Growing up Lex Luthor was always thought of as a bit of a joke. Sure he was Superman’s arch enemy, but through his Gene Hackman movie appearances (as great as Hackman was in the role) and John Shea’s stint on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, he was often used as comic relief and made to look inferior and stupid in comparison to the man of steel. He was always portrayed as such a one dimensional character and felt like a cartoon villain. It wasn’t until Smallville began in 2001 that we were treated to a complex and realistic take on the character in Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal and boy what a portrayal it was.
The journey we got to see Lex take from Clark’s best friend and someone who wanted to do good and tried his best not to follow in his father’s dark footsteps, to Superman’s eventual arch enemy who had become a far worse villain than Lionel had ever dreamed of being was one of Smallville’s most intriguing stories and is one of the reasons the show was so compelling to watch. It wasn’t just a quick one and done character arc like we’d seen with so many other villains in the show. Lex’s downfall into the great villain he would become played out over 7 seasons and it was because of this long term storytelling that moments like his friendship with Clark deteriorating and him murdering his own father were so heartbreaking to watch.
Credit has got to be given to Michael Rosenbaum for such an incredible job in playing Lex. Rosenbaum gave the character a charm we had never seen before. He made him a likeable ally to Clark, but was also able to make us as the audience detest him and who he had become. I remember watching the show’s early seasons and Lex being my favourite character. It says a lot about Rosenbaum’s performance that by the time season 7 came around, I hated him and was ready to see him get exactly what he deserved. As we’ve seen since Smallville ended, Rosenbaum’s iteration of the character has played influence in later versions of the character such as Jesse Eisenberg’s in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, but we’re yet to see anyone so effortlessly bring the charm he did to the role.
One of the reasons Smallville’s Lex is, in my opinion, the best Lex we’ve ever seen, was undoubtedly his relationship with his father. Created specifically for the show, Lionel Luthor proved to be a genius idea and the casting of John Glover was absolutely fantastic. Watching this father-son relationship throughout the years was so intense and the way the show started off with Lex longing for Lionel’s love played a huge part in Lex becoming someone many viewers could relate to. The jealousy Lex felt over Clark and Jonathan Kent’s father-son relationship felt so relatable and it was this jealousy that would end up playing a huge part in Lex’s ‘heel turn’. I always thought it was interesting that throughout their time on the show, Lex and Lionel would swap roles and as Lex fell closer to the dark side, his father was slowly redeeming himself and trying to be a better version of himself. This all culminated with their relationship fracturing beyond repair as Lex killed Lionel in the LuthorCorp building.
Another reason I think this version of Lex is the best we’ve seen is the decision to have him start out as best friends with Clark. Having their friendship start with Clark saving his life and this leading into Lex spending the next few years fascinated with the mystery of Clark Kent made for great TV. Of course, we all knew where their paths would eventually end up, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t praying that somehow these two adversaries would find a way to remain close friends and avoid their destiny as enemies. It was Clark’s lack of trust in Lex that contributed to the Luthor becoming who he was. He even said on several occasions that having his closest friend keep so many secrets from him played a huge role in him becoming the villain he would become.
Having all these factors play a part in Lex becoming the villain we know and love just gave the character so much depth and for once he wasn’t just a one dimensional bad guy he was there just for Superman to foil. It was so refreshing to see how smart he was highlighted on several occasions as well. He is one of the smartest characters in the DC universe after all. Instead of just being portrayed as a mad scientist or a wacky business man, he was portrayed as a genuine genius and one who was willing to do whatever was needed to get the results he wanted.
Lex Luthor’s evolution from a young man trying desperately to escape his father’s shadow to an all out despicable villain capable of doing anything was one of the most entertaining journeys I’ve ever watched play out on TV and is the definitive portrayal or Lex Luthor we’ve ever seen, in my opinion of course. I only wish we got to see Michael Rosenbaum reprise the role in the Arrowverse’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover alongside Tom Welling and Erica Durance, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be… At least we got 7 seasons and then a great finale episode out of this great character.
On a final note, if somehow none of this has persuaded you into seeing that this version of Lex Luthor is the greatest we’ve ever seen (And let’s be honest, it probably already has!) then how about the fact that this version of Lex eventually went on to become the President of the United States.. Who can argue with that?!