Lex Luthor is a DC villain unlike any other. The number of villains who have survived as long as he has is slim, and that number becomes even smaller when one factors in that Lex Luthor has been at the top of the villain world for pretty much his entire existence. Lex Luthor may not have been Superman’s greatest enemy right away, but Lex quickly claimed that title. Luthor has been trying to kill Superman and the heroes of the DC Multiverse for ages, and he’s persevered for one reason: change.
Lex Luthor has stayed relevant for close to a hundred years, which isn’t easy in the eyes of American pop culture. There have been a multitude of pretenders to the throne, and Lex Luthor has beat them all because he’s changed with the times. Lex Luthor is the ultimate villainous chameleon, and the changes made to the character since the Golden Age show are a testament to DC’s storytelling.
Superman was the first superhero, but he didn’t really get many supervillains right away. As most fans know, Superman’s early years were spent standing up for the common person. Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster’s hero was, in many ways, a socialist Superman — working to better people’s lives by battling corruption and crime. Little by little, supervillains appeared in Superman’s adventures. For a while his main foe was the Ultra-Humanite, a character who battled many of Golden Age DC’s greatest heroes and became the most formidable villain on Earth-2. Eventually, Lex Luthor would show up, but he proved very different from the character modern audiences known.
Action Comics #23, by Siegel and Shuster, featured the first appearance of Lex Luthor, or to be more accurate, Alexei Luthor, an evil scientist working with a general on a powerful dirigible warship. This is an extremely rough version of the Lex, but the genius, the imperiousness, and the color green are all there. However, this Lex has a shock of red hair, something that returned in the changeover to Earth-2. The issue ended with Superman and Lois, a prisoner on the airship, getting to safety. Alexei’s fate went unknown. All in all, it’s not exactly the most auspicious start, but it’s also very Golden Age. Take the Joker’s first appearance. By the end of it, he seemed like he was dead as well.
Of course, Alexei Luthor would never return, but Lex Luthor would. This version of Lex was as basic as they come. An art mistake, the penciler confusing Lex with the bald-headed Ultra-Humanite, turned the red-haired slim Luthor into a bigger, balder bad guy. That change became the character’s default look for the rest of the character’s existence, except for the aforementioned Earth-2 version. Golden Age Luthor was the stereotypical evil scientist – an egotistical genius with outlandish schemes and amazing technology. However, that’s exactly what fans of the day wanted and Luthor became a big deal villain.
All in all, Lex Luthor in the Golden Age wasn’t really special. Much of the character’s DNA was there, but villains in the Golden Age weren’t meant to be multi-faceted characters. Luthor just had to challenge Superman, and he did that wonderfully. From time travel schemes, synthesizing Kryptonite, creating amazing technology, and so much more, this version of Lex Luthor had all the hallmarks of what would come later. Luthor wasn’t a physical threat to Superman, which is why he worked so well as a villain. Looking at the character with modern eyes, he’s nothing special. However, he was good enough to survive the Golden Age and truly hit the big time.
The Evolution Of Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor became the ultimate sci-fi villain in the Silver Age. Science fiction was definitely the biggest influence on Silver Age DC and Marvel comics, and that would play a role in Lex’s evolution. Lex Luthor in the Golden Age was moving in this direction, but the evil scientist archetype back then differed greatly from what the sci-fi villains of the Silver Age would be. Superman himself changed a lot during this period as well. He was more comfortable in the stars than before, as creators played up his alien origins. Lex Luthor had to match villains like Brainiac, who had become a much better foil for the Silver Age Superman. Luthor had to adapt to the times, and luckily for everyone, he did.
Gimmick villains were all the rage in the Silver Age, but Lex Luthor wasn’t that. If he had a gimmick, it was that he would do anything to kill Superman. This was the age of the Kryptonite shenanigans. Luthor would create all kinds of schemes using Kryptonite to even up the odds with Superman. If Superman went to space, Lex went to space. Luthor even got his own planet during this time, called Lexor. It was a wild time in general, and Lex fit in wonderfully.
An interesting thing about Lex in the Silver Age was his time as the main villain of Superboy’s Adventure Comics and Superboy. Superboy was published in that period between the Golden and Silver Age. By the time that Superboy debuted in the 1945, Lex was an established villain. Making a younger version, putting him in Smallville, and having him fight Superman was a no-brainer for writers. Superboy is more considered a Silver Age character, despite first appearing in the Golden Age. Readers would learn the origins of Luthor’s hatred for Superman, since the Boy of Steel caused the loss of Luthor’s red locks.
The best thing about the Lex Luthor of the Silver Age was his passive-aggressive team-ups with Brainiac. These two evil geniuses decided the best way to kill Superman was together, but each of them wanted to be the person who defeated the Man of Steel. This led to backstabbings and betrayals of the most entertaining nature. However, that didn’t stop them from continually teaming up. These team-ups are some of the best Silver Age Superman stories, just to see their interactions.
Luthor’s evil defined Superman during this period. Superman was more human than most readers realize during the Silver Age, but he was still the shining example of heroism. Superman’s goodness and charity had their dark mirror in Luthor’s evil and greed. Golden Age Luthor was evil, but he wasn’t cackling Silver Age evil. Silver Age Lex was, and it helped define who the character would become. Luthor’s ego and intelligence were dialed up to a thousand in the Silver Age, but the nuance of later periods was missing. Lex was more skilled than ever, his schemes and technology bigger and badder, but the character himself was still simple compared to a modern villain. The evil scientist had turned into the consummate supervillain, and that was enough for the readers of the time.
The Bronze Age Lex Luthor was basically the same as the Silver Age. Luthor got his first costume back then, a high collared purple and green number that would be popularized in SuperFriends. Lex Luthor’s powerful warsuit debuted in 1983’s Action Comics #544, allowing Lex to fight it out with Superman in a way he never had before. Lex Luthor was more popular than ever in the Bronze Age, partly due to the popularity of Superman’s Silver Age comics and partly because of Lex’s big screen debut in Superman, played by Gene Hackman. Hackman’s Lex fit the character wonderfully, a campy version that was more like the Silver Age but a little less evil. The Bronze Age was also the time of SuperFriends, when Lex became the leader of the Legion of Doom. Of course, in the comics, Luthor had already taken his place at the top of the supervillain pecking order, leading groups like the Secret Society of Supervillains. This was an inevitable change for Luthor as DC copied Marvel’s shared universe even more than before.
The Silver and Bronze Age kept Lex vital by making him a villain of the time. That’s always been the key to Lex’s longevity: the ability to adapt to the time. It’s all built on the foundation of the Golden Age, but taken to the extreme, which is really the Silver and Bronze Age in a nutshell. Earth-2 Lex would reappear in 1970, but he was just Earth-1 Lex with hair. Earth-3 Lex was the heroic Lex and would debut in the early ’80s, but he’d soon die, as would the entire DC Multiverse in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Earth-1’s Lex Luthor would play a small but great role, as he and Brainiac led the villain war against the remaining Earths. He’d also killed Earth-2 Lex when that Lex tried to take control of the situation, and would survive the battle against Krona in the past. However, everything was about to change for Lex Luthor, setting him up to become the ultimate Lex.
Lex Luthor Reaches His Apex
Post-Crisis DC was a very different place from what came before and Lex Luthor was about to get the update that would finally lead to the perfection of the character. Writer/artist John Byrne’s Man of Steel isn’t as beloved as it once was because of the many things it changed about Superman. However, the same can’t be said for what it did to Lex. Byrne based this Luthor off the evil ’80s businessmen who were all the rage back then, the heartless corporate raiders who were both hated and worshiped. This Lex was still an evil genius, but instead of doing the science himself, he had LexCorp for that. This Lex was larger and a bit older than the Silver/Bronze Age one and still had his red hair, which he would lose because of Kryptonite radiation poisoning from constantly wearing his Kryptonite ring.
Now, this early version of Lex Luthor wasn’t perfect yet, but adding in the evil businessman angle was a great move. Lex had stayed relevant in the Silver Age by becoming an over the top supervillain. In the ’80s, he morphed into the evil businessman. This Lex was less brilliant than usual. For example, his computer figured out that Superman was Clark Kent, but he ignored it because there was no way that could have been the case in his mind. This Lex would also eventually get cancer from the Kryptonite radiation poisoning, which would force him to create a younger clone (Lex Luthor II) and transfer his brain over. Lex Luthor entered a relationship with the Matrix Supergirl, and he even flirted with heroism, helping Superman at times. Of course, eventually, the ruse was discovered and regular Lex would return.
This was the beginning of the perfect Lex. It combined the evil businessman with the evil scientist of the Golden Age and the cackling supervillain of the Silver/Bronze Age. This is the version of Lex that appears right now. This Lex was a truly multi-faceted threat for the first time, because he was legitimate in the eyes of the public. Lex got away with things because he had the money and the power. This untouchable Lex, the vain evil genius with a company that rivaled or surpassed everything Batman had, took everything great about the character and combined it into one potent package.
This is the perfect Lex, because he can work in every type of Superman story. Need a Lex who the people love and can compete with Superman? He’s the one. Need one to come up with impressive armor and try beating Superman to death while screaming about his superiority? This Luthor is the guy. Need a Lex who can lead the Justice League’s opposite number? Here he is. Need one who readers can feel sorry for? This Lex Luthor came from an abusive household and worked hard to protect his sister and cure her of a terrible disease. Need a heroic Lex? This Lex can do heroism.He can do it all.
Lex Luthor’s Ability To Change Allowed Him To Thrive
The story of Lex Luthor is one of a villain constantly able to become exactly what was needed. That’s no small feat. Many Golden Age villains are still around, but they’ve never changed, and it shows. They show up, fight the Justice Society or the Justice League and go away. They’re fun, but they aren’t the big guys. Lex Luthor and the Joker stayed on top for so long because they could become anything. Sure, Ultra-Humanite and Per Degaton are cool, but no one knows who they are but hardcore fans. Lex Luthor has thrived for close to a hundred years because there isn’t a role he hasn’t been able to fulfill.
The modern Lex Luthor, the one born out of post-Crisis DC, is an amazing villain because he can do everything that he needs to. Lex hasn’t really had to change again since his return to “life” in the 1990s. The reason for that is because this Lex is the sum of the versions who came before. He has the ego of the Golden Age, the evil of the Silver Age, and the nuances that a villain needs in the modern day. When Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely did All-Star Superman, a book that was heavily inspired by the Silver Age, they still went with the modern Lex Luthor because he worked as well in a Silver Age setting as anywhere else. Lex Luthor is a villain who excites readers no matter what story he’s thrown into. That can be hard to do with a new character. Everyone struggled with Bane for a long time in the ’90s post-Knightfall. By contrast, Lex Luthor has kept that excitement up since 1940. Lex has done that because DC let him change and adapt, making him into the perfect supervillain.
Lex Luthor remains one of the most famous DC villains of all time, and it’s all because DC Comics expertly adapted him for each new era. Read More