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In promoting the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Jesse Eisenberg has described his character Lex Luthor on multiple occasions as both complex and realistic.
While the character’s 75+ year comic book career supports the former assertion, the latter seems demonstrably untrue — until you look at current events in the U.S. political sphere. From archnemesis to commander-in-chief (and back), below is a primer on the many sides of Alexander Joseph Luthor.
The Mad Scientist
For many years following his debut in 1940’s Action Comics No. 23, Luthor — the “Lex” didn’t appear for two decades, until 1960’s Adventure Comics No. 271 — had one defining trait: He was an evil scientist who would let nothing stand in the way of his quest for…evil, apparently. (Motivations were not a high priority in early comics.)
In his early years, he attempted to launch a war in Europe, plunge the U.S. into an economic depression and drop the atom bomb just to have the upper hand in his war against Superman — a war, it would be established in the ‘60s, that got started as the result of a science experiment gone wrong that teenage Lex blamed Superboy for. (It was that accident that cost Lex his hair, it was revealed, playing up his vanity in addition to his ego.) Luthor, it seemed, had few redeeming qualities — until he became a family man.
The Obsessive Genius
One of the strangest comic book storylines surrounding Lex Luthor is his involvement with an alien planet that came to be known as Lexor. Originally introduced in 1963’s Superman No. 164, Lexor was a planet in a neighboring solar system to Earth that revolved around a red sun, meaning Superman would be powerless when visiting. It was discovered by the Man of Steel in an attempt to find a location where he and Lex could finally sort out their differences via an old-fashioned fistfight (Superman won, of course). But when Luthor and Superman teamed up to save the inhabitants of the planet from extinction, it gave him a taste for doing good — and launched a long-running series of stories in which Luthor alternates evil schemes on Earth with a second career as hero on Lexor, where he also finds himself a wife and, eventually, a son.
Sadly, Luthor’s happiness was not to be, unsurprisingly; comic book villains don’t get happy endings, even reformed ones. In 1983’s Action Comics No. 544, one of Luthor’s plans to humiliate Superman backfires with disastrous results. Lexor is destroyed, killing everyone with the exception of Superman and Luthor. The story ends with him declaring, “You’ve taken my family from me … You’ve taken my world from me … I’m coming for you, Superman… And I have only just begun to hate!”
The Corporate Raider
Luthor’s revenge would be derailed by the fact that, just three years later, DC hit the reboot button for the Superman mythos with writer-artist John Byrne’s 1986 Man of Steel miniseries. In an attempt to recast Luthor as a contemporary threat, Byrne — with significant input from writer Marv Wolfman — reintroduced the character as a businessman driven by his own ego, obsessed with destroying any threat and compelled to name every business pursuit after himself (hence his primary company being called LexCorp, for example).
The new Luthor shied away from direct confrontation with Superman, preferring to manipulate others into getting their hands dirty. But don’t worry. Despite that seeming like an upgrade in strategy, he wasn’t really any smarter than the old Lex. Not only did he refuse to believe that Superman was Clark Kent when it was suggested to him — he couldn’t understand the idea of a powerful man wanting to hide his strength for any reason — but he also ended up dying from radiation poisoning from a kryptonite ring he wore for a number of years.
He recovered by placing his still-living brain into a cloned body and pretending to be his own son for a number of years. However, perhaps it’s better if we just gloss over that.
The Political Maverick
Not content with being a powerful businessman (albeit one who was periodically thrown into jail for any number of criminal schemes), the year 2000 saw Luthor turn his attention to political science, not only running as an independent candidate for the position of president of the United States, but winning. Yes, in Superman: Lex 2000, Lex Luthor really became the commander-in-chief of the DC Universe — a status quo that lasted for a surprising number of years, much to the disbelief of Superman, who pretty much spent the entire time exasperatedly wondering why everyone else seemed to have forgotten that Luthor was an outright supervillain.
He needn’t have worried though. In 2004’s Superman/Batman No. 6, Luthor managed to overstep even his expanded boundaries by blasting out of the White House in an Iron Man-esque suit of armor while hopped up on a special drug that included liquid kryptonite. To make matters worse, his replacement CEO at LexCorp had sold all the company’s assets to Wayne Enterprises, leaving him, for the first time in decades, on the fringes of society and forced to rough it like a common hoodlum.
DC’s 2011 line-wide reboot reset Luthor’s status quo yet again, allowing him to take a position that is, in many ways, a combination of each of his earlier incarnations. Yes, he’s a mad scientist obsessed with Superman, but the majority of the world still sees him as a compassionate businessman. Or it did until the events of the 2013 series Forever Evil, which ended with Luthor teaming up with the Justice League to save the world from supervillains from an alternate world and set up Luthor’s successful attempt to join the Justice League in 2014’s 30th issue of its current series.
Despite the suspicions of both Superman and Batman, it appeared that Luthor’s motivations were (almost) pure. He simply found the adulation he received as a good guy to be enough of an ego boost to want to keep saving the day. And he managed to manipulate his way onto the team by uncovering Batman’s secret identity to speed things along. He continues in that role to this day.
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