Superheroes in the American comic industry typically have a rogues gallery of villains with a roughly equivalent level of power. Batman’s villains tend not to have powers and rely on technology like Mr. Freeze or Scarecrow; if they do have powers they’re usually on the weaker side. Superman, on the other hand, has fellow Kryptonian Zod, the equally-as-strong Bizarro, and the fifth dimensional being Mr. Mxyzptlk. Because of this, I always found it odd that Superman’s arch-nemesis, the biggest thorn in his side, would be the (normally) powerless Lex Luthor.
Lex Luthor is practically the evil version of Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. He’s rich, incredibly smart, and has influence—and that’s it. What I like about Luthor as a character as opposed to his heroic counterparts, though, is that he doesn’t have an alter-ego of any sort. True, he does sometimes don a mechanized suit to go toe-to-toe with his foes, not unlike Iron Man, but his name doesn’t change. He’s still Lex Luthor. I think this speaks volumes about who he is and what he represents.
But what does Lex represent? Well, to understand that we first must look at Superman. Superman is the ultimate escapist fantasy. He is the first superhero, and he has it all. He has flight, super strength, super speed, he’s nigh invulnerable, and he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes. Who wouldn’t want all that? Of course, none of these are attainable in reality. Simply because of his extraterrestrial origins Superman is capable of doing unobtainable things. For you and me, if we wanted to even look akin to how Superman does we’d have to go through an intense amount of physical training.
Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is the pinnacle of realistic escapist fantasy. He has wealth, which while highly implausible, is still attainable. He also has intelligence, which while could be argued is genetic, one could certainly be learned if they simply had the time and patience to. Lex Luthor is a businessman and an inventor. He doesn’t go around in spandex, but rather a professional suit and tie. Lex Luthor could reasonably exist in the world we live in.
But beyond the worlds of fantasy and reality, they also both represent opposite facets of what it means to have power. Superman has the ability to catch a car that was sent flying, but Luthor can pay for damages and buy them a replacement car. If anything, Luthor exemplifies exactly why someone like Superman wouldn’t work in the real world. Because no matter how much good Superman does, no matter how many times Superman reveals Luthor’s evil scheme to the world, Luthor has the means to easily get out of it without any permanent damage to his brand.
One of the weaknesses of the comic industry is that popular villains need to constantly reappear in order to keep reader engagement high. This has led to people like The Joker escaping from Arkham Asylum countless times, to the point that many audience members seem to question Batman’s no killing rule. Joker does incalculable damage every time he is outside, so many people posit that it would be justified to kill him. Of course, this was never intended to be the moral quandary presented.
To me, this kind of dynamic only truly works with a character like Lex Luthor. Now, the constant get-out-of-jail-free cards makes sense. With The Joker, it just feels like plot convenience, but for Luthor, we know that having enough money and influence will get you a shortened jail sentence, or even none at all. This is a pattern we have recognized in the real world. Superman, a model for what it means to be moral, can only do so much against someone like Luthor.
Luthor is someone who Superman could crush at any moment. He is absolutely no challenge in a one-on-one fight. But he doesn’t do that. While physically Superman is an escapist character, he ultimately isn’t when it comes to his character. Superman is meant to be superhuman not just because of his powers, but because of what he does. Superman will always do the right thing, and will always save the day. Unlike Bruce Wayne, who, it has been argued, could do more good for the world via his wealth than with his heroic deeds, Superman has no such opportunity. Clark Kent is a humble individual with a modest living. Superman has no wealth in the way we, in the real world, would recognize as such.
Lex Luthor stands as not just Superman’s opposite, but also as a representative of the reader. We all want power, and Luthor is the best we could get in that regard. We want the ability to do whatever we want, and Luthor can do that. Lex Luthor is who we would be if we tried to be like Superman. It’s no wonder that Superman is falling out of favor with the general population. “He’s too boring, he’s too strong, too good.” We are all Lex Luthor. Luthor hates and berates Superman, but deep down he wants to have what Superman has. But even deeper down, he realizes that even with identical powers he still wouldn’t have the moral fortitude to truly be Superman.
Superman is the unobtainable wish we all have. Lex Luthor is what would happen if we were to get as close to it as humanly possible.
Why Lex Luthor Is Thematically The Best Supervillain.