We live in the age of heroes. Our culture is saturated with gaudily clad, caped and masked, larger than life comic book characters ready to repel any threat from domestic terrorists to alien invaders with the same solution… a good honest sock to the jaw! But were it not for one singular creation, our pop culture landscape would be a very different place today. The creation of Superman in 1938 not only brought us an enduring and beloved cultural icon, it forever changed our notion of what a hero is and what we should expect when we employ fantasy to construct them for us.
Yet, what’s a great hero without a great villain to foil in their thrilling adventures? The best villains keep them our heroes at the top of their game with fiendish feats designed to test our heroes to their physical and intellectual limits. In Lex Luthor, Siegel and Shuster brought us an enduring cultural icon whose image is as well known as the Man of Steel’s own. In the comics and numerous subsequent multimedia incarnations he’s been portrayed as a mad scientist, the ultimate corporate titan, a reluctant hero and a quirky Silicon Valley type. Let’s look at the actors who have brought this icon to life…
15. SCOTT WELLS – SUPERBOY
Unless you’re of a certain age (i.e. an age where your first time watching Superman: The Movie was in the theater) you could be forgiven for thinking that Smallville was the first time we got to see the adventures of a teenage Clark Kent getting to grips with his powers. You’d be dead wrong, however, as the growing pains of young Kal El were first documented in the (mostly terrible) Superboy TV series that ran from 1988-1992.
Set in the fictional town of Siegelville, Florida the show was the first screen adaptation to cast Lex Luthor as a contemporary of a college age Clark. Scott Wells was the first actor cast as Lex and he brought a certain sneering arrogance to the role, but the characterization was so weak the actor had very little to work with until the season finale which attempted a version of Lex’s Silver Age origin.
14. SHERMAN HOWARD – SUPERBOY
If you noticed any superficial similarities between the Superboy TV show and the live action Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s that’s because the show’s producers were the infamous Salkind brothers who produced the first three Superman movies (and bullied director Richard Donner off the set of Superman II). While the Hungarian duo have much to answer for in the world of Superman they were at least cognizant of the fact that some changes were in order in the wake of the decidedly milquetoast first season.
Gerard Christopher replaced John Haymes Newton as the Boy of Steel and Scott Wells was replaced by Sherman Howard. While Howard’s Lex leaned a little too heavily on the maniacal cackling he was certainly a more credible threat than his predecessor and it’s clear to see that he was having a lot more fun in the role.
13. STAN JONES – SUPER FRIENDS
The Hanna-Barbera Super Friends cartoon of the early ’70s occupies a similar place in pop culture history to the ’60s Batman TV show. The former, however, lacks the intrinsic charm and self-referential quality of the latter and it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as its zany pop art influenced predecessor. But that’s not to say it’s entirely without merit. The show is often a lot of fun and is, in many ways, surprisingly comic book accurate.
This cartoon gave us a Lex Luthor who was surprisingly comic book accurate for the time; taking his place as the leader of the Legion of Doom. Stan Jones brings a sense of authority and theatricality that’s fitting for the role and for this particular version of Lex, while also bringing a sense of gleeful menace when the occasion calls for it.
12. POWERS BOOTHE – SUPERMAN: BRAINIAC ATTACKS
On paper this should have been Superman’s Mask of the Phantasm. An animated straight to DVD movie lovingly rendered in Bruce Timm’s inimitable style from Superman: The Animated Series directed by series mainstay Curt Geda and featuring a returning Tim Daly and Dana Delaney as Superman and Lois Lane with cult enthusiast favorites Lance Henriksen and Powers Boothe as Brainiac and Lex Luthor respectively. It should have been a slam dunk!
Unfortunately an ensemble of good and sometimes great performances from these much beloved actors couldn’t save the movie from an uninspired script and underwhelming action. Boothe’s gravelly voice is perfectly suited to Lex but he plays it a surprising two or three octaves above his usual register making for an uncomfortably effete performance. It’s by no means terrible but it pales in comparison to what we’re used to from this version of the character.
11. CHRIS NOTH – JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS
In many ways Chris Noth should be commended as he has to pull of a tricky balancing act in this animated feature which brings us a Lex Luthor from a parallel universe in which he is the leader of the Justice League. Not only must he craft a performance that sounds unmistakably like Lex Luthor while bringing a sense of heroism and honesty that’s usually entirely absent from the character.
Borrowing heavily from Grant Morrison’s JLA: Earth 2 the film does a pretty decent job of selling a heroic Lex to a dubious Justice League (and a dubious audience). In many ways the sense of strength and sincerity in Noth’s voice is eerilie reminiscent of Tim Daly’s work on Superman yet has a gravelly undertone lending the character a sense of edge.
10. KEVIN SPACEY – SUPERMAN RETURNS
Over a decade since its theatrical release fans and film critics alike still puzzle over Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. It’s not a terrible movie. It’s not even a terrible Superman movie. It has some incredible visuals, some terrific rescues and some sterling visual effects that hold up really well. Yet the film is plagued by a sense of anachronism that prevented it from truly resonating with mainstream audiences.
In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s naturalistic Batman Begins audiences just weren’t primed for this stylized and nostalgia tinted comic book world. Kevin Spacey’s performance as Lex Luthor, while fun and well crafted is a perfect example of this. Spacey’s flamboyant and self indulgent Lex would have been right at home in 1978 but in 2006 it didn’t jive with audience’s expectations of what a contemporary Lex Luthor should be.
9. LYLE TALBOT – ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN
The cheaply made superhero movie serials of the ’40s are something of a pop culture curiosity. While Batman’s serials from 1943 and 1949 haven’t aged at all well (the former is a racist and offensive propaganda vehicle while the latter is just really, really dull) the Superman serials from 1949 and 1950 remain rather a lot of fun. Provided, that is, that you can get past the fact that Kirk Alyn’s Superman transformed into a cartoon whenever he flew.
The second serial is particularly noteworthy as it brought us the first ever live action depiction of Luthor (not yet Lex Luthor) played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot. This was the Golden Age “mad scientist” version of Luthor writ large on the big screen and while the material wasn’t always up to snuff, Talbot’s years of experience lent him a gravitas and screen presence that worked surprisingly well for the role.
8. ANTHONY LAPAGLIA – ALL-STAR SUPERMAN
Grant Morrison’s silver age influenced All-Star Superman is not only one of the writer’s greatest accomplishments in a career spanning over three decades, it’s also one of the best Superman stories committed to paper. When an animated adaptation was announced fans had understandably high expectations and while the feature doesn’t surpass the source material, it certainly does it justice.
Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia’s turn as Lex Luthor is absolutely one of the film’s highlights. The dry crackle of his voice lends this version of Lex a sense of maturity and wisdom. He nails the sneering arrogance of Lex in the scene in which he’s interviewed in prison by Clark Kent but his sense of genuine awe and humility as he temporarily sees the world through Superman’s eyes has the real emotional weight that the scene deserves.
7. KEVIN MICHAEL RICHARDSON – BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD
Veteran comic book fans loved Batman: The Brave And The Bold for its ability to honor the entire publication history of characters who’ve been around for the better part of a century without ever feeling anachronistic, self conscious or camp. The show wears its silver age influences very much on its sleeve but still manages to make its depiction of DC mainstays feel fresh and modern.
Kevin Michael Richardson (whose voice will be more than familiar to fans of animation) does a great job as a cartoonishly sinister version of Lex which owes a debt to the Super Friends cartoon. His rich bass gives the character gravity and authority even it’s clear that the actor is having a whale of a time with the fun and clever material.
6. JAMES MARSTERS – SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since Superman: Doomsday kicked off DC’s renaissance of straight to home video movies. While the film falls short when it comes to fitting the entire death and return of Superman into a 75-minute feature, it is not without its highlights, including some superb vocal performances.
James Marsters needs no introduction in geeky circles, having won the hearts of audiences as the ill-fated villain/antihero Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His voice is the first we hear, playing over a montage of images of Superman in action and his mellifluous voice is tinged by polite malice and elegant loathing. It’s a performance of real dimension too, perfectly encapsulating Luthor’s mounting rage at the fact that he was not the one who got to kill his nemesis.
5. JOHN SHEA – LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
There’s a lot about the Lois & Clark TV show of the early ’90s that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It can’t quite decide how seriously it takes itself and even by the standards of ’90s television it’s a little cheesy at times. At its best, though, it has the capacity to be one of the best representations of Superman’s world on-screen.
John Shea, for example, remains the best embodiment of Lex Luthor as post-crisis corporate slimeball to grace the screen. While his tenure only lasted one season followed by an all-too brief return (the actor hated travelling from his home in New York to the set in Los Angeles) he brought a self assured charm to the character that’s been curiously absent from most other interpretations. The love triangle between Lex, Clark and Lois was genuinely engaging and Shea’s Lex was a villain we all loved to hate.
4. JESSE EISENBERG – BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
It might not be to everyone’s tastes but there’s something to be said for an actor working hard to make an oft-interpreted role as their own. Just as there have been very different interpretations of iconic DC villains like The Joker and Two-Face there’s room for interpretation when it comes to Lex Luthor.
Lex’s silicone valley chic interpretation of Lex draws clear influence from Max Landis and, of course Mark Zuckerberg and while it may not have been the commanding, post-crisis Lex that many fans wanted to see there’s no denying the craft and hard work that go into Eisenberg’s performance. While the choices he made may not have been to everyone’s choice Justice League‘s post credits scene assured us that there is room for Eisenberg to grow into a more familiar version of Lex.
3. GENE HACKMAN – SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE
It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but in 1978 even a comic book icon like Superman struggled to be taken seriously as a viable cinematic property. For this, the first ever big budget superhero movie, the producers knew that they’d need to get bankable stars on the payroll to generate excitement for the project. Thus, revered character actors Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were secured way before Christopher Reeve was ever cast as the Man of Steel.
Hackman took some convincing to play Lex (he was extremely resistant to the idea of shaving of his beard and point blank refused to wear a bald cap at first), but nobody can deny that after committing to the project, he showed up to work. His Lex may be a little too cartoonish for some tastes but if you like your Lex Luthor shamelessly criminal, this incarnation can’t be beat.
2. MICHAEL ROSENBAUM – SMALLVILLE
Some of you may be surprised that Rosenbaum wasn’t at number one and it’d be pretty tough to argue. Even Stan Lee has gone on record as saying that Rosenbaum (who also voiced The Flash in the Justice League animated series) was the best Lex on-screen to date. Of course, Rosenbaum has the benefit of seven seasons to not only hone his acting skills but to craft probably the most nuanced and two dimensional Lex Luthor to date.
Rosenbaum manages the transition from loyal friend (a nod to the Silver Age comics) to troubled friend to buttoned down megalomaniac with aplomb and though the show had its highs and lows, every time Rosenbaum’s Lex and Tom Welling’s Clark Kent shared a screen fans knew they were in for a treat.
1. CLANCY BROWN – SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
In many ways Superman: The Animated Series is the definitive on-screen interpretation of Superman and his world. It stands to reason, then, that the show gave us an actor who has made arguably the most indelible impression on the character to date. Most actors would be proud to have one or two great villains on their resume, Clancy Brown has several. Whether he’s playing the Kurgen in Highlander, the foul mouthed and sadistic Byron Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption or even the wayward Major Schoonover in Daredevil and The Punisher he’s a uniquely menacing screen presence.
He’s no slouch in the voice department, having voiced Surtur in Thor: Ragnarok and Savage Opress in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. But it’s the role of Lex Luthor that fans love him for the most. His deep, rich voice conveys the pomp, charm and boundless arrogance that makes Lex such a compelling villain.
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