Lex Luthor's Long (And Wacky) Road To TV Respectability
It's impressive that Lex Luthor has endured as Superman's greatest nemesis for over 80 years when, for most of that time, his media adaptations made him look like a chump. You already know that his portrayal in the movies has gone from "evil real estate speculator" to "evil-er Mark Zuckerberg," but the indignities didn't start there. Luthor's onscreen debut was in the 1950 Atom Man vs. Superman film serial, where Luthor, for some reason, speaks in a German accent and wears a sparkly helmet and what appears to be a black mumu dress.
The 1966 New Adventures of Superman cartoon had a more comics-accurate take on Luthor, but it's a little hard to take a villain as a serious threat when his evil plots involve using magical marbles to turn himself into a 10-year-old boy so he can escape crime scenes undetected (the Bart Simpson "It wasn't me" defense). This version of Luthor later showed up in Super Friends, where he manages to escape prison by impersonating someone else named LL. Guess who we're talking about. (No, not Cool J.)
Cartoon Luthor became the leader of the collection of swamp-dwelling ass-clowns known as the Legion of Doom, a group infamous for not providing adequate leg protection to its members. When the comics rebooted Luthor from a mad scientist to a more realistic and psychologically complex businessman, the cartoons followed suit by ... making him even wackier. Now he wears fancier suits and owns a limo, though!
Meanwhile, in the live action front, Luthor spent the whole first season of the 1988 Superboy series as a rich frat boy who is more concerned with rigging basketball games for profit than actual supervillainy. This changed when a lab accident rendered him bald and gave him some sort of neurological condition that the actor could only portray via soap opera-esque overacting. This scene has strong "David Lynch-less Twin Peaks episode" vibes:
They changed the actor playing Luthor on the next episode, but the next guy's performance wasn't exactly understated. Next, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman went with a non-bald businessman Lex who spends his free time successfully seducing Lois Lane and having staring competitions with cobras.
This Luthor was actually promising, but just as he was becoming more like comic book Lex, he abruptly jumped off a building because the actor didn't want keep commuting between New York and L.A. to shoot the series. He came back in future seasons via increasingly ridiculous plot twists, from a reanimation machine to clones to not one but two separate secret adult children, both of whom kidnap and attempt to marry their almost-stepmom.
And that takes us to the Luthor in Superman: The Animated Series, the first one who actually turned out to be a well rounded character with a legitimate arc over the various DC Animated Universe series. Clancy Brown is the first actor to truly capture the casual evil, the massive arrogance, and the even more massive insecurity hiding within the character.
The best versions of Luthor since then have wisely stayed pretty close to this interpretation, but it's nuts that it took this long for TV writers to crack the character -- and even nuttier than movie writers haven't done it yet. But don't worry, we're probably only five or so reboots from that!
Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com.
Top image: Warner Bros. Animation