‘Batman v Superman’, ‘Young Justice’, and a Contemporary Lex Luthor

I’ve talked a lot about Batman v Superman before, including this post about how much I love its version of Lex Luthor. And I’ve talked about Young Justice plenty as well. But I don’t think I’ve ever actually discussed the differences between the two different interpretations of one of the few elements they have in common – Lex. That’s a shame, because it’s important. Especially as of season three. So here goes.

Let’s start with the reminder that Young Justice took eight years to release its three seasons. That is extremely important to this, because the first two seasons were very different from the third in a lot of ways. I…didn’t really enjoy season three. You might have noticed that from the fact I never actually wrote anything about it. Sure, episode four was the best episode of anything ever. But the season as a whole was trying too hard to lean into the cultural zeitgeist. It was trying so hard to be relevant to today that it a) felt instantly dated and b) didn’t actually delve deeply into any of the political themes it seemed to think it was exploring. A bunch of teenagers used social media as an organizational tool; there was a fissure between the heroes based on what they believed they should do; no one appeared to learn any lessons from the previous seasons and continued to lie, deceive, and abuse their powers to be met with no real consequences. None of that really went anywhere meaningful. They were just disconnected points without a coherent narrative connecting them and driving them forward. And arguable the biggest victim of that was Lex.

A very vocal group of people expressed a lot of hatred for the BvS incarnation of the character. He’s not physically intimidating, they said, he’s too goofy, he’s more like the Riddler than Lex! Let’s for a minute accept that premise. So BvS Lex is “too goofy”. And yet…season three Young Justice presented Luthor as an goof, blathering about fake news and far less competent and intelligent than the versions we saw in the preceding seasons. I didn’t see nearly as many complaints. How is that different? Well…I think that goes to what people really expect to see out of Lex. Just as with Superman, we’re talking about a character that’s been around for decades. There are many possible interpretations, each as valid as the last. Others might disagree, but I personally believe the version that’s best in a situation depends upon which version of what character he’s being pitted against. That’s something Batman v Superman did extraordinarily well. It’s something Young Justice didn’t really do at all.

Young Justice leaned into the idea of Lex as a fictionalized version of Donald Trump. It was the pinnacle of how season three sought to tell a more political story. And it’s understandable. Of course it is. We’re talking about a villain known for his hatred of an immigrant, real estate ties, and brief tenure as president of the United States. The problem isn’t the interpretation. What is…Trump is a symptom, not the real problem. Trump is not the be all, end all of racism and villainy. So taking shots at Trump is fine…but without actually taking that somewhere, in terms of him as a counterweight that reflects something in a different character, it doesn’t end up meaning anything.  And Young Justice placed him in opposition to Gar, not Clark or Halo or M’gann, and did so without leaning into the idea that Gar doesn’t quite fit in. So making him a Trump analogue fell flat for me, because it didn’t mean anything, didn’t explore what’s actually terrible about Trump. Trump == Bad. Sure. True. But that’s not anything challenging. It’s not a real argument or a political stance. It’s lazy. It’s the easiest shot that can be made, the argument that there’s one bad guy that’s the real problem and not the systemic issues that led to that one guy. It’s the equivalent of Resistance Twitter, those signs at protests claiming that if Hillary won, we’d all be at brunch and reminiscing about Obama, professing to have strong opinions about politics when those strong opinions can be summed up as “I hate Trump”. It’s shallow. It’s empty.

This kind of political story does nothing to challenge some of the worst abuses of power in today’s world – CEOs paying starvation wages to workers whose labour built the companies in question while raking in millions themselves; tech companies that disregard all data privacy laws; the fossil fuel executives that gleefully set the world on fire and are doing everything in their power to stop anyone from putting it out. That’s what I love about the BvS interpretation – at its core, it’s a story about power and corruption.

What makes this version of Lex scary is he’s not over the top. He’s not at all laughable. He’s not a direct parody of any real world figure, but he brings many of them to mind. He’s unthreatening looking, but powerful beyond comprehension. Because it’s not about physical appearance or public image or any such thing. It’s Lex Luthor broken down to his base components – hatred for Superman, wealth, power – and an exploration of what that actually means and how those parts connect. That leaves us with someone whose money leaves him able to do pretty much anything he wants and threatened by the very existence of someone with a different kind of power. It gives us someone who can hire mercenaries and actors, bribe senators and kill them, do pretty much anything he pleases with no oversight…until people start to stand together in opposition of that. It’s a villainy that goes beyond a person and into systemic corruption.

BvS presents a much more compelling, nuanced, and meaningful take on a Lex Luthor for the modern age than Young Justice does.  And it does that through not trying so hard to be relevant. By not giving into the temptation to reference current events through politicians or businesspeople, it yielded an enduring take on a villain. It’s one that was relevant when the movie came out, relevant now, and will continue to be meaningful as time progresses.

Villainy in ‘Batman v Superman’

No other superhero movie can hold a candle to Batman v Superman for me, and a major part of that is because of how great a villain this interpretation of Lex Luthor is.

Lex is a very well developed villain. He’s spectacularly intelligent, enough to manipulate both Clark and Bruce into doing exactly what he wanted them to do. Lois is a brilliant journalist, and she had both the intelligence and the connections she needed to fit the pieces together, but she only had the pieces she needed out of pure luck – a bullet lodged in her notebook giving her something to go after. Lex’s plans were effective enough that even after Lois figured it out and intervened in the fight, after Clark and Bruce joined forces, after Bruce rescued Martha, he still got what he wanted in that Doomsday killed Superman.

What’s even better about this interpretation of the character? Lex drives the plot. He’s undeniably the villain. But what tips him over the edge into being a great villain rather than just a good one is that throughout the movie, he forces the characters to develop through the way he influences the others that exist in the universe. He pushes others to become villains.

Lex represents all of humanity’s worst instincts. He brought out the worst in Bruce, in random citizens – the xenophobia, the hatred, the cruelty. He manipulated Wally and used his anger at Superman to push him into going to the Senate hearing. His own hatred of Clark doesn’t stem from fear of the unknown at all. It isn’t due to ignorance or stupidity, it’s about him wanting to demonstrate power and inspire fear. It’s about him hating not being the most powerful person in the room.

He brought out the bad within us, and gave Clark a chance to demonstrate the best – Clark still saved Lex’s life even after Lex kidnapped his mother, shoved his girlfriend off a roof, and tried to make him a murderer. Clark tried to negotiate with Bruce rather than fight, despite the fact that he thought Bruce was a killer and had no reason to believe in his goodness. So much of the movie was devoted to breaking Clark down: the angry mobs telling him to go home, news reports accusing him of being a murderer, the Senate holding a hearing about him, Batman physically beating up. But even after all that, he still had enough faith in people to think that reason might work, that Bruce would help him save his mother. Clark is the single most heroic character in the movie.

Lex failed in large part by underestimating the women. He knew that Martha and Lois were important to Clark, but he couldn’t grasp just what that meant. He was so caught up in his refusal to see Clark as human, he never thought that Lois could love him enough to put herself between him and the maniac with a spear that was trying to kill him. He never considered Bruce loved his mother so much, was so traumatized by her death, that her name would help him forge a connection with the alien he hadn’t seen as a person. He never thought that Bruce and Clark would both have enough decency to stop fighting and work together. Lex understood human hate and human fear. He didn’t understand human love or compassion or mercy. The concept of heroism is one that he couldn’t grasp.

Lex is a scary villain because his plans didn’t fall apart due to holding the idiot ball, or because he wasted time to gloat or explain every aspect of his plan. He’s terrifyingly reminiscent of people we see in the real world, of leaders of hate groups. His plans failed – loosely, as I said before, his actions still resulted in the death of Superman – in arguably the most optimistic way possible. He was ultimately wrong about human nature. After an entire movie of bringing out the worst in people, those people proved him wrong when they decided to be better. He manages to be a terrifying villain and win while at the same time, helping demonstrate a hopeful message about good triumphing over evil. Now that is quality writing.