In this week's installment, we’re paying tribute to the men who played Superman's greatest nemesis. He’s got snazzy fashion sense! He's megalomaniacal! And he really has a thing for Australia! He's Lex Luthor, who got his first big-screen treatment in the 1950 serial Atom Man vs. Superman. (Ozzie and Harriet actor Lyle Talbot portrayed him back then.)
Since then, this archvillain has shown up in films, TV shows, and animated series. As a result, there are many Lexes to choose from, with each actor bringing his own take on Luthor’s patented blend of genius and evil. But here are the five most memorable.
Jesse Eisenberg is an excellent actor. We've liked him in just about everything he's ever been in, from The Social Network to Zombieland to The Squid and the Whale to The End of the Tour. We even love his writing! But hoo boy is he ever terrible as Lex Luthor.
It's not like Luthor has some definitive actor he has to outdo; there is no Heath Ledger in the Luthor canon. But Eisenberg — whether it's because of a discomfort with the material, his director, or both — is a disaster as Luthor in Batman v Superman, all empty tics and squeals and stammers and high-pitched antsy silliness. Eisenberg clearly has made a decision to play Luthor this way, to almost stand outside the movie he's in (who can blame him?), but it absolutely does not work in any way shape or form. We're almost curious to watch him in the next Justice League movie to see if he can salvage this fiasco. Almost.
If there was a knock against Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor, it was that he made the bad guy a little too smug and silly to be truly menacing. (This is one reason why diehard Superman fans revere character actor Clancy Brown's portrayal of Lex in the animated DC series. That's a far nastier super-genius.)
Kevin Spacey does a riff on Hackman in Superman Returns — he channels the swagger and the baldness — but there's a little more malice to the performance, as if Lex has finally tired of toying with the Man of Steel and just wants him dead. It's a modern twist on the character in a movie that divided comic-book fans — and we'll admit that the recent revelations regarding Spacey's monstrous personal behavior have made it hard to "enjoy" the performance as we once did.
Because there have only been three big-screen incarnations of Luthor, we have to dip into the TV well. Lois & Clark was a fizzy, affably bubbleheaded entry into the Superman universe, and it gets the Luthor it deserves in Shea, who plays Luthor the CEO and billionaire like he's the "other guy" in a particularly campy but fun '90s primetime soap. Call it Metropolis Place; he even briefly dated Lois! Shea at least gets to keep his hair for the series, and though he hates Superman, it never feels all THAT sinister. This Luthor is disposable but inoffensive, just like the series itself.
The premise of Smallville is that it looks at Clark Kent's growing-up experience like the teenage WB drama it must have felt like, so it makes total sense to have Lex Luthor grow up as Clark's best friend. The smartest thing Smallville did was make Clark and Lex slowly separate as the series went along, and Rosenbaum deftly walked us through every step of the process, making this the first Lex Luthor you found yourself deeply caring about, even when he was wrong. Rosenbaum found the one thing no other big-screen or TV actor found with Luthor: His heart.
"Very broad," Hackman once said when describing his lovingly cheeky performance in Superman and Superman II. "You have to be very careful. The little man on your shoulder, you know, you have to really listen to him."
The Oscar winner's portrayal of Lex Luthor is impossible to fathom in our modern age of super-dark, super-brooding superhero movies. There's no emotional baggage to Hackman's villain — no thorny backstory that's meant to complicate and rationalize the character's malevolent motivations. This might make the performance seem lightweight — even campy. But the truth is, it's actually a pretty wonderful complement to those Christopher Reeve films' prevailing sweetness and gee-whiz enthusiasm for good-old-fashioned comic book adventure.
Superhero films have changed with the times, but Hackman's sly take on Lex still feels the most iconic. If anything, his Luthor would find tormented bad guys like the Joker or Killmonger to be drips. Gee, guys, why so serious?