Through seven decades, Lex Luthor has been foremost among Superman’s enemies. One of the most brilliant men in the world, Luthor’s intellect and talents have been directed to the goal of humiliating and then killing Superman. Luthor’s obsession with bringing Superman down baffles and pains the Man of Steel, who once thought of him as a friend.
Superman harbors the steadfast hope that Luthor might be reformed … a view that he has frequently come to regret, but has never abandoned. But for all of his efforts and ploys and plots against Superman, Luthor has failed, again and again, with plans that are less brilliant than bizarre, that are dumb as well as heinous, that follow a twisted logic that no one but Luthor can understand. Here are 16 occasions where Luthor was more foolish than wise.
16. STOLE GOLD FROM FORT KNOX — AND GAVE IT BACK
In “Action Comics” #277 (June 1961), Luthor pulls off several impressive feats, but his ego won’t let him accept the win. With Superman on a space mission, Luthor breaks out of prison, carjacks Lois Lane, and goes to Luthor’s Lair, shown for the first time. He announces a spectacular heist: stealing the gold from Fort Knox! On site, he shrinks the defending soldiers and holds Superman at bay by materializing synthetic kryptonite globes. The globes form a cage around Superman, while Luthor uses another machine that materializes a steel hand that lifts Fort Knox off the ground and then puts the gold in trucks that transform into airplanes.
Afterward, Luthor has a laugh with his crew, telling them the “kryptonite” globes were harmless fakes. He then turns sour at a newspaper headline saying Superman is still in space, meaning he actually defeated a Superman robot! A henchman points out they still have the gold, so a furious Luthor yells it’s only a reminder of his defeat — and he’s giving it back! Superman tells the robot he’s pleased it obeyed its programming to pretend to be affected by kryptonite. This story was written by Bill Finger, penciled by Curt Swan and inked by John Forte.
15. SOLD SUPERMAN’S ORGANS TO THE HIGHEST BIDDERS
Luthor’s obsession with defeating Superman turns to the macabre in this two-part “World’s Finest” story (#189-#190, November-December 1969) that begins with the Kryptonian’s dead body crashing to Earth. His will stipulates that his organs should go to deserving souls, so Supergirl provides surgeons with the tools to do an autopsy. Batman refuses the gift of Superman’s heart, but Luthor steals the whole set and auctions them off to mobsters! The Big Four Syndicate members who get the eyes, ears, hands and lungs gain superpowers; Luthor keeps Superman’s heart as a trophy.
Of course, Superman isn’t actually dead and the whole thing is a ruse to catch the Big Four for bank robbery. The “organs” came from android duplicates, so they fail — and the one who gets the lungs dies. This bizarreness, which includes a troubadour singing the ode “The Final Revenge of Luthor,” was written by Cary Bates and drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.
14. MADE A ROBOT LOIS LANE
Luthor has had an antagonistic relationship with all of the Daily Planet staff, particularly because of their penchant for writing exposes about his dirty deeds. However, the post-Crisis reboot added another dimension to Luthor’s association with Lois Lane: a mild sexual attraction. It went only one way, of course; Lane regards Luthor with nothing but disgust and contempt. However, Luthor is somewhat intrigued by Lane’s adamant refusal of his advances; she’s a woman he can’t have.
He takes it to another level in “Action Comics” #890 (August 2010), in a story written by Paul Cornell and drawn by Pete Woods. Luthor has made a Lois Lane robot with the aid of his assistant, Spalding, Kryptonian technology and a touch of Lane’s DNA. Luthor had been an Orange Lantern for a while, which revealed to him his secret desire to be Superman. He has the Lane robot to serve as his “voice of reason,” his bodyguard (it’s equipped with an arsenal) and his paramour.
13. STOPPED SUPERBOY FROM SAVING ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S LIFE
In “Superboy” #85, written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by George Papp, Superboy, on a whim, decides to prevent Lincoln’s assassination. In Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865, he learns President Lincoln is using a room across the street from Ford’s Theatre. Spotting a desk clerk’s note that reads “Important! No one must disturb Mr. L. in Room 309,” Superboy enters, assuming it’s Lincoln. It isn’t. It’s the adult Lex Luthor!
To defend himself, Luthor produces a chunk of red kryptonite, which has unpredictable effects on Superboy. This time, it makes Superboy immobile! A frustrated Superboy can only stand frozen as Luthor explains he invented a time machine to flee the adult Superman in the future. Luthor then spends the next few hours taunting Superboy, unaware of his true mission — until he hears from outside that Lincoln has been shot. As Superboy cries, a shocked Luthor runs off with his tail between his legs. In his time machine, a grieving Luthor thinks to himself, “I’m responsible for many crimes, but this is the worst of all! Lincoln’s blood is on my hands …! I-I’m sorry … sorry … sorry… .”
12. TRIGGERED AN EARTHQUAKE TO CREATE BEACHFRONT PROPERTY
Lex Luthor was an integral part of the 1978 “Superman” movie, so much so that his portrayer, Oscar winner Gene Hackman, was second-billed, above the title, over a then-unknown Christopher Reeve in the title role. Hackman gave a hammy performance, as if he was appearing with Adam West in “Batman.” His scheme is diabolical, though: stealing two I.C.B.M.s and firing one of them at the San Andreas Fault to trigger an earthquake. This would devastate California and cause it to sink into the ocean — increasing the value of the desert land Luthor secretly bought on the east side of the fault, which would form the new coastline. Superman saves the day, although he first has to stop the other missile, which Luthor aimed at Hackensack, N.J., just to distract him.
This portrayal reveals the depth of Luthor’s callousness when Superman asks him, “Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of innocent people?” A deadpan Luthor responds, “No. By causing the death of innocent people.”
11. CREATED A NEW CONTINENT, FOR REAL ESTATE
Luthor’s fascination with real estate carries over to “Superman Returns,” the 2006 film that attempted to reboot the “Superman” movie franchise after the critical and box office failure of 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” As he says to his associate, Kitty Kowalski: “You can print money, manufacture diamonds, and people are a dime a dozen, but they’ll always need land. It’s the one thing they’re not making any more of.”
Luthor proves that truism false with a scheme similar to that from “Superman,” only grander: Luthor steals a kryptonite crystal from a museum to use its embedded Kryptonian tech to create a new continent. The rise of the landmass from the ocean would cause massive tsunamis and flooding, drowning many of the Earth’s inhabitants. Luthor figured that those who remained would have to turn to him for support. Oscar winner Kevin Spacey takes on the role this time and his performance is a bit less campy and a bit more malevolent.
10. WORE A KRYPTONITE RING ALL THE TIME, LOST THE HAND
In the post-Crisis reboot of the Superman titles, Lex Luthor is now a captain of industry, with his inventions the basis for a sprawling corporate empire. He opposes Superman for taking the spotlight away from human — meaning, his — accomplishments. In “Superman” #2 (February 1987), Luthor sends goons to Smallville to gather intel on Superman’s past. They steal a scrapbook of Ma Kent’s and hold Lana Lang hostage for several days. When Superman learns of this, he confronts Luthor, but finds himself weakening … because Luthor is wearing a ring with a gem made of kryptonite!
Luthor wears the ring constantly, just to keep Superman at bay, but comes to regret it. In “Action Comics” #600 (May 1988), doctor Gretchen Kelly tells him he’s got kryptonite poisoning. By “Superman” #19 (July 1988), Luthor has a stump where his right hand was, replacing it with a cybernetic prosthesis. He gets even worse, developing cancer and having has brain transplanted into a cloned body. He still gets worse, but that’s another story.
9. GOT TRAPPED WITH SUPERMAN WHILE TRYING TO STEAL HIS SCALP
In the contest of brain-vs.-brawn, Luthor was always disadvantaged on the power front, until he decided to even the odds in “Superman” #282 (December 1974) with his first power suit, in a story by Elliot S. Maggin, with pencils by Kurt Swan and inks by Kurt Schaffenberger. Luthor also de-ages Superman to a teenager, making him younger and dumber. Then he blew it.
Luthor zaps Superman with a “gravity caster” that exponentially increased his weight, then punches him with a pain-inducing glove, and then tries to slice Superman’s scalp off with a laser! As the super-heavy Superman sinks into the ground, he points out that Luthor is trapped, too: “You can’t escape the combined gravity of me and the center of the Earth!” And Luthor realizes, “We’ll both drop toward the center of the Earth … until I burn up from the Earth’s core!” With that, Luthor gives Superman the antidote to the aging process so he can figure the way out out of the trap — which he does.
8. DE-AGED SUPERMAN TO A CHILD, BEAT HIM UP
As much as Luthor tells himself that he represents the superiority of humans over the danger of relying on aliens for everything, we know that’s just a lie he tells himself. And we know he is, at heart, a bully. Exhibit A: The cover of “Action Comics” #466 (December 1976), where Luthor has physically de-aged Superman by 15 years or so and punches him in the back of the head with brass knuckles, gleefully exclaiming “I turned Batman and Flash into kids, and killed them — YOU’RE NEXT, SUPERMAN!”
From page one, we find that Luthor has already whammied Superman and is battling him all over downtown Metropolis; bystanders tell us on page two he did the same to Batman and Flash, just for practice. Not only is Superman physically younger, but he’s lost all of his adult knowhow, too. Figuring three heads are better than one, Superman teams with his fellow Justice Leaguers to take the fight to Luthor — and figures out how Luthor faked him out. The story is by Cary Bates, pencilled by Curt Swan, inked by Tex Blaisdell and the cover was done by none other than Neal Adams.
7. WASTED OPPORTUNITY TO SAVE THE WORLD
Following the Infinite Crisis mega-crossover and the “52” maxiseries, the “One Year Later” storyline picked up on the lives of DC’s heroes, who had not been active during that timespan. The eight-part “Up, Up, and Away” storyline that ran through “Superman” #650-653 and “Action Comics” #837-#840 (May-August 2006), co-written by Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, revealed that in Superman’s case, he had been depowered and had spent a full year as Clark Kent.
“Superman” #650 follows up on Luthor’s machinations from “52:” he still has enough clout to be acquitted of more than 120 criminal charges ranging from election fraud to high treason. However, the LexCorp board doesn’t want him back and the public has turned on him, inspiring him to destroy Metropolis by using stolen Kryptonian technology. In “Action Comics” #840, Luthor and Superman slug it out, with Supeman pointing out to Luthor that he could have helped humanity instead of engaging in another revenge scheme.
6. TURNED SUPERMAN INTO A GIANT WITH A PEANUT BRAIN
In “Superman” #302 (August 1976, by Elliot S! Maggin, with pencils by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and inks by Bob Oksner), Luthor zaps Superman’s pituitary gland, causing his body to grow up to nine feet tall. Not only that, but also he’s finding it difficult to think. Therefore, Superman calls in the Atom, who discerns that although Superman’s body is growing, his brain is still the same size. “To run your over-sized body properly, the reasoning part of your brain has to serve double duty — thereby impairing your thinking ability!”, the Atom explains, improvising an experiment to reduce the size of Superman’s body while leaving his brain alone.
Of course, Clark Kent can’t appear at work, so he calls WGBS boss Morgan Edge, promising an exclusive interview with Superman. He builds a set with giant chairs, sets a TV camera and conducts the interview, racing back and forth, switching from Clark Kent to Superman so rapidly that any viewer is fooled into believing they’re watching a seamless interview. Luthor strikes, pummeling him with explosives and his fists, but Superman gets the upper hand, tricking Luthor into thinking he’s growing too, prompting Luthor to reverse what he did.
5. KILLED SUPERMAN, THOUGHT HE’D BEAT THE RAP
Luthor’s obsessive hatred for Superman reaches its ultimate climax in “Superman” #149 (1961), written by Jerry Siegel, drawn by Curt Swan and inked by Sheldon Moldoff. In this Imaginary Story, Luthor finds a meteor of “Element Z” in the prison yard, gets permission to use the laboratory and uses it to create a cure for cancer. Because of this, Superman puts in a good word at a parole hearing and Luthor is freed, but then Superman finds himself fending off multiple attempts on Luthor’s life from mobsters. To keep him safe, Superman builds a laboratory in space for Luthor. When Luthor summons Superman with a distress signal, he finds it’s a trap: Luthor zaps Superman with a kryptonite ray and makes sure he’s dead before dumping the body back on Earth.
After a funeral with an intergalactic audience, Supergirl arrests Luthor, and he’s tried for murder in Kandor. Luthor pleads guilty, and makes an offer: “Let me go and I’ll build a ray that’ll enlarge Kandor.” Certain the Kandorians will take the deal out of self-interest, Luthor is startled to hear the judge say, “We Kandorians don’t make deals with murderers!” and promptly send him to the Phantom Zone.
4. SHOT SUPERGIRL FOR SAVING HIS LIFE
Luthor tangles with Supergirl in “Action Comics” #286 (March 1962), in a story written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Jim Mooney. Luthor creates the means to turn himself invisible and escapes prison. At the time, Supergirl’s existence had only recently been made public, and Luthor surmises that she’s a robot, but Supergirl proves she’s the real deal. While free, Luthor shrinks a bank to shoebox size to loot it later. Driving the getaway car as Supergirl pursues him, Luthor aims a “nuclear kryptonite ray gun” at her — but takes a curve too fast and shoots himself dead!
Supergirl thinks it’s wrong that Luthor should skate on his life sentence by dying, so she travels to Atlantis and to another galaxy to find rare elements to reverse Luthor’s death ray. Supergirl wraps Luthor’s body in a cocoon, and he emerges …furious that she isn’t dead. When a nearby cop exclaims “Where’s your gratitude?” Luthor snatches his tommy gun and fires on Supergirl! “You made me live again, so I’d be a gangland laughing stock!” he exclaims, “Before, I was respected! Now the other criminals will laugh at me behind my back because I was saved by you!”
3. TRIED TO MARRY LARA SO HE WOULD BE SUPERMAN’S FATHER
Sometimes, Luthor’s logic makes sens to no one but him. Such as this scheme in “Superman” #170 (July 1964), in the cover story “If Luthor Were Superman’s Father!” written by Jerry Siegel, penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein. Luthor observes Krypton through a time-scope. Displaying a shocking lack of understanding of how biology works, Luthor reasons that if he was Superman’s father, Superman would be unable to oppose him, and he resolves to marry Lara Lor-Van!
Luthor travels to the past to Krypton, posing as “Luthor the Noble” with a device that allows him to sustain Krypton’s higher gravity. Luthor is roundly dismissed when he warns Brainiac will capture the city of Kandor, but Lara is impressed when the warning comes true. Luthor uses all his charms: “From the instant I saw you, Lara, I knew you were the girl for me! Please say you’ll marry me!” And Lara thinks to herself, “What an honor to be courted by such a famous space hero! He may not be handsome, but he’s exciting!” Unfortunately, Luthor has to admit his fraud at the wedding, when his anti-gravity equipment fails! After a quick recharge, he has to run for it!
2. REFUSED TO BELIEVE PROOF OF SUPERMAN’S SECRET IDENTITY
The post-Crisis reboot of Superman, spearheaded by writer/artist John Byrne, changed various aspects of the series to make it more modern. One change was an attempt to put the “secret” back in “secret identity.” At the end of “Superman” #1 (January 1987), Luthor notices that Clark Kent regularly gets the best Superman stories in the Daily Planet, and resolves to learn why. Next issue, we see that LexCorp scientist Amanda McCoy has been assigned to the task. All known data on Superman and on Clark Kent has been fed into a giant computer to be collated and cross-referenced, as an impatient Luthor demands to know what the tie is.
The readout: “CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN.” McCoy is excited, but Luthor blows up. “I know better! I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human! Such power is to be consistently exploited! Such power is to be used!” He then angrily demands McCoy erase the data and get out. “I have no place in my organization for people who cannot see the obvious!”
1. STOLE 40 CAKES
“When no one was looking, Lex Luthor took forty cakes. He took 40 cakes. That’s as many as four tens. And that’s terrible.” Those famous words are from “The Super Dictionary,” a children’s book produced by Warner Educational Services and published in July 1978 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. The 4,000 rather goofy word definitions are written in a simple style that repeats the word in different forms, The illustrations, of DC heroes and villains, are culled from various comics, whether or not they really fit the text.
Luthor’s entry became a popular Internet meme around 2005, possibly because he’s having so much fun, laughing his head off as he makes his getaway with the cart full of baked goods. Writer Chris Roberson turned the meme into canon in “Superman” #709 (May 2011), with a flashback to Clark Kent’s high school days. Kent remembers being sent to detention and meeting Luthor: “I later found out that he was there for stealing forty cakes from the school’s bake sale. It was his revenge on a school administration that refused to let him enter a fission-powered toaster in the science fair.”
What do you think was Lex Luthor’s most idiotic decision? Let us know in the comments!