Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

If you ask me Superman villains tend to come in one of two kinds of varieties. The first type is kind of pathetic as compared to the hero (Toyman, Prankster, etc.). Occasionally they have a surprise up their sleeve you don’t expect- like they can make Superman track down every toy spread across town rigged to blow in just seven minutes or something like that- but mostly, they hardly seem like a threat. The other type of villain is powerful to a degree that only Superman would be capable of going toe-to-toe with (Doomsday, Darkseid, etc.).

When I was a kid, I use to think Lex was boring. I mean he had no superpowers, right? So he seemed like a chump, compared to the Man of Steel. Man I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The quintessential supervillian, Luthor has stood the test of time to stand in the ranks of Doom and the Joker as ‘most fearsome foe’ of all time. Really, sometimes I think the recent resurgence in Superman fandom (with Smallville and all that) has more to do with Lex than it does with Lois and Clark. The thing is I watched the old-school Superman movies again recently (you know, Richard Donner, I and II). I had forgotten just how ahead of their time they were. Christopher Reeve is really incredible in those movies and it’s not his Superman that makes it, it’s his Clark Kent. You get it; just how hard Superman works at BEING ‘Clark Kent’- at making Clark dopey, gullible and the last person you’d ever suspect of being Superman.

I really love Superman II, really just years ahead of its time. It plays around with some WACKED OUT ideas in this comic, though. Like the distinction between Clark and Superman actually starts to seem MORE distinct by the end of the movie. To a point where it almost seems bizarre and alien. To me, there’s something really weird and creepy when Clark steps into that chamber to get rid of his own powers and, for just a second, there’s like this weird after-image of Superman standing there and Clark Kent sort of, "steps out" of Superman? Yeah I can’t deal with that. It’s freaky. I digress.

Long story short the romance between Lois Lane and Clark Kent is, far and away, what’s made this comic memorable for a long time. From the daytime soap opera like Lois and Clark (starring Teri Hatcher, no less) to the CW’s-teenage-romance infused (although occasionally brilliant) Smallville, that’s kind of what people come back to about this comic year after year. Now Lex. Gene Hackman as Luthor- amazing casting. Opportunistic. Sleezy. Traitorous.

Kevin Spacey did a nice job of picking up where this Luthor left off, too. But ultimately I think this Luthor just isn’t dangerous enough, for the fans, these days. Believe it or not it’s Michael Rosenbaum of Smallville fame who’s sort of brought Luthor alive (so much so that he’s even received death threats from fans, insisting that he returned to the show during its final season), lately. Every other incarnation has been immoral sure, but not quite ambitious enough to give Superman something to really shake in his boots about.

The great thing about Lex I think? He ISN’T crazy. I mean he’s obsessed, he’s sick, he’s a psychopath. But he ISN’T the Joker. To me, there’s nothing better than that scene in Smallville (have no memory of what season, real early on) when Lex flips out and starts screaming "I’m going to RUIN your LIFE Clark!". Why?

Because it’s such a more disturbing threat, I think, than "I’m going to kill you!", in a way. It’s sort of like "whatever you do, wherever you go, I’m going to be there to RUIN it, to make it BAD." Clinically detached, Lex can turn on the charm with other people just fine, seeming like a humane, reasonable, law-abiding citizen. Only a select few realize that he’s sitting on top of a criminal empire the likes of which is unrivaled in the DC universe.

In the old days, we were content with Lex just being Superman’s polar opposite: greedy, selfish and immoral. But now it isn’t just that Lex is these things; it’s that he’s so good at seeming like he ISN’T these things. And usually MOST of what Lex does IS legal. THAT’S the problem. There’s no law saying that he CAN’T overcharge rent on the buildings he owns or develop weaponry to sell to the army or any of that stuff. It’s not the "right" thing to do but it isn’t, technically, illegal.

With his more "delicate" activities quietly tucked away and everything else done in the letter, if not the spirit, of the law, Superman can’t lay a hand on him. What good is it if Superman can fly, punch through steel and look through walls with his eyes if there’s nothing he can really pin on Luthor? Lex’s best weapon against Superman is to make himself untouchable, if not literally physically, than legally. How many lawyers would Lex have pressing charges against the city if Superman snoops around Lex’s property, without some legal sanction, or something like that?

Of course, all of this is sort of harkening back to a bigger theme in the Superman mythology: progress and corruption. It’s easy to forget that Superman came from a planet with a pretty incredible civilization that one day blew itself the &*%$ up. The Kryptonians got lazy. They didn’t want to look at what they were doing and how they were doing it. The cautionary tale is this could be US. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do it. It’s no surprise than that Superman is from Kansas because it’s sort of like, no matter how powerful we get, as the human race, we’ve got to keep those good old fashioned country values close at heart.

Equally it's no surprise that Superman’s greatest villain is a scientist/ big-business tycoon who really doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions. He wants power and that’s it. So the take home message sort of tucked away in Superman is: progress, without a sense of morality and foresight, can be dangerous. We can’t forget our ‘roots’ while we move forward, into the future (or move from Kansas to the big, bustling city of Metropolis). One day we might blow Earth the &*%$ up. Like Krypton.

(Please note this post does not represent my own or Omnicomic staff’s views. Just an editorial on the mythology of Superman. Seriously blow Earth the &*%$ up. We don’t care.)

Regardless of all this you always know that whatever is going on, Lex is going to have a plan to come out on top. If there’s some weakness to exploit? He’ll find a way to use it. If he’s stranded on some distant planet with another forty or so supervillians? You know he’ll be the one to get back even if it means exploiting every person and resource around him to do it. He’s the ultimate bad-guy. And that’s just it- he’s just a guy. But evil isn’t super-strength or invulnerability. It isn’t even being crazy. Evil is what you choose to DO.