“You can learn a lot from someone you hate.”-Lex Luthor, Smallville
A sage artist (Bruce Willis) once said that “Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy”. In essence, he’s saying that the villain makes the plot.
In regards to Die Hard (1988), the movie Bruce was referring too, the antagonist Hans Gruber is a cultured terrorist who turns out to just be a thief. His personality is in stark contrast to the crude McClane, who manages to outsmart the more educated Gruber with wily “street” tactics. Gruber helps define what’s heroic about McClane: his earthiness as opposed Gruber’s refinement, his brusqueness as opposed to Gruber’s smoothness. If not for Gruber, McClane would just be an asshole.
What makes a hero a hero, and actually creates the necessary conflict for a strong plot,is a villain who is his/her antithesis. Value can only come from distinction, after all. Like John McClane, most superheroes have several villains to choose from, each of which can emphasize a different conflict. Spider-Man’s antagonists Doctor Octopus, Lizard, or Green Goblin are often used as a representative of “science gone wrong” as opposed to “science gone right” (Spidey himself). On the other hand, the villain Venom is often used as an example of how Spidey’s power can be misused in the wrong hands. Superman has many villains as well, but the only one who shares the same gravitas as he is Lex Luthor, who challenges him like no other.
Superman #4 (April 1940)
Despite the prominence of Lex Luthor, his introduction was not the most illustrious. He wasn’t the first bald scientist Superman fought (that would be the Ultra-Humanite) and he wasn’t even bald for that matter; he was a ginger! Originally, he was a childhood resident of Smallville who was balded by a laboratory accident which he blamed on Superman.
Action Comics #292 (November 1962)
His anger at Superboy causes him to devote the rest of his life to super science crimes, to make him mad for some reason.In a different world, he could have put on a mullet wig and became Joe Dirt.
Joe Dirt ( 2001 )
While a dumbass origin story, it at least established the irrationality of Luthor’s personality when it comes to Superman. In a major arc of the Justice League animated series, Luthor funds a billion dollar campaign to run for president. When asked by another superhero why, he laughably claims to not even care, he just wanted to piss Superman off. Dick.
John Byrne’s Superman reboot Man of Steel revamped the character to fit the times, specifically 1980’s America. In a Reagan era country where the wealthy were viewed as acting without regard to others (as illustrated in films such as Wall Street and Changing Places),there could be no greater villain than a corrupt corporate executive. Rather than making shrinking machines for shits and gigs, he patented his brilliant innovations in order to make billions (along with engaging in some illegal activities). If Superman represents what’s considered great about America (unfettered altruism), Luthor represents its seedier side; (unfettered capitalism). The reboot removed any connection between Superman and Lex Luthor at all; Lex’s animosity stems from sheer hubris. When Lex first views Superman’s grand introduction to Metropolis in Man of Steel, his secretary sarcastically asks “How does it feels to be the second most powerful man in Metropolis?”. This sums up Lex’s reason for antagonizing Supes: his very existence is affront to his success. This version of Lex Luthor isn’t just vastly wealthy, he’s also a self-made man. He was born in poverty to an abusive father in a red light district innocuously known as Suicide Slum. He made his fortune through self taught engineering and the murder of his own father for start-up capital.One could imagine how such a man,who had to “ pull himself up by his bootstraps ” for his entire life, would react to someone who has godhood as a birthright. In real life, human beings are not the best at reacting to clear disparities in ability or resources, especially when said disparities are not “earned”.
In social psychology, this phenomenon is called “Tall Poppy Syndrome” in which “ people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers ” (as quoted from Wikipedia).
The term originates from Herodotus’ Histories, in which he claims that Greek ruler Thrasybylus implied that effective governing was akin to gardening his poppy garden, which he culled by cutting the tallest ears of wheat and discarding them. In the same vein, many versions of Lex Luthor consider themselves to be working in the public’s favor by attempting to cut down Superman and other heroes. In the series 52, Lex creates the“ Everyman Project ”, which was an effort to empower normal humans with meta-abilities, thus destroying the distinction of meta-humans. He of course wants to use the process on himself, but is told he is incompatible, leading him to kill some of his own created meta-humans.
Despite his obvious personal hang-ups, Luthor’s reaction to Superman isn’t too far off from how real people would probably react in the given situation. Think of human achievement as a whole (sciences, philosophy, etc), then think of what the existence of an advanced alien race would mean for our pride in those endeavors. Superman isn’t just stronger, he’s often portrayed as being more intelligent and possessing superior technology than even Lex.
In the film Men In Black (1997), Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is asked by James (Will Smith) why they don’t just tell people aliens exist. He responds by casually looking at the people around him and musing “ Look at them, enjoying their lives. People like to feel as if they have a bead on things ”. His observation deepens:
”A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”.
All empirical disciplines are anthropic by necessity; we don’t have the benefit of being able to ask a squid or a cactus what they think life means (yet..). This is why the terracentric model of the universe was so popular, and also why no one could imagine the Earth didn’t have the shape that we view it as having. The narrative of humans significance in the universe is predicated on ignorance,as Kay points out. Therefore, the existence of a group of beings than are not only similar to us, but also superior would be horrifically jarring (some would say Lovecraftian) since it subverts our intellectual confidence. Lex Luthor is the “ panicky, dangerous animal ” Kay refers to. Supes is a man he can’t conquer, therefore he must reign him in. This explains Lex’s affectation of “ humanism ” in recent incarnations. Democratic philosophies like humanism often have the nefarious underwriting of aforementioned tall poppy syndrome: if everyone is equal, nobody can be superior (as pointed out by Dash in The Incredibles (2004) ; ” If everyone is special, nobody is “). People naturally want to be superior to someone; without superiority we would have very little to strive for. It’s just that there will always be someone of such inherent superiority that it cannot be matched by any amount of effort. Remember, Lex still wants power for himself (hence his betrayal of Project Everyman), despite his affectations of humanism. He justifies his own lust for power through “human ” determination, as opposed to Superman’s “alien” gifts.
While Lex thinks Superman spells the end for human pride, I would say he does the exact opposite. Look to his origin: a simple farm boy who happens to lift tractors finds out he’s not human. He’s actually the last living survivor of a hyper advanced alien race. Does he become a professional athlete and make millions? No. Does he topple the government and declare the world “Kentopia”? No. He doesn’t even become a professional arm wrestler (which would have made him the protagonist in the Stallone arm wrestling film film Over The Top).
He puts on a cape and becomes a superhero, no reward necessary. Clark didn’t need to suffer a horrific tragedy (ala Batman and Spider-Man) or be given a dictum of higher calling (ala Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) in order to become a superhero, all he needed was good old fashioned hometown morals. Raised on a farm, Supes was subject to the bucolic American upbringing that most of the country would like to believe they came from. The juxtaposition between his mundane and fantastic lineage parallels Jesus Christ, who distinguished himself from the Jewish authorities (according to the New Testament) through his humility, which was a result of being born to a rural family. This upbringing prepared him to use his abilities and knowledge in order to guide humanity; as the good book says “the meek shall inherit the Earth” (Matthew 5:5). Similarly, Superman’s parents taught him a few basic tenets: take care of your family and neighbors, do no harm, be responsible. These are all things we’ve probably heard at some point in our lives and applied.
New Adventures of Superboy #16 ( April 1981 )
Clark took these ideas to heart and ran with them ; in his original continuity he even protected his childhood home of Smallville as Superboy, which loosely influenced the series Smallville. As an adult, he felt that the same neighborhood values held true on a macro-level, so he took the universe under his protection as well. His heroism is a scaled up version of most people’s. This is probably why most of the current iterations of the character emphasize how “ regular ” Superman really is. The first trailer for Man of Steel (2013) shows a series of shots around what one could assume to be Smallville. Near the end,we see an old homemade video of a young man putting on a haphazard red cape, which communicates to the audience that this is the boy who will become Superman.
While he may affect grandeur of a superhero, he’s just an optimistic kid at heart. Most works that attempt to deconstruct Superman (Irredeemable, Squadron Supreme) seem to suggest that his heroism comes from an authoritarian provincialism, especially The Dark Knight Returns where he’s portrayed as a smug stooge of the government.
The fact is, Clark never thought of himself in such lofty ways. He’s just an honest guy trying his best to use his abilities for the betterment of humanity. For all intents and purposes, he is human, and that’s what makes him Super-MAN. If such small-town morals can inspire him to be the world’s greatest hero, then that validates the humans that hold them.
Man of Steel
Abraham Lincoln once said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but it you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Despite Lex Luthor’s struggles, he’s never done anything to alleviate the challenges of his fellow man with his power. In All-Star Superman, Lex Luthor states that he could have “saved the world if it wasn’t for [ Superman ]” to which Superman responds “You could saved the world a million times if it pleased you”. Superman sees through the humanist façade of Luthor: if he wanted to better humanity, it could have been accomplished easily given his means. The fact is, he’s been engaged in a epic dick-measuring contest with Superman for almost a century. In All-Star Superman, once Luthor is confident he has started the machination for Superman’s death, he decides to bow out of life a winner, which he ironically tells to Clark Kent. Clark becomes uncharacteristically angered by this. Despite thinking he’s going to die soon, what angers Superman the most isn’t what his nemesis did to him, but the fact that he wasted his potential in a pointless grudge match. Lex doesn’t follow through with his “humanist” goals once he has defeated Superman, revealing his crusade to be a selfish pursuit. In contrast, Superman doesn’t view humanity as something to be conquered, he actually recognizes the strength of will and ability to accomplish what Lex has and is frustrated that Lex doesn’t see the kinship they share. What makes Superman the world’s greatest hero, at least according to him, is that he sees the best in humanity.
“It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then… he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him“ –Batman
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And finally, Lex Luthor’s greatest sin…