The Lois Lane Effect

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That’s why Lois Lane is so perfect for him. She’s the perfect blend of firebrand, intelligent opponent and total doormat. And she’s hot.– Lois Lane as defined by “Jimmy Olsen”

Writing is hard. One of the hardest aspects of writing is evoking drama in a made-up story. Who really gives a shit if Mark Hamill has to sit in a fake plane in order to make a toy ball explode? This is where emotion comes into play: if the audience can relate to a conflict, even if it is contrived, they will be invested in that toy ball exploding. And of course, the easiest way to go about doing this is to shove into plots the greatest of all contrived conflicts: the quest for sweet, sweet nookie.

Fred Durst approves

Fred Durst approves

As i mentioned in another post of mine, modern Romantic fiction (and not just guy meets girl stories) was codified during the Middle Ages of Europe, with much of the coda coming from the Chivalric code. A man fights through everything from other men to Hell itself in order to prove himself worthy of his lady. It was supposedly as true for real life knights as it was for Lancelot himself. As such, this basic tenet of manliness passed on till modern times, where pretty much any “real man” in fiction has to kick ass and get laid (in either order). This sequence is especially important in the superhero genre.

           Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

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The golden standard for superhero love interests is Superman’s longtime girlfriend Lois Lane. Debuting in the very first issue of Action Comics, (where Superman first appeared) Lois is as old as the hero himself. Given that these were stories meant for children, their relationship was no more complex than ” Clark wants Lois. Lois wants Superman. Conflict. Ironically, she was actually more progressive than the characters she inspired in her Golden Age 1930’s-40’s appearances, being assertive and only occasionally used for “save the girl” plots.

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The Fleischer Superman cartoons even had her fighting in World War 2 as a covert agent.

And the ” Baddest Bitch ” award goes to…

This characterization ceased during the “Get Back In The Kitchen!” 50’s and the rise of the Comics Code Authority, which literally had doctrines such as “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage“. This led to the Lois Lane who became a bane upon Superman and comics and general. She was reduced to an annoying hanger-on who’s only concern was marrying Superman.

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The biggest loss for the franchise was that she ceased to even have a reason to be around anymore. Golden Age Lois served as a challenge for Clark since he had to win her over without being Superman. She was a badass character in her own right which justified her astronomical standards. Reducing her to a satellite love interest nullified that romantic conflict and replaced it with a series of ” zany ” marriage schemes. You’d think she needed a green card or something. What was even worse is that as she became more arbitrary, her prevalence in media increased, to the point where she got a whole series dedicated to her desire to bone Superman.

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Lois was never good with linear reasoning

Batman #157 (August 1963)

Vicki Vale CompetitionGiven that Superman is the quintessential superhero, several other franchises had a Lois Lane equivalent just to keep up with the Joneses. Batman had Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger in the film) who was a reporter who wrote about Batman, intending to find out his identity and bone him (in either order). Oh, and she didn’t like Bruce Wayne that much. Sounds familiar? Barry Allen aka The Flash got his own model in Iris West, yet another “intrepid reporter” who couldn’t figure out his secret identity until they were already married. “Intrepid” must be old timey slang for “idiot”.

Marvel Comics dealt with this trope better in the 60’s, but still with a few Lois Lane influences. Before the arrival of plot tumor Mary Jane, Peter Parker started off with Betty Brant, who was sort of like a deconstruction of 50’s Lois Lane. She was also clingy and jealous, but instead of being played entirely for laughs, it was actually a serious relationship problem which caused him quite some grief.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15 (August 1964)

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He then went on to court Gwen Stacy, who began as actually quite vain, being interested in Peter literally because he had the nerve to not try boning her.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31 ( December 1965 )

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Once their relationship became settled, however, she started to become yet another satellite love interest. So much so that Marvel editors thought the most interesting thing they could do with the character is kill her off.

      Journey Into Mystery

Nurse Jane Foster Dreaming of Thor

Marvel’s other flagship hero, Thor, had a love interest in Jane Foster (who was carried over into the films but more on that later) back in his ” secret identity ” days. A doctor’s assistant in his mortal form’s (Donald Blake) practice, Foster and Blake were mutually attracted, but he thought she only pitied him due to his handicap (he couldn’t walk without a cane). This was exacerbated by the fact that she was (you guessed it) also attracted to Thor, but they couldn’t consummate due to Odin’s plot-drama doctrine of “don’t let mortals know about your secret identity”. To be fair, this dynamic was interesting at times because it injected a bit of classical myth: human/god coupling is an issue in almost every religion. Nevertheless, it was dropped once Thor stopped being a part-time human all-together and rationally decided to have sex with hot god babes instead.

Following suit with Thor, most superhero franchises drifted away from the generic love interest formula moving into the next few decades. Dimensions were added to pre-existing and new love interests. Many became (with varying levels of quality) “tougher” to compensate for previous portrayals. Lois Lane, the progenitor herself, was one of the first to get her metaphorical balls back.

                                                      Man of Steel

Maybe a little too much balls...

Or maybe her literal balls…

Some ladies went the Jane Foster route and were just phased out of focus; Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s first love Carol Ferris became more important for becoming a hero/villain (it’s complicated) in her own right. Their love affair became just one of many flings for the bachelor hero. On the darker side of the spectrum, some were used as macabre drama fodder, such the aforementioned death of Gwen Stacy. Comic writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “Women In Refrigerators“, referencing a controversial Green Lantern story where the hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and…well you could probably guess…

Green Lantern #54 (1994)

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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!?”

Obviously a fucked up trope it is in it’s own right, many writers consider this equally terrible (if not worse) as just having a living shallow love interest.

For the most part, the role of superhero girlfriend had a decent reinvention in mainstream comics. The days where love interests bogged down superhero tales were going away…until fucking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Keep in mind this is the official poster

Keep in mind this was the official poster

What Richard Donner’s Superman films were in the 70’s, Spider-Man was to the current generation. It reinvigorated the comic film and also set the stage for how these films will be adapted. This included how love interests would be integrated. And boy was it an awful model for it, since Mary Jane pretty much eclipses EVERYTHING in the film series. The film’s events unfold as such:

1. Peter takes a picture of MJ and gets bitten while he’s distracted

2. Peter becomes a wrestler with his new powers because he wants to buy a car to impress MJ (leading to his life-defining negligence)

3. Peter incorporates red into his costume because it’s her hair color (fuck patriotism, I guess)

4. Peter’s relationship with Harry is strained due to a love triangle with MJ

5. Norman Osborn goes on a homicidal rampage because Peter hooked up with MJ

And that’s not counting all of the damsel-in-distress nonsense. Fuck Norman Osborn; SHE’S clearly the antagonist of the film. The second film takes this even further by beginning with Peter’s voice over stating that ” She looks at me everyday. Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy! If she only knew how I felt about her “. The film basically establishes it’s premise as ” It’s all about MJ! “. Forget nuclear armageddon guys; how’s Petey going to go to MJ’s play? Is MJ going to marry that astronaut guy who we’ve never seen before? Pressing issues indeed.

While i wouldn’t say that these films necessarily caused an insistence on superhero love interests, it wouldn’t be too wild to assume that film producers, always eager to emulate the success of hit movies, saw this as an affirmation of the Lois Lane formula. This meant that every hero who had some canonical squeeze had a love story shoehorned into his film.

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

As mentioned before, Thor and Jane Foster’s coupling was an artifact of his secret identity days when his human persona already had a longstanding relationship with her. Yet, she’s placed in the film (albeit with a different job) as the woman he falls in love with in about three days.  Once again: Asgard. Hot god babes. C’mon.

Ditto

Seriously guys?

For the Iron Man films, they took Pepper Potts who he only occasionally fucks when he’s not fucking super-models or super-heroes or anything with a hole in it, and turned her a convenient satellite love interest. In contrast, in the comics she eventually married Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau’s character) until he died, so it wasn’t even like her and Tony had that serious of a relationship. And as for Nolan’s Batman films, I had no issues with the character of Rachel Dawes (who was a pretty good moral compass)…buuut then he forced in a last minute hookup with Selina Kyle that was as plausible as the end of John Hughes’ Career Opportunities (and no, I don’t expect you to get that reference).

Good thing he isn't world-famous or anything...

Good thing he isn’t world-famous or anything…

As much as i’ve grown to be wary of love interests in comics, i’d be bereft to call them necessarily a bad thing. As i mentioned in the beginning, this trope’s defining nature is its relatability. Love is the most ubiquitious real-life concern; it’s something most people want and desire. And not everyone is necessarily smart about it. People do get obsessed with relationships and often put aside other important things in order to focus on them. And in the hands of a good writer, a love story can elevate a hero. With that being said, it’s a trope that needs moderation. If there’s a narrative point in a relationship, so be it, but it shouldn’t be a necessity for every hero. Those unfortunate stories with Lois Lane were made during a time when the country was trying to avoid certain truths. No one wanted to admit women could be independent. No one wanted to admit marriage wasn’t as great as we all believed. To some extent, we’re still thinking that way. But things are changing. And as we change, our heroes (and heroines) should too.

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For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bat In The Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

For more posts on Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As A Classic Anti-Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more posts on Romance in fiction:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implication Of Romance In Hollywood

Don Jon Review

Three Forms Of Comedy In Justice League

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In a way, comedy is the art form of the masses. Most people can’t play the cello or perform ballet, but almost everyone can make someone laugh ( hopefully, not during sex ). Not everyone knows why people laugh, however. There are a legion of theories on comedy dating back to Ancient Greece, but for the sake of argument, i’m going to narrow it down to just narrative comedy. Let’s say there are three forms of comedic plots that come out of mainstream media: situational, character-based, and farcical.

To compare and contrast these three forms, i’ll use the animated series Justice League Unlimited as a base. For some background: Justice League Unlimited was a series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2004-2006. It was the culmination of the extensive DC Comics animated universe created by character designer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and writer / producer Dwayne McDuffie. Why this series? Because it’s fucking awesome! More importantly, while listening to the DVD commentary for one of the episodes ( yes, people do that sometimes ) i was intrigued by an offhand remark by series lead artist Bruce Timm who noted that, unintentionally, they released three episodes that almost perfectly fit the three forms of comedy around the same time. This is especially funny since JLU is definitely NOT a comedy series ( at least most of the time ). I decided to re-watch those episodes to examine that claim…

1. Situational

I’m pretty sure most of you have heard of the film pitch of “X meets Y“. This is reflective of the “dartboard” approach to screenwriting, where writers literally just combine random ideas in order to create a concept. When done poorly, the results are awful. For example: ” Urban black culture meets Sci-Fi “.

Homeboys In Outer Space (1996-1997)

When done well, it can create hilarious spins on familiar stories. Much of the comedy from Shaun of The Dead ( 2004 ) derives from the fact that the main characters seem to be right out of a lighthearted romance film…yet they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hilarity ensues. The film Analyze This ( 1999 ) revolves around a psychiatrist’s relationship with his new patient…who just so happens to be a mob boss. Hilarity ensues.

The central idea  of situational comedy is “humor derived from incongruity” ( and yes, i just made that up ). When things don’t quite match up, they can be funny. The most common form of this is “fish out of water” plots which put easily identifiable character-types in situations they shouldn’t be in. Situational comedy leans mostly on dialogue and chemistry, since the disconnect has to be established by characters interactions. For example the series Frasier builds a lot of its humor from the snobby Crane brothers interacting with their working class father and friends. The biggest threat to this concept is if the initial premise becomes the only joke that can be made. One of the most maligned examples of this trope is “white guy / black guy” films where all of the humor can be summed up quite quickly…

In short, a good situational comedy BUILDS off its incongruity.

The Episode – Kid Stuff ( August 11 2004 )

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The Premise – Mordred, punk-ass son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend, obtains a macguffin known as the “Amulet of First Magic”. The amulet gives Mordred ultimate power, which he uses to get back at his mother and all adults of the world ( which includes the Justice League ) by banishing them into some kind of limbo dimension. Morgan Le Fay, seeking to undo her son’s spell, finds a way to counteract the magic…by turning the League into little lads and lasses! ( i’m sorry )

How does it work? – Interestingly enough, most of the plot is played fairly straight. The situation is portrayed as fairly dire: the entire adult population is stuck in limbo for eternity and their children are left to fend for themselves. Even the heroes themselves attempt to play it straight. I say ‘attempt’ because once they’ve been reduced to ten-year-olds, they fall victim to the realities of how a ten-year-old would act in this situation.

Each character trait of the heroes is modified to a ten-year-old’s sensibility. Green Lantern’s militancy turns into dorkiness. Superman’s nobility turns into farm boy naivete. Wonder Woman’s confidence turns into flirtatiousness. Batman’s grimness turns into smartassness. What’s great about this characterization is that it saves the episode from going to the obvious “spinoff babies” direction by not having all jokes revolve around one note “aww that’s cute” humor. For example, for awhile in the series Wonder Woman has been implied to have an “interest” in Batman, which he seems to ignore because he must be the gayest man in the universe. This comes up in one scene when the heroes decides to pick teams to fight Mordred:

What makes this situation funny is that they’re STILL acting in-character, it’s just that their characters are being viewed through an exaggerated lens. Wonder Woman flirts more openly than usual, Bats is more dismissive than usual, and Supes is more oblivious than usual. Even Lantern’s jokes manages to fit in-story since he alludes to becoming more corny at the beginning of the episode. The plot of Kid Stuff manages to take a humorous AND canonical look at each character’s personality through their childhood selves.

2. Character

Some people are just naturally funny ( *cough* like me *cough* ). These guys are able to enter a room and have everyone laughing without much setup. People like these are producers’ wet dreams, because it means they can bank on a film or television project just by finding these guys. More often than not, character-based comedy draws from comedians, since they can carry shows single-handedly. The 90’s had a whole slew of these types of comedies; Martin, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, just to name a few. Often times, the character ( or characters ) is someone who is outlandish in his or her own right. A perfect film example is the The Nutty Professor ( 1963 ).

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See? I don’t even have to explain to you why that character would elicit laughter. Character comedy doesn’t ALWAYS have to be outlandish to work; characters can just be humorous in a believable way. The protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia manage to be both despicable, yet relatable. Their flaws are all based in reality: Dennis is a narcissistic guy who peaked in college, Dee is an entitled loser who has delusions of grandeur, Charlie is a slovenly pauper who’s struggled his whole life, Mac is an insecure conservative oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and Frank is Danny Devito. Good character comedy produces likable protagonists that keep us engaged. Bad character comedy creates protagonists who are so removed from reality that it’s difficult to connect with them ( a common criticism of Monk and the aforementioned Martin ).

The episode-The Greatest Story Never Told ( September 11 2004 )

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The premise – Rookie Leaguer Booster Gold is called to join in an epic conflict with the universe’s most powerful wizard…as crowd control. However, during the conflict he uncovers an equally important catastrophe, which he takes on since he’s the only unattended Leaguer. And also because he’s trying to get laid.

How does it work? – First, i’ll explain the origin of Booster Gold to you non-nerds: Michael Jon Carter was a failed football star who became a janitor in the far off future. While working at a superhero museum, he had the brilliant idea to steal several pieces of high end technology ( including a living computer named Skeets who became his sidekick ) and take a one-way trip to the current time in order to become a famous superhero so he can become rich and famous.

That by itself is a hilarious set-up for jokes. It’s like if Criss Angel was a real-life Angel who became a magician to get a free hotel room. Much of the humor of this episode comes from Booster’s superficiality: at one point he gives advice to Martian Manhunter on how he should get himself a catchier name ( which is a solid point ). When the Manhunter tries to get him to realize that being a superhero is about more than just fame, Booster agrees and asks ” How much do you pull in a year, after taxes? “. Now arguably, this is somewhat of a situational plot as well: Booster’s self-serving nature is incongruous in a world of superHEROes who should be the opposite. However, most of the episode focuses on him alone, negating many comparisons with the other Leaguers. Instead, we get a lot of jokes about how much of a loser he is. In addition, there’s great voice acting from actor Tom Everett Scott ( Dead Man On CampusBoiler Room ) as Booster and veteran voice actor Billy West ( STIMPY! ) as Skeets:

3. Farcical

Now, i know some of you have been reading and thinking” Fuck you Rob; comedy isn’t about structure! Comedy is just doing funny things!” First off, don’t curse so much. Second of all, you have a point. Some stories eschew specific plots and characters in favor of “free-form” comedy. This is where we get to ‘farce”, which means “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. As you can imagine, farce is easy to do for comedy, because all it requires is something that’s momentarily funny. The issue is the “momentarily” part. Remember when “THIS IS SPARTA!” jokes were funny? Imagine an ENTIRE film based around that?

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Exactly

Farce is probably the easiest form of comedy to fuck up because it requires a body of individual bits of humor to support it. This requires an extensive grasp of “quick comedy” ( one liners, slapstick, etc ). I think this is why older works tended to grasp this comedic form better ( The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Airplane! ) since they had their roots in silly vaudeville acts. The best modern day examples would probably be shows like Family Guy and Adventure Time, which have almost no grip on reality. As with any form of comedy, works don’t have to be ENTIRELY farcical, farce can still exist in degrees. For example, Seinfeld was mostly character and situationally driven, but occasionally incorporated outlandish elements such as the famous “Bubble Boy” who had a heated rivalry with George Costanza.

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One of the best ways to incorporate farce is as a “narrative crescendo”. One of the best examples is the film Tropic Thunder ( 2008 ). It incorporates farcical elements throughout the film, but it isn’t till the film’s climax where ( SPOILER ) a character intercepts an rpg with a TIVO ( END SPOILER ) that it becomes completely divorced from reality. Overall, farce is both the simplest and the trickiest category of comedy.

The Episode – This Little Piggy ( August 28 2004 )

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The Premise – Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, the goddess Circe, turns her into a pig. Batman has to find out how to get her back to normal. No seriously.

How does it work? – How could it not work? This is the craziest idea in the history of the series. First off, making Batman the protagonist allows for every situation to become even funnier because of how serious he is. In the picture above, Batman is caressing a pig tenderly. No more needs to be said. Secondly, the scenario leads to a bevy of of corny-yet-effective pig puns. ( a slaughterhouse worker jumps on Wonder Pig and utters the inevitable “that’ll do, pig” line from Babe [ 1995 ] ). Notably, what i’ve mentioned so far covers only character and situational comedy. So what makes it farcical? Several things. Each scene in the episode has it’s own internal logic that creates either a character comedy or a situational comedy ( or both ) in itself. When Batman loses the Wonder Pig, he has to call a guy called ‘B’wana Beast‘ who has never been mentioned before and looks like this…

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…to track her down. At one point, Batman thinks to venture to the RIVER STYX to question FREAKING MEDUSA about Circe.

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Medusa sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons and tells Batman to ask Circe for her curling iron back. Most ridiculous of all, when a character ponders Circe’s whereabouts, we get a musical number with Circe accompanied by a full band and backup dancers.

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Did she conjure that up? Is she a club regular? None of this is explained, it just happens. This all builds up to a final battle at the same club in which Batman makes a bargain with Circe in order to return Diana to humanity ( or I guess amazon-ity ). What horrible request does Circe make of Batman?

That’s it. That’s all it took to resolve the whole plot. She turned a woman into a pig and fought a huge battle just to ask for that. That, my friends, is farce.

While i wouldn’t call them reflective of the entire series, i would say these episodes reflect what’s so fun about superheroes in general. Each episode highlights how these tales can be vacillate between dramatic AND funny. In addition, they also help to show how humorous writing is almost always smart writing.

Here’s some other funny moments from the series:

For more posts on superheroes:

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Superman as Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted Into Arrow

Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on televison:

Top 5 Bullies In Fiction

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well-Intentioned Extremist

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

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“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.

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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)

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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)

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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 )

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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.

Mos4John 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clark-Kent

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).

Yes,this really is a film about arm wrestling

Yes, this really is a film about arm wrestling

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 )

superboy

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 SmallvilleAs 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.

superman-01

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

matrix11 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. tumblr_lkd3an99qz1qjx5slo1_500 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.

Lex Luthor All-Star Superman

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

For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

The Lois Lane Effect

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

And finally, Lex Luthor’s greatest sin…