Have you ever been in a situation where you faced impossible odds to succeed? Or, have you ever gone up against an opponent seemingly superior to you in every way? These traits are usually associated with a brave protagonist “overcoming the odds” but can sometimes be compellingly applied to a villain as well. Lex Luthor, a villain almost as old as the Superman mythos itself, has long existed without a compelling character hook. He was originally a fat, bald man who schemed to ruin Europe simply because he could.
He gradually evolved into a mad scientist who hated Superman because of an accident that left him bald. Finally, in the 1980s landscape of Wall Street superpredators, he became a wealthy corporate executive whose greed was the primary reason he hated Superman. None of these motivations truly explained why Luthor, a classic “man who has everything,” has possessed such an overwhelming, zealous hatred for the Man of Steel over the years.
In Luthor, writer Brian Azzarello has finally found a single, defining motivation for Luthor’s hatred: his humanity. In this story, Luthor, through a supposed redemption and a massive amount of PR spending, has risen in popularity to the point that he has become elected the President of the United States! Despite this, Luthor does not feel a true sense of fulfillment. Instead, he sees only the potential that humanity can rise sufficiently to stifle their worship of Superman, the untouchable alien who always hovers above them.
Luthor is written as a deeply cynical, incredibly self-aware man who has become dominated by his singular drive to kill the Man of Steel in the cause of advancing the human race. He is not beyond genuine acts of compassion such as offering an employee’s son admission to his exclusive science academy if he gets an A-average, but this serves his primary goal of advancing the human race. Luthor is a 20th-century futurist thinker as the 21st century around him struggles to barely survive.
Luthor is not a typical DC comic book. The story is narrated by and told from Luthor’s perspective, as he consolidates his power as President and head of LexCorp and creates a conspiracy to kill Superman. His conspiracy centers around the creation of an artificial life form he names “Hope” that is designed to bring about Luthor’s “better tomorrow.” Luthor’s ruthlessness in achieving his dream is the focus of most of the story, as he brutally suppresses unions and criticizes other billionaires such as Bruce Wayne who inherited their wealth rather than earning it over their own lifetimes. Luthor continues to manipulate the media and the people around him in “selling Hope” to the people of Metropolis. This story arc is light on action scenes until the final battle but makes up for it in narrative depths and its portrayal of Lex Luthor’s character.
It would be difficult to adapt Luthor into a film, at least one that’s faithful to the comic. Audiences for superhero movies have come to expect storylines where the hero can always be expected to triumph over a villain and be justified in doing so, regardless of whatever unique choices the director makes in terms of cinematography, casting, narrative tone, and plot structure. The villain will always be inhumanly Evil, and his imprisonment or destruction is a feat to be celebrated.
Luthor is not only narrated by the villain. It is so oriented towards him that the Justice League appear more as roadblocks in the path of Luthor’s progress than as brave heroes trying to save the world. By putting us in Luthor’s shoes and asking us to have sympathy for the Devil, Luthor becomes something too daring and subversive for Hollywood. He becomes a villain whose primary motivation to kill Superman becomes so linked to our positive drive for achievement and hope for success in our endeavors that his motivations become recognizable and empathetic, even as Luthor himself remains cold, calculating, and willing to sacrifice anyone at a moment’s notice. Through this story, Luthor becomes too much a creature of our world for the silver screen to contain him, at least in its current understanding of “superhero” movies.
Perhaps the genre will continue to evolve, as it has in the comic book format, and we will finally see an adaptation that does this graphic novel justice.