Last week, we checked out the fashion evolution of Luthor in the comic book medium. But Luthor is a villain who has been interpreted across the board in other forums. And there’s also been a few heroic interpretations of the character. Let’s take a gander now, eh?
BUSINESSMAN OR ATOM MAN?
In Atom Man Vs. Superman, Luthor was depicted by Lyle Talbot as a corrupt private businessman who was also quite the scientist in his spare time. Depending on the scene, he either sported a black suit or had thrown a lab coat over it. It was simple but let you know both aspects of the character pretty quickly.
Ah, and here is the famous titular villain of the movie serial, the Atom Man himself. My God, that’s a ridiculous helmet. So big. So sinister. So bald. Hey, you don’t suppose… Yup. That’s Lex Luthor in a big honking mask and robe, masquerading as a villain called Atom Man. Because what better disguise is there than a mask that looks like a cartoon version of yourself?
Now some of you might be thinking, “Wait, I thought the Atom Man was a super-villain with cool powers that fought Superman.” Well, in the radio show, you are correct. But in this movie serial adaptation, it was just Luthor playing dress up.
Lex Luthor did not appear in the live-action series that starred George Reeves and it would be decades before he showed up in television media again.
Luthor appeared on the Super Friends cartoon by Hanna-Barbera. Rather than have him in a drab prison uniform, a simple lab coat or a suit, they gave him this purple super-villain outfit with the ridiculous collar. He continued wearing this as the show became Challenge of the Super Friends. I discussed this look already in Part 1 for those of you who missed it. That collar. It haunts me.
As the cartoon entered the 1980s and became the SuperPowers show, Luthor got the warsuit he was sporting in comic books at the time. This is a pretty direct interpretation, so again, check back on Part 1 for what I thought of this armor.
In live-action media, Gene Hackman portrayed the character in Superman: The Movie. By then, Luthor had been portrayed as a sinister scientist who had known Clark Kent in Smallville for almost twenty years in the comics. Despite this, Hackman’s character was far closer to the con-man interpretation that had risen in the late 1940s and lasted throughout the 50s. Luthor was clever and manipulative, but rather than coming up with complex, high-tech weaponry to take over the world, he was more interested in stealing other people’s weapons as part of an elaborate real estate scheme.
And even though Luthor had been depicted as a bald man since the early 1940s, Gene Hackman refused to shave his head of wear a skullcap for the whole film. To indicate Luthor’s baldness, Hackman wore a skullcap only for his last scene and had his hair done and redone in various styles throughout the film, implying that he was wearing a variety of wigs. Whereas the movie serials Luthor played by Talbot had worn simple suits, Hackman switched between looking like a professional and looking like a zany car salesman.
Although Christopher Reeve became the definitive Superman for many after this film was released, the same could not be said of Hackman as Luthor. While many were entertained by his performance, he didn’t strike the same chord and even people who didn’t read the comics wondered why this villain wasn’t bald as the newspapers, cartoons and action figures had him be.
After the 1985 crossover comic Crisis on Infinite Earths, Luthor was reimagined as a corrupt businessman with a great talent for manipulation. New interpretations of him in other media followed this example. In the 1980s, the short lived Ruby Spears Superman cartoon series depicted Luthor as a businessman in a purple suit.
Not long afterward, Luthor appeared in the live-action Adventures of Superboy series and tended to wear simple, casual clothing (shirts and slacks). Luthor was actually played by a couple different actors during this show, which was explained by saying that the character had gotten extensive plastic surgery (but he still couldn’t get his beloved hair back). Occasionally, this version of Luthor wore strange disguises that often involved false wigs, which fit the general ridiculousness of the show.
In the 1990s, John Shea played the villain in the live-action series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Like the comics of the time, Shea’s version of Luthor was a highly successful businessman who operated many corrupt operations. As such, he tended to wear nicely tailored, expensive suits rather than simple black ones.
This idea was continued with Michael Rosenbaum when he took on the role of Lex Luthor for the series Smallville. In this series, he was the heir to a business empire and became friends with young Clark Kent when he moved to Smallville, Kansas. As the show went on, Lex became increasingly corrupt as well as powerful, moving from casual business attire to power suits. In the movie Superman Returns, Kevin Spacey continued the Gene Hackman interpretation of the character, but wore suits more in keeping with Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal.
Following Lois and Clark, we got Superman: The Animated Series. This took place in the same continuity as Batman: The Animated Series and its continuity would later continue into the shows Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Together, these shows were considered to comprise their own DC Animated Universe or DCAU.
Again, Luthor was seen as a corrupt businessman who sometimes dabbled in science. Here, he wore a black power suit, but he was also given broader shoulders and a more intimidating build. Subtle touches that implied a dangerous guy, not just someone who had other people get their hands dirty. Voiced by Clancy Brown, this depiction of Luthor became the definitive version for a new generation of fans.
When Luthor appeared in Justice League, he found out that he was suffering from Kryptonite radiation. Rather than admit defeat to death and re-evaluate his life, he decided to find a new solution and recruited the aid of the sinister scientist villain Ultra-Humanite. A team-up between them is funny to me, since it’s possibly the confusion between Luthor and the original interpretation of Ultra-Humanite that led to Lex being depicted as bald instead of a redhead. Anyway, during this adventure, Luthor sported a purple shirt and green pants that brought his Super Friends uniform back to mind but had modernized it into something that didn’t scream “disco super-villain.” Very nice tweaks. Unlike that other outfit however, this was not a suit equipped with miniaturized technology. It was just clothing.
With the Ultra-Humanite’s help, Lex got a new life support suit to keep the cancer at bay. But since Lex isn’t the guy to play it safe under any circumstances, this suit also acted as personal battle armor with highly advanced weaponry. And in an ironic twist, it convert the Kryptonite radiation in his body into raw power.
Hence, the cartoon had brought back the beloved warsuit, able to fire Kryptonite radiation beams. And it’s not a bad reinterpretation at all. Although I’m not sure Lex took into account that at some point he may want to turn his head during a fight.
Later on, the cartoon Justice League Unlimited played with Lex’s look more. The warsuit went away and we had adventures where Lex was in a prison uniform (similar to how he was often portrayed in the 1960s comics). And then he started wearing suits again. And then he joined forces with the villain Brainiac is a rather unique way that made him a true super-villain with incredible power. This design certainly fits that, making him look otherwordly, perhaps even godly.
In the last season of Justice League Unlimited, Lex went back to wearing a simple, utilitarian jumpsuit. Instead of purple and green, we now went with an all-green number. And honestly, after all the other looks, this one is kind of dull. What’s more, it bothers me that it gives an impression of the military. Lex wants people to bow to him, but I don’t want to associate him with recognized authority figures (even if he did become President of the U.S. for a while in the comics).
LUTHOR ON INFINITE EARTHS
Like any comic book character, Lex Luthor has been depicted and reinterpreted in dozens of parallel universes and out-of-continuity realities. But one version of Lex keeps coming back and back again, in some form or another. The heroic Lex Luthor. The first major version of this was when Superman journeyed to Earth-3, a parallel reality where people we knew to be heroes were actually villains. Rather than having the Justice League of America as protectors, this Earth lived in fear under the reign of the Crime Syndicate.
Here, the bearded Alex Luthor was a heroic scientist and eventually decided enough was enough. He made himself high-tech armor and worked as a hero. Thinking a superhero alias would just be silly (and since he wasn’t wearing a mask anyway), he just went by his real name and even printed his initial on his chest plate.
Now, on one hand, we still have the classic Lex ego of putting your initial on everything you can find. But other than that, this costume speaks to what a different personality Alex has. Lex’s high-tech armor was called a warsuit and it looked the part. You saw Lex in such armor, you knew he wanted to fight. Here, the only indication of technology is Alex’s belt and rocketpack. So we know the suit is high-tech, but we don’t immediately think of weapons or a fight. Alex doesn’t want to fight. He will if he has to, but he’s a man of peace. By miniaturizing his technology and dressing in such a way, decorated by primary colors (like a certain Kryptonian), he is immediately giving the impression of a much more noble warrior rather than someone bent on conquest.
Alex had a son, Alexander, Jr. This boy became a hybrid of positive matter and anti-matter energy and served as a savior of sorts during Crisis on Infinite Earths. Though his entire universe was destroyed, Alexander helped save the rest of reality. Sadly, this led to a darker path later on. But as for a design, this armor definitely fits his status as an otherworldly being with strange power. This isn’t battle armor or a warsuit, it’s a life support system that stabilizes his power and makes him look a little angelic.
After the Crisis, Superman encountered yet another heroic (though far more egotistical) Lex Luthor who lived in a “pocket universe.” This Luthor wore gold and white battle armor that looked quite similar to Lex’s green and purple warsuit. It’s a very nice design, but I’m not sure about the white. Maybe if those pieces were black with white trim? Just a thought.
In the graphic novel JLA: Earth 2, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely brought back the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. Rather than saying the team lived on Earth-3, it was now stated that these villains ruled the version of Earth that existed in the anti-matter universe that Green Lanterns have often journeyed to (a reality which survived the Crisis). The anti-matter universe was the positive matter universe’s twisted reflection. And so, we once again got a heroic Luthor but this time not one who looked the part.
This heroic Luthor looked just like our Lex Luthor and wore a warsuit similar to the villainous one. In fact, this was the first time the warsuit had returned to comics since the Crisis. It would be another few years before President Luthor of the mainstream continuity would build his own high-tech armor to combat Superman directly.
It’s a nice take on the warsuit and it was, at the time, a pretty funny callback. But since this is supposed to be a heroic Lex, I’d like to have seen it with the colors altered. The helmet having a design that mimics the chest-plate is a nice touch, though.
Now, there was recently a Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon series starring the famous team of the 31st century. Teenage Clark Kent visited this future often and had quite a few adventures with the LSH. In the episode “Legacy,” he met a rich girl named Alexis who seemed nice at first but was clearly an egomaniac. She didn’t understand why people didn’t consider her desires first or automatically defer to her status and wealth. When Alexis realized Superman prioritized the Legion’s emergencies over hanging out with her, she decided to take out the heroes with goons and advanced weaponry.
The rich, redheaded sociopath was defeated and lost quite a bit of hair during the battle. But despite being sent to prison, she was satisfied that she now had a purpose in life, to take down the Legion. And if you haven’t picked up on all the similarities to a certain villain who was alive 1,000 years earlier or the fact that she has the letter L decorating her purple suit, just look at that prison uniform name. Those letters spell out “LUTHOR” in Interlac, the common language of many planets in DC Comics.
Yes, I read Interlac. Why don’t you?
Last year, the animated film Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths was released, written by the great Dwayne McDuffie. On top of being an awesome film, this story gave us yet another heroic version of Luthor living on the Crime Syndicate’s Earth. And here we’ve got a whole new take on the battle armor. Gold and black. Simple. Effective. The gold definitely makes him look more noble and heroic than most other colors would. Yes, I dig this quite a lot.
If you haven’t seen JL: Crisis on Two Earths, by the way, you really need to get on that. Even people with little knowledge of comics books have enjoyed this film while seeing it. Great story, fun reinterpretations, and a couple of surprising twists.
RECENT TWISTS ON EVIL
Back to the villain we all love to hate. I normally don’t go into Elseworlds books, but we’re already talking about alternate realities. And the story All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely has been hailed by so many people and has affected so many fans, it would be impossible to ignore. Recently, it was brought to animation, garnering even more fans. In the initial chapters of this story, Luthor is wearing a prison uniform. But later on, after adopting Superman’s abilities, he wore this rather interesting number.
It recalls the old Super Friends jumpsuit, but is a mad scientist twist on it. Is that a sleek trench coat, a lab coat or some ceremonial robe of a world conqueror? Is he about to work in the lab or is he about to torture you for information? This outfit works on all those levels and proves that simple does not equal boring.
Most recently, a new version of the evil Lex Luthor has appeared in the video game DC Universe Online. This is the warsuit but on a whole new level. This Luthor’s armor screams to everyone that it is designed for power and destruction of anyone and anything standing in his way. He looks like he’s wearing a tank and that’s just the impression he wants to give. Very cool. It looks absurdly heavy, but still very cool.
And look at the time! That brings another column to a conclusion. I do hope you enjoyed this look at Lex Luthor’s media interpretations and his heroic counterparts. Feel free to send suggestions for new topics to my Twitter feed @SizzlerKistler. And until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.