Truth be told, I was strongly considering listing this villain as No. 1, but the nostalgia of my number 1 is just too powerful.
So anyway, adding onto what I was saying in my last villain post, I think television is a great opportunity to heavily change a character over time. This becomes especially interesting with a well-developed villain. We are able to see him on every step of his descent, and we are saddened when we see his humanity shine through, because his fall into darkness is inevitable. I would really like to do an almost episode-by-episode analysis of the character (maybe I will someday) but I’ll do my best to condense it into a few paragraphs here.
No. 2. Lex Luthor from Smallville. I know, crazy right? Domenic’s Number 2 villain of all time is on a WB/CW show? The same network that brought you such teenagery (should be a word) trash as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill? That network?
Yes indeed, I kid you not.
While the show is mainly about Clark Kent becoming Superman, and I love that, the best part of the show for me was always the Lex story. Because we know why Superman does what he does, he’s Superman! He’s everything we want to be, but Lex in many ways is everything that we are. What could drive a man to attack Earth’s savior? As Chloe herself stated on the show, “Lack of love Clark, some say that’s the definition of true evil.”
Lex is a man who envies. As I’ve stated before, I like when a show or a movie tells you everything you need to know about a character with just one shot. This moment for Lex came on a relatively generic first season episode of the show, something about a hostage situation and Clark and Lex were stuck inside, I don’t quite remember.
Anyway, when they’re rescued at the end, Clark is embraced by his parents while Lex looks on from afar. Even though his friendship with Clark wouldn’t end for another few seasons, and he wouldn’t ultimately become a villain for a few seasons after that, it is in this moment that we completely understand why he ends up on the path of the adversary.
He wants everything that Clark has, especially a loving family. Lex’s mother died when he was young, and his father is a twisted and evil man. Much like Benjamin Linus, Lex is an unwanted child. He was made bald at 9 years old by the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth. Thus, his father Lionel Luthor saw him as a crippled and imperfect son; hardly the worthy successor to the Luthor empire. In addition, Lex’s little brother (the good son that Lionel had lost in Lex) died as a baby and Lex was blamed for it, further placing the mark of Cain upon his forehead in Lionel’s eyes.
This distorted upbringing is especially sad when considering that Clark is who he is because of his parents. If the two boys had been raised by the opposite families, perhaps Lex would be saving the world from Clark. Without getting into too much detail, as it would take a long time (well, seven seasons) to fully explain Lex’s transformation, suffice it to say that everyone he cared about turned their backs on him.
Above and beyond, Lex wanted to be a hero. To gain the love and admiration of the Earth, in order to make up for the love he didn’t receive from his family or his friends. And yet it seems that the Earth doesn’t want him. In other incarnations of the character, once Clark is Superman, he’s the hero Earth wants.
Lex sees himself as the savior of mankind, and he sees Clark as a threat to humanity. This started to come out near the end of the seventh season, when Lex tries to kill Clark in order to save the world. Which is a valid complaint when you think about it, if Superman was anything but the nicest guy of all time, he would be a monumental threat. And what’s stopping him from becoming selfish or vengeful? Maybe not much; as the Joker reminds us, all it takes is a little push.
Of course, many of the major steps on his journey toward villainy could only happen within a sci-fi setting. However, they point to very human desires and issues. There are quite a few of these but I’ll highlight a couple of key moments. In season 4 the two sides of his personality are split into two different people. We all have these two sides of ourselves, and we all fear that the wrong one will win out in the end.
As Lionel tells Lex at the end of the episode, “A man can’t deny his true nature Lex. We’re Luthors, son. We’re Luthors.” Lex’s knowledge of this side of himself is part of what makes him give in to that side. In the sixth season, he is married to Lana Lang for a brief time. She marries him partially because she is pregnant with his child. In what seemed on the surface like a silly, soap opera-esque plot twist, it turns out she wasn’t really pregnant and it was all a trick to get her to marry him.
Upon thinking on this further, haven’t we all done things to try to secure the love of another? Not as crazy and sci-fi as what Lex did, but similar things. He really did love her, and he was afraid she wouldn’t love him in return so he tried to give her a reason to be closer to him. Who among us can’t understand loneliness?
Like many good villains, Lex sees himself as the hero. But he feels that he must do extreme or even harmful things to accomplish his goal of saving the world. His final descent comes near the end of season seven, and it is when (a slightly reformed) Lionel stands in the way of Lex’s goal. Lex murders him.
Lionel was an evil man, who had murdered his own parents to start his empire. And yet, Lex’s similar actions make him even worse than Lionel ever was, as we see in other versions of the Superman mythos. Though it’s sad and hard to watch at times, this is my favorite episode of the series. The opening scene between Lex and Lionel that ends with the tragic patricide is incredibly well done and is the unavoidable conclusion of the entire series’ conflict between the two.
Sure, you could say that Lionel held back the key to Lex’s quest to save mankind, and that’s why he killed him. But the real reason is that Lex had wanted to kill his father for a long time, because his father didn’t love him. Is it really such a crime to desire a father’s love or a friend’s support? Lex has been left behind by everyone he ever cared about and it made him a cold man. Can any of us really say we’d act differently in his position?
The transformation is solidified in the episode when Lex’s inner child appears to him in a dreamlike sequence, representing his last shred of humanity. Lex drags the boy into the fireplace and thrusts him into the fire, while exclaiming “you make me weak.” With all the things he did, he could still have turned back. But he destroyed himself and any chance at redemption he might have once had. The saddest part is, in his mind he did it in order to help people. He thinks he has to be a monster to fight monsters.
There is a common misconception of the comic book genre, as well as the sci-fi genre. Yes, on the surface the Batman series is about a guy who dresses up in a silly costume and beats up other people in silly costumes. But it’s really a deeply psychological tale about a man who’s still just a scared little boy in an alley, crying over his parents dead bodies. He never really left that alley.
And you could say that the Star Trek series is just a bunch of silliness about flying around in space. But the people are really just looking for themselves out on that final frontier. They’re in a crucible the size of the universe itself. So even though Lex’s descent is marked by clones, aliens, and superpowers, the real story is about a little boy who grew up unwanted by even his own father. A boy who wants to save the world, but the world wants someone else.
A boy who would be more than content to live and die on a farm in Smallville, Kansas, but has sadly been exiled from any such hopes or dreams. Lex’s story is one that we all must heed, because we could become him; and more importantly, we could create him.
We dare you to find a television show or movie that Domenic has not seen and most of them he owns. For this reason he has become a walking encyclopedia of anything you would want to know on the topics of TV and movies. When he’s not watching flicks, he’s writing screenplays. Stay tuned for those.