Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Villain Tune-Up: Lex Luthor.

'I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.' Rene Belloq, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

'There's a strong streak of good in you, Superman. But then nobody's perfect... almost nobody.' Lex Luthor, Superman(1978)

A common complaint levelled by people who only have a tangential knowledge of Superman as a contemporary comics character (beyond what they've seen in movies or the impression of the Silver Age lingering in the pop culture mindset) is that Superman is impossible to write convincingly because he's too powerful. Now in the interests of fairness, this belief isn't entirely without justification (back in the '50s and '60s Superman could blow out a star like we'd put out candles on a birthday cake), but to me it seems an easy way of removing the character from consideration. Oh, Superman is obviously too powerful to be dealt with on a physical level so where's the dramatic hook?

Putting aside the fanboy rebuttals I have in my back pocket (he's no longer a living god, and there are a number of characters who--while putting up a helluva fight--he'd probably end up losing against, that the character is as much about his wits as his fists and is not nearly the caped flying brick pop culture would have you believe, etc, etc) the purest and simplest way to challenge Superman is not through a physical confrontation. Oh no. Don't get me wrong, the battling giant robot apes (see, toldja I'd get back to it. . .) rampaging through downtown Metropolis will never truly get old, but beneath the shiny veneer of all his fancy powers and the madness of alien invasion, crime waves, and other assorted madness inherent to living in a comicbook universe its all really icing on the proverbial cake. The key to challenging Superman is not physically, but morally. That's something I think it's all too easy to lose track of amidst the capes and laser vision.

Take Superman's nemesis, his opposite number, one Lex Luthor. As times have changed, so too has the portrayal of the yin to Superman's yang. At first he was little more than your traditional Mad Scientist with a Grudge, then later portrayals would see him go from a scheming, sneering meglomaniac to a tortured and vengeance-driven soul to the epitome of corporate greed and dirty dealing, to the President of the United States on DC'S Earth(political commentary anyone? Anyone? No? Okay, I didn't really want to hand it out anyway)! These days the portrayal has settled on 'Vengeful Genius/Ex-Friend of Superboy's with an axe to grind' which--for all my love of DC's Silver Age Insanity--I feel is not the way to go with the character. Hence my first installment of Villain Tune-Up, an effort to put Lex's character up on the block and examine what about him works, and what could work better.

One of the things I think I need to address, and I've seen it both in the works of Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison respectively, is this recurring point that Luthor could save the world if only he didn't feel Superman was 'holding him back'. With respect and deference to these two talented writers, I must take that notion to task. To me that idea takes away an element of Lex Luthor that I feel must be supremely critical in order for him to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the 'common rabble' of DC Villainy. Luthor is not a petulant child, at least, not in such an overt manner as that. No, Lex's mania runs far, far deeper than mere petulance and feeling cheated at not being the one to lead humanity into a new golden age. To be truthful, Lex Luthor could give less than a gnat's fart in the wind about people or the world. Lex Luthor is in the business of Lex Luthor. He is the single smartest human being on the planet(I'd say late 11th-level intelligence for the DC fanboys out there. Yeah, he's that smart, he'd have to be to hold his own against Brainiac I), and it is only the impediment of his own hubris that keeps him from completely destroying any obstacles in his path. He really could do all those things Superman says he could; cure disease, abolish hunger, design a new golden age where everyone could live in peace and utter harmony. He really, really could.

But honestly, where's the fun in that?

Luthor loves the world exactly the way it is; each continent a powderkeg, each city a firecracker, and he's the kid with the zippo lighter. Of course, as was once stated so brilliantly by his cinematic counterpart, nobody wants a war. But Lex does so love keeping the threat alive. He's grown up in a world where he is--without doubt--the smartest man in the room, the building, the city entire. He looks upon the world as his toy, his own personal Rubik's cube to solve or misalign in whatever way he sees fit. Where Superman is the benefit of order, Luthor is the threat of chaos. Where Superman is the responsibility of power, Luthor is power without responsibility. The world is his playground, his own personal rumpus room wherein he can build death ray lasers and killer robots and assorted mayhem, where he can create a multi-billion dollar corporation like LexCorp solely because he was bored and it was a rainy Wednesday afternoon and because he could. Luthor is the Da Vinci of super-villainy; criminals should be beating themselves into unmerciful pulps just to get their mitts on jotted out plans found on a diner napkin. He is, simply put, The Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time. And he loves it.

Unlike the Joker, Luthor doesn't kill for the pleasure of it. Everyday people are far, far too beneath his notice for him to be caught up in petty vendettas or anything so declasse as sadism. No, they're toys. He's a little disappointed when they break, of course, but he's not actively looking to destroy the world or kill anyone in his path. They're there to be his audience, to see just how utterly inferior they are compared to his genius. Sometimes he even spares them, if for no other reason than it amuses him to play god. They're all such easy little equations after all, so utterly and completely predictable. Except one.


Luthor doesn't want to kill Superman. At least not all at once. No, the kryptonian is far, far too interesting a problem to just dismiss out of turn. If Luthor wanted Superman dead, chances are he'd eventually find a way to do it and make it stick. It's that ego thing, it keeps tripping him up. Why? Why does he do it? Why does he try? What's the angle? How can he be made to bend to my will, to be just another plaything to be discarded? Luthor is fascinated by Superman, to the point where--if any other of his so-called rogues gallery were to come close he'd stop them from killing him. Superman is Luthor's personal project. Killing him? Easy. Breaking him, making him see that all his cherished ideals about Truth, Justice and the charmingly quaint ideal of the American Way are just so much smoke? Therein lies the game.

Luthor's not brooding, he's not petulant, and he's not a heavy. In fact he can be utterly charming and one of the most alive people you've ever met(picture Downey Jr's Tony Stark but without a single redeeming characteristic and you'd be in the ballpark). But every time he walks in a room, even if it's just in a suit and tie, the reaction should be similar to Darth Vader's debut in Star Wars. It should be an 'oh crap' moment in a given issue. Metallo? Parasite? Darkseid? All things Superman's prepared for, knows how to deal with. Luthor is the guy who makes Superman nervous. Superman.

That's who Luthor is, at least from here in the cheap seats.



Josh Reynolds said...

Yes! I agree 100 percent. You, sir, hit the nail on the head.

StacyD said...

Thanks! Idea came to me while I was on the bus and I felt it deserved some discussion. Glad you enjoyed. ^.^