Lex Luthor: A Study in Supervillainy

I’m in the process of writing a script for a graphic novel. I’ve devised my main characters and have gotten stuck around writing the story for them. I got to thinking about the role of antagonists in stories. I decided it was time to bring on the bad guys, and as such I thought about popular comic book villains and heroes.

If you think about any good story you’ve read or watched it has a good villain.  A good series has good villains. Batman has interesting and challenging villains; the Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Bane, and Rhas al Ghul. Superman on the other hand has some lame villains; Lex Luthor, Mr. Myxlplyx, and the Toymaster.  However, Brainiac, General Zod, and Doomsday are great Superman villains.

Luke Skywalker had Darth Vader. Sherlock Holmes had Professor Moriarty. Neo had Mr. Smith. The Yankees have the Red Sox.

What makes a villain compelling is how he (or she) relates to the main character. Villains and heroes tend to want the same thing, but each desires a different outcome. In Star Wars, Darth Vader wanted a clean and tidy well run galaxy. He wanted peace at a price. The price was people’s freedom and civil liberties.  Follow the Empire or get crushed. It was the Emperor’s way or the highway. Luke on the other hand wanted to defeat Vader and the Empire. I’m guessing we’re lead to believe the Rebellion wanted democracy of some sort. In retrospect, it is kind of unclear, but we’re pretty darn convinced Luke is the guy we’re rooting for. Luke, and the audience, are for freedom and liberty. Vader is clearly not.

Looking at Superman and his villains, Lex Luthor is his most popular adversary. In my opinion, he is also the lamest. Lex Luthor is probably as smart as Superman, but he’s not a physical match and has to use his genius toward the end of destroying Superman. I think the current incarnation of Lex is simply out to destroy Superman because he has a skewed sense of protecting the world from godlike superhumans.

The only thing that keeps Superman from totally eliminating Lex Luthor is his sense of morality. Superman has a supersense of justice. He does not feel it’s his place to be judge and jury over Lex Luthor. He continues to let Metropolis’ justice system do what it will with Luthor once Superman thwarts him in his latest sinister scheme.

As a storyline it works a couple of times. Over time, it gets very repetitive. Lex Luthor can’t win against Superman otherwise the comic series comes to an end. Superman continues to thwart Lex repetitively.

Superheroes need supervillains. Superman fighting regular humans, even sinister genius humans, gets boring fast. Superman is a godlike being who’s only weaknesses are kryptonite and his friends repeatedly getting captured and used to bait him into traps. Superman is at his best when fighting godlike beings. Darkseid is a great villain for him. He’s truly the opposite of Superman with godlike powers. Brainiac and General Zod give Superman a run for his money. If Superman has to break a sweat and work hard to defeat his adversaries, his audience will be gripped to their chairs wanting to know what happens next.

Superman is a great hero. He represents the best in all of us and what we all strive to become. He is a champion for truth, justice, and fairness. He’s loaded with compassion for humans and Earth. He is the best friend anyone could ever want.

So what about poor Lex? Lex Luthor would make an excellent adversary for Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s truly the opposite of Bruce. Each want similar ends but with different agendas. Bruce wants to make Gotham City safe for its citizens, he’s a shrewd and moral businessman, and prone to taking the law into his own hands.

Lex on the other hand is a heartless businessman, would do everything he could to wipe out WayneCorp, and take out the Caped Crusader. He’s like the dark shadow version of Bruce Wayne. Bruce is about justice and fair play while Lex is about achieving a goal by any means necessary, even ruthless means. Lex is a wolf while Bruce is a guard dog.

Each are mortal and control high tech multi-billion dollar businesses. Bruce invests money in crime-fighting gadgetry in his Batcave. Lex develops technology and gadgetry to take out crime-fighters and to implement global domination. I think Lex squaring off against Bruce Wayne would produce a great series of battles that would be a constant chess match between the two. Add the Joker to Bruce’s life, and he’s got some issues to contend with for quite a while in Gotham City.

The key to good villainy in storytelling is that a villain must have the ability to destroy the hero. Yes, Lex can wear a kryptonite suit, or simply carry a chunk of the green rock on his person, but it’s a deterrent and not proper villainy. It becomes gimmicky and cheapens the storytelling aspect between Superman and Lex.

Ultimately its a balancing act. Storytelling is an art, not a science. Finding that balance is part of the game of writing good fiction. If you find that a story isn’t working, look at the villains. Are they a match for the hero? Can they beat the hero? If a hero has to sweat to win, there will always be an audience for such stories.

This entry was posted in heroes, pop culture, villains, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lex Luthor: A Study in Supervillainy

  1. Vello says:

    Intersting. I Agee with this part of your analysis: that often the heroes and villains want similar things and use similar methods to achieve. Batman is a thug who wants to hurt people: the Joker us a thug that wants to hurt people. They both use their superior intelligence to achieve this end because for each of the it’s not just about thuggery, it’s about being clever too.

    I disagree to some extent on the Luthor reflections though. I think it depends on the author/ writer of the story. On the one hand, Luthor is a racist. On the other he’s seeking self determination for humans. I often think of him as an atheist railing against God: ever if God does exist as he clearly does in the Godlike superman, he shouldn’t meddle.

    On top of that, Luthor represents in some ways, the crowning achievement of brains over brawns. Supe ain’t too bright, and it’s nice to see him get beat by raw intelligence (consider how awesum it is to watch him get his ass handed to him in Dark Knight Returns). Speaking of DKR- Miller got it right: both Supe and Bat represent forms of fascism. Bat’s is dark and sinister: nut Supe’s is worse because it’s clean and bright and dressed up in the American Way. It’s a velvet glove police state that can look through walls, hear your secrets, and act unstoppably to eradicate crime.

    Once you see Supe this way, no matter how noble his intention, Luthor becomes a much more sympathetic character.

    • dashbannon says:

      I agree with your assessment about Lex Luthor as a Superman villain, but in a sense that would make him an anti-hero, not a villain. An anti-hero is a guy on the wrong side of the tracks with a questionable past who does the right thing. If Luthor was after Superman because he wanted to save humanity from total dependence on a super being, that actually has some logic to it. If a reader can sympathize or empathize with a character, he ceases to be a villain.

      Case in point, Darth Vadar redeemed himself (to some extent) when he saved Luke and chucked the Emperor down the reactor shaft. At that point, we saw the humanity in Darth Vadar. Up to that point, he was an evil villain.

      That brings up an interesting point, can a villain truly be a villain if we sympathize or empathize with him. Hmm…

  2. V says:

    Hmmm. I “hmm” because many times, I think the “bad guy” that we can relate to is the most effective foil. Bad guys that are simply bad are too flat, too two dimensional. They don’t come off as human. For instance, I didn’t really appreciate the Joker in Batman until – IIRC- the Killing Joke- which pointed out that his origin essentially paralleled Batman’s- but whereas one went psychotic, the other went crazy 🙂 When I think of the Joker as someone running from a reality that is too painful for his mind to wrap itself around, I have some sympathy for him. His cruelty is no less cruel, his monstrousness no less monstrous- but he appears to be something more than just some arcane force of nature. Hurricanes kill people. Godzilla kills people. The Joker- being human- *murders* people. But he can only be a murderer if he’s a person, and to be a person you have to be more than what you define as a villain.

    Otherwise he’s just a brute force of the universe, no more culpable for his actions than an asteroid or cold weather.

    As for Vader- Vader becomes human much earlier than when he throws the Emperor down the shaft: he becomes human to us – and vulnerable- when he reaches out for his son in Empire. It is this exposure of his Achilles’ Heel that sets up the final conflict in Jedi. Without it- without the precondition of humanity- the turn in Jedi would seem contrived and artificial. But because we already know his weakness (love- how Christian!), the turning of the father against the Emperor in defense of his son makes sense.

    Whether Luthor is an anti-hero or a hero or a villain; I think it is perspective. I could easily write a story – it would have to obviously tract away from Superman canon- in which Luthor is the goodguy and Superman is the bad guy…. The telling bit is how *little* I’d have to change to make it that way. As I’ve noted: Miller got it right in DKR. Superman is a tool for American hegemony of the worst kind- if in the hands of someone like Nixon, Reagan, or Bush II. Imagine a war on terror with that guy on your side!

    At any rate, my point is that the more complex and real characters are, the more we like the story I think. Think Lecter in Silence of the Lambs: we like him precisely because of his human traits mixed in with the non human evil traits. I want my bad guys to be nuanced and conflicted, just like making the heroes nuanced and conflicted helped lift Marvel Comics. A bad guy who loves his mother makes sense: a bad guy that is just a killing machine is boring. (Which is why I have little faith that Bane will be any good in Batman 3, among other random thoughts)

  3. Pingback: Cowboys and Aliens Review (2011) | thephantomrepublic

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