Monday, May 16, 2011

The Many Faces of Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor as President of
the United States of America
Since his first appearance in Action Comics, issue #23 in 1940, the archrival of the world’s greatest hero has evolved into a villain worthy of the classification Super. He is considered one of the top ten greatest villains of all time by both Wizard magazine and Beginning as an overweight, middle-aged, red haired mad scientist, Lex Luthor bears little resemblance to his original design. Over the years he has become slender, younger, balder and craftier. Despite these physical transformations the one constant characteristic has been Luthor’s personality. Even transitioning from a mad scientist to a corporate tycoon, Luthor was able to retain his diabolic persona. Whether on the page or on the screen, the artistic representation of the character has always incorporated one or more of the above mentioned physical attributes. Sometimes his screen persona has influenced his print incarnation and vice versa. In terms of his physical presentation the only constant key factor aside from his personality is his identifiable bald head, and even that isn’t always a constant – thank you very much Gene Hackman. Throughout the decades since his inception there have been several actors who have had the distinct honor of portraying the “greatest criminal mind of all time,” Hackman being one of them, but more on him later.

Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Ten years after his introduction in the comics, Luthor made his big screen debut in the second Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). In the film Luthor was played by versatile b-movie star Lyle Talbot (Glen or Glenda (1953), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958)). The plot of the film revolves around Luthor posing as a villain called “Atom Man,” who holds Metropolis hostage with his atom disintegration machine. Throughout the film he conducts several schemes, all of which are thwarted by Superman. This in turn causes Luthor to create a synthetic form of Kryptonite in order to subdue Superman. The film also features an early form of “The Phantom Zone” eleven years before it premiered in the comics. It is interesting to note that the character of Lex Luthor never appeared on The Adventures of Superman (1951) television series, which featured George Reeves taking over the title role from Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the serials. However, Talbot’s physical appearance as Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman did serve as the characters model in the comics for the next few years.

When Alexander Salkind and his son Ilya purchased the film rights to the Superman property in 1974 they did so with the intention of legitimately bringing the man of steel to the silver screen. In order to do so they needed talented actors to portray the characters believably. Resolving to cast A-list movie stars in supporting roles in order to secure financing they struck gold, literally, with Oscar winners Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront (1954) & The Godfather (1972)) as Superman’s father, Jor-El and Gene Hackman (The French Connection (1971)) as the villainous Lex Luthor.

Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor was much more light and comical than Talbot’s dry, straightforward approach to the character. For starters, Hackman refused to shave his head, making him the first Lex Luthor to sport a constant, full head of hair. It is alluded to that he is in fact wearing a series of wigs and for the few shots where he is bald, Hackman is in fact wearing a prosthetic cap. This vain characteristic of his personality, coupled with his elaborate underground lair and constant claims of intellectual superiority over his bumbling henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty), makes him one of the most insecure Luthors to appear on the screen. Hackman’s Luthor does mark a significant point in the characters history, shifting from the evil scientist persona towards the business tycoon of the 1980s. He retains both sets of traits, but since his principal motivation is real estate and not money that is the first step towards legitimizing his criminal organization. There are even early hints at Luthor’s future interest in politics. Hackman played Luthor in Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which saw the character return solely to his mad scientist roots.

In the 1990s, while Superman Lives (199?) was digging its own grave, Superman: The Animated Series (1996) was soaring to new creative and artistic heights. Inspired by the success of Batman: The Animated Series (1993) and the Max Fleisher Superman cartoons of the 1940s, Superman: TAS introduced the characters of Metropolis to a whole new generation of fans. Unlike most of the films that had been made, or attempted up to that point, the animated series drew direct inspiration from the comics. Showcasing an array of villain from Superman’s less known rogue gallery such as Toyman, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Metallo, Bizzaro, Lobo and Brainiac, the focal point of evil always remained Lex Luthor.

Modeled after Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Luthor is presented in his contemporary form as a scientifically motivated business tycoon. Voiced by Clancy Brown (Bad Boys (1983)), Luthor comes off as much more even keeled and confident than previous incarnations. Brown’s naturally deep voice matches the physical presentation of the character on the screen perfectly. This extra effort made in the casting helps the story retain the atmosphere of action and adventure motivated by devious intentions. One only has to look at Brown as "The Kurgan" from Highlander (1988) to see why he would have been a perfect choice in any form of the character. Calm, cool, and collected, this version of Luthor is a formidable adversary for the Man of Steel. He never lets his guard down or allows his emotions to get the best of him, like a disciplined intellectual warrior. Brown has continued to voice Luthor in post- Animated Series endeavors making his portrayal of Luthor the longest in the characters history.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor
Superman Returns (2006)
Almost twenty years after Luthor last appeared on movie screens filmmaker Bryan Singer (X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003)) brought him back as the principal villain in Superman Returns (2006). For the role of Lex, Singer cast long time collaborator, and fellow Oscar winner (The Usual Suspects (1995), American Beauty (2000)), Kevin Spacey. Once again Luthor is occupied with acquiring land for the purposes of real estate development. In many regards Spacey’s take on the character is a rehash of Hackman’s performance from the first two Superman movies from the 70s and 80s. Although Spacey’s delivery is drier and his demeanor is a little more bitter and angry, his overall performance echoes Hackman’s from thirty years before, right down to his choice of henchmen and extensive wig collection. It is uncommon knowledge that the film was intended to be a sequel to Superman II (1980), which would explain the stark consistencies between the two renditions of Luthor. However, if that was the case, Singer shouldn’t have spent as much screen time re-establishing the characters and jumped right into the action of the story. Spacey was going to reprise his role as Lex Luthor in the abandoned Superman Returns sequel before the current reboot was commissioned.

Michael Rosenbaum as
Lex Luthor
Smallville (2001-2011)
The most recent face attached to the Luthor legacy is Michael Rosenbaum, who portrayed a young version of the famed Super Villain for seven consecutive seasons on the television series Smallville (2001). Throughout the series Lex struggles to define himself as a man of honor, unlike his father who he perceives as a monster. Beginning with good intentions, Lex is gradually drawn into the unexplained mysteries surrounding his friend, Clark Kent (Tom Welling). Lex ultimately becomes fixated on Clark and their friendship deteriorates into a bitter rivalry as Lex sinks deeper into the shadow of his father. Rosenbaum delivered arguably the best portrayal of the character to date. Aside from a fantastic cranial structure he possessed all of the inherent characteristics of Lex from every incarnation of the character, plus he knew when to use them and how much to give in each performance. Intelligent, conniving, charismatic, sympathetic, romantic, humorous, deceitful are just some of the attributes showcased in his performance as Lex. After his departure from the series the show took a big hit, not just in terms of plot and character, but in overall quality. Rosenbaum reprised his role for the series finale at the end of the tenth season, which aired on May 13th, 2011. For the few scenes in which he appeared it was as though no time had passed. He fell right back into the character’s personality with impeccable delivery and presentation. His will be a hard act to follow, but it will be interesting to see who dawns the dome against Superman in the future.

It really doesn’t matter whose face, or even whose skull is portraying Luthor. A character as dynamic and complex as Lex relies on attitude, plain and simple. If the actor possesses the right qualities that are consistent with the character then physically they just need to have a shaved head, and as Hackman proved they don’t even need that, although he’s not the shining example of the character either. Everyone has their favorite and it usually correlates with their generation. Who they grew up with, or who they are the most familiar with, not taking into consideration, or investing the time in anyone else. Thus as time continues to pass so will the faces of timeless characters like Lex. 

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