As one of the most iconic villains in superhero fiction, it's not a surprise that Lex Luthor almost as many live-action incarnations as Superman. The character has been tackled seriously, comically, and occasionally with real psychological care, each portrayal bringing some new approach to the Man of Steel's main bad guy.
With Jon Cyer taking on the character for an upcoming role in Supergirl, we're looking back at the previous live-action versions of Lex Luthor, running down out which ones stand out the most, and which are better left forgotten.
Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs Superman)
The Lex Luthor of the film serial Atom Man vs Superman was portrayed by veteran of the silent era of cinema, Lyle Talbot. However, due to the lack of special effects available at the time, the serials are decidedly more dialogue based than most Superman stories should be. Sadly, Talbot doesn't get much of a chance to use his physicality, and the serial isn't interested in focusing on his character.
Really, the serial just uses Luthor as a faceless villain; he may be an evil genius, but he lacks any of the other iconic elements of the character. All that's left is a wooden bad guy that just doesn't impress beyond the small moments of campy proclamations he gets to give as the masked Atom Man. Talbot had the skill to give a genuinely good performance, but the serials never really give him the chance to do anything more than deliver dialogue in a stilted manner.
Scott James Wells (Superboy)
For the first season of Superboy, the show was a much more low-key endeavor than most takes on the Superman franchise. Due in part to the lower budget, the series was more focused on smaller conflicts at the college both Clark Kent and Lex Luthor attended. Scott James Wells plays a heartthrob version of Lex, who is already rich and villainous despite just being in school, a version of Lex who is both smarmy gambler and scientist.
Much like the show, this version of Lex just isn't all that memorable. He's a one-note villain driven by sheer jealousy and not much else. When Lex loses his hair and becomes a full-blown bad guy, Wells go as campy as he can, but he still doesn't leave much of an impression.
Jesse Eisenberg (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
There's a good performance somewhere in whatever Jesse Eisenberg is doing with the role. Recasting Lex Luthor as a Silicon Valley weirdo does a good job of contrasting against the idealistic but mopey Henry Cavil version of Superman, but the actor fails to successfully meld the disparate elements of the character that appear in the film, making for a weird mishmash of a villain. He jumps from bizarre weirdo to a man trying to be threatening and back again in a performance that just makes him a more confusing than impressive.
The reasoning for his hatred for Superman is inconsistent and generally comes across as evil for evil's sake. Unlike other hammy takes on the character that embrace the silliness and find an edge of menace in it, Eisenberg just comes across as a mess of a character. It's disappointing, especially given the layers Eisenberg has successfully given other complicated geniuses. There's potential here for something interesting, but this version of Lex Luthor just doesn't ever feel complete.
Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns)
One of the things that makes talking about Kevin Spacey's take on Lex Luthor is the reality that comes with the actor following accusations against hime alleging sexual assault. It's difficult to say that you can really enjoy a Spacey performance anymore, but that's not the reason his version of Luthor from Superman Returns doesn't hold up. From the day the film was released, people had issues with the performance is that he played the part mostly as a riff on the performance Gene Hackman gave as the character, but with a little added malice and furious rage.
This is a Lex Luthor who seems to genuinely hate Superman, going as far to shank him with a chunk of kryptonite. But, as with most of the film, it's mostly just imitation for the sake of imitation. This version of Lex is very broad, not defined any further than just being Lex Luthor. His hatred for Superman should feel incredibly personal, but it never transcends the basics of their relationship, resulting in a performance that's basically a cover version of the character.