Superman’s iconic arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, has captivated audiences for decades with his cunning intellect, boundless ambition, and relentless pursuit of power. Since his debut in the pages of Action Comics #23 in 1940, Lex Luthor has become one of the most recognizable and enduring villains in comic book history. As Superman’s greatest adversary, he has been brought to life in various live-action adaptations, each presenting a unique interpretation of this complex character. In this article, we explore the different portrayals of Lex Luthor in Superman movies and TV shows and delve into the remarkable evolution of this captivating antagonist.
Lyle Talbot – Superman Serials (1948, 1950):
Lyle Talbot portrayed Luthor in the Superman serials of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although these black and white serials had limited budgets and a different approach to storytelling, Talbot’s portrayal brought Luthor to the big screen for the first time. Talbot’s Luthor was a criminal mastermind, driven by a thirst for power and dominance. While his appearance was less polished compared to later adaptations, Talbot’s performance laid the groundwork for future interpretations of the character.
Gene Hackman – Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987):
Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor in Richard Donner’s “Superman” franchise from the late 1970s and early 1980s left an indelible mark on the character’s cinematic history. Hackman’s Luthor was a criminal mastermind, brimming with intelligence and wit. His portrayal emphasized Luthor’s human qualities, relying more on his manipulative prowess and scheming nature rather than his physicality.
Scott Wells and Sherman Howard – Superboy (1988-1992):
In the TV series “Superboy,” two actors portrayed Lex Luthor across its four seasons. In the first season, Scott Wells brought Lex Luthor to life, showcasing a young and ambitious version of the character. Wells captured Luthor’s intelligence and manipulative nature as he schemed against Superboy. However, starting from the second season, Sherman Howard took over the role of Lex Luthor. Howard’s portrayal was iconic, portraying Luthor as a charismatic and conniving villain with a theatrical flair. Howard’s Luthor was a worthy adversary to Superboy, with his cold intelligence and a deep desire for power.
John Shea – Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997):
In the TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” John Shea portrayed Lex Luthor as a charismatic and suave businessman. Shea’s portrayal presented Luthor as a powerful and influential figure in Metropolis, with a charming demeanor that hid his nefarious intentions. He skillfully balanced Luthor’s public persona with his behind-the-scenes villainy, showcasing his intelligence and manipulative nature. Shea’s portrayal of Luthor provided a compelling foil to the titular characters, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the series.
Kevin Spacey – Superman Returns (2006):
In Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” Kevin Spacey brought his own brand of menace to the role of Lex Luthor. His portrayal drew inspiration from Hackman’s iteration but added a darker and more malicious edge. Spacey’s Luthor was a cunning and egotistical mastermind, determined to control the world’s most valuable resources and eliminate Superman as an obstacle to his plans.
Michael Rosenbaum – Smallville (2001-2011):
In the long-running TV series “Smallville,” Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of Lex Luthor provided a fresh and nuanced take on the character. Set in Clark Kent’s formative years, Rosenbaum depicted Lex as a complex figure torn between his friendship with Clark and his growing obsession with power. Rosenbaum’s Luthor evolved over the series, gradually succumbing to darkness and becoming the quintessential villain fans love to hate.
Jesse Eisenberg – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016):
Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of Lex Luthor in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” took a departure from previous portrayals. Eisenberg’s Luthor was a young, eccentric genius with a chaotic and unhinged personality. This version of Luthor emphasized his manipulative tendencies and his obsession with dismantling Superman’s god-like status, pushing him to orchestrate a conflict between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight.
Jon Cryer – Supergirl (2015-2021):
In the TV series “Supergirl,” Jon Cryer took on the role of Lex Luthor, becoming the first actor to portray the character on the small screen since Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal in “Smallville.” Cryer’s Luthor brought a calculating and Machiavellian presence to the show. He displayed a cold intelligence, using his wealth and influence to manipulate events and gain an upper hand against Supergirl and her allies.
Titus Welliver – Titans (2018-2023):
In it’s fourth season, HBO Max’s “Titans” introduced Lex Luthor, played by Titus Welliver. Revealed to have a terminal illness, Luthor leaves his empire and legacy to Superboy, the clone he created using his own DNA mixed with that of Superman’s. While his appearance was short-lived, Welliver’s portrayal of Lex Luthor brought a level of gravitas and wisdom to the character.
Michael Cudlitz – Superman & Lois (2019-Present):
When we’re introduced to Michael Cudlitz’s Lex Luthor in Season 3 of “Superman & Lois,” the visionary billionaire behind LexCorp is serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Hellbent on enacting revenge on the those he feels wronged him, including Lois Lane, Luthor feels his wrongful conviction cost him his relationship with his daughter. To get to Lois, Luthor sets into motion a plan to remove those who protect her, namely her father and head of the DOD, General Sam Lane and the Man of Steel himself, Superman.
Throughout the history of Superman movies and TV shows, Lex Luthor has been brought to life by various talented actors, each adding their own unique interpretation to the character.
With each adaptation, Lex Luthor has remained a formidable adversary to Superman, embodying intelligence, ambition, and a relentless pursuit of power. The different portrayals of Lex Luthor have allowed audiences to explore the complex psychology and motivations of this iconic villain, making him an integral part of the Superman mythos.
In the ever-evolving world of superheroes on screen, the character of Lex Luthor continues to captivate and challenge both the heroes and the viewers, leaving an indelible mark on the legacy of Superman in movies and television.