I was thinking about Lex Luthor and his quality as a villain. Cause you know, a superhero is only as good as their bad guy. We remember Joker, Thanos, Killmonger, Magneto, Venom, Vulture, and so on. No one thinks about Whiplash, Malekith, Yellowjacket, or Aldrich Killian.
Lex Luthor is somewhere in the middle. He’s Superman’s primary villain, but he’s never had a real firm MO or personality. Whereas that works for the Joker, because he’s the embodiment of chaos, it doesn’t work for someone who’s essentially Donald Trump if he was the smartest man alive.
On one side you’ve got the Lex Luthor who was a silly megalomaniacal real estate developer played by Gene Hackman (or Kevin Spacey) whose sole henchman is a moronic cousin. The guy whose hatred for Superman comes from the fact that Supes made him bald when he flew by his lab and caused an accident in an experiment. He’s closer to a Bond villain in terms of showmanship and panache.
On the other side, there’s the Lex who became President of the United States. The Lex who manipulated Supergirl into becoming his slave. Who’s purported to be the smartest man alive in the DC universe (kind of like Reed Richards in Marvel). His primary motivation seems to be fear and ego. Fear of what someone with absolute unstoppable power could do. Ego because Lex is no longer the most loved or most powerful man in the room. Lex knows he can’t win in a fight, so he has to outsmart Superman. To be one step ahead, either by making a trap that Superman can’t break out of or manipulating the chess pieces so that he can never be tied to the crime. Kind of like Batman.
And that got me thinking — Batman and Lex Luthor are both sides of the same coin. They’re both insanely rich (and by extension, insanely powerful–everything in Gotham essentially has the Wayne logo stamped on it). They’re both insanely smart. Like there’s no way a playboy who grew up in a mansion could have become smart enough to build a supercomputer, a gadget-ridden vehicle, a chemist’s lab, a business acumen, and so on. Kind of like Iron Man.
In Death Battle, they pitted Lex Luthor against Iron Man, but I think Tony Stark has more in common with Bruce Wayne. They’re both so wealthy money has no meaning to them anymore. Both have tragic backstories. Both are inventive geniuses. Both had parents who were tragically killed–but Bruce Wayne’s were nurturing whereas Tony’s were emotionally absent. (Tony Stark’s real “mentor” was Ho Yinsen, who showed him the sins of his past). One learned how to fight, the other creates machines to do the fighting for him. One is motivated by justice, the other redemption.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Lex Luthor feels like the rival to Batman, not Superman. The difference is that Batman earned his power. He had to work for it. Lex Luthor was born with it. This is a key difference in superhero stories, and how you tell the hero from the villain.
And when it comes to the Justice League, who is Superman’s biggest rival? Batman. Despite him being a mere human, he always seems to be one step ahead when Superman goes crazy and needs to be countered. Wonder Woman can’t do it. Green Lantern can’t do it. But Bruce Wayne can, because he outsmarts him. He plans for all contingencies. In Injustice, the comic/video game that poses “what if Superman did finally start using his powers and actually getting rid of criminals”, it’s Superman the benevolent dictator vs. Batman and the rebellion. And Batman holds his own. Shouldn’t Superman be able to use x-ray vision to sniff him out, then laser him to death?
And you know all those memes and gifs of Batman outdoing Supes.
Maybe this is the only way Superman can be defeated–outmaneuvering him. Which is not a great message–strength and toughness (and projectile weapons) are the antithesis to strategy and intelligence. Superman and Batman play off each other like Captain America and Iron Man, but not as much direct conflict. They don’t have any nose-to-nose arguments debating the right thing to do vs. the smart thing to do. Just subtle quips and verbal sniping.
The difference between Superman and Batman is more “I embrace everyone” vs. “repel everyone bad”. Superman saves the butterfly, Batman kills the spider (or beats the crap out of the spider, then puts it away in an easily escapable asylum).
There are plenty of “alternate universe” Superman stories — Red Son, Injustice, Gods and Monsters, Kingdom Come, New Frontier. There’s even plenty of alternate Supermans within the canon (i.e. Bizarro, Superboy, Cyborg Superman, Steel). But I never hear about alternate Lex Luthor.
It makes me wonder if Lex Luthor’s parents had been killed by a thug while walking out of a theater, would he have turned more into Bruce Wayne? Using his super-intelligence to bring justice to those who need it?