all in the rehabilitation of offenders