Every version of Lex Luthor ranked worst to best

For over 70 years, Lex Luthor has been Superman's most relentless enemy, and in that time, he's gone through a lot of changes. He's been a renegade super-scientist, a high-tech villain dedicated only to crime, a billionaire businessman who believes that true power comes from money and control, and a teenage rival with a grudge against baldness. And believe it or not, all those versions of Lex have made it into live-action Superman projects in one form or another.

And just like his Kryptonian arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor's journeys onto the screen haven't always been great. From awkward missteps to perfect moments, here's every live-action version of Lex Luthor, ranked from worst to best!

Jesse Eisenberg (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016)

On paper, recasting Lex Luthor for 2016 as the (slightly more) evil combination of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk is as solid an idea as the Lex of the 1980s being rebooted as the owner of a massive corporation. It's an interesting update on a take that's worked well before, and making him a younger, smarmier, and infinitely more punchable Luthor is a great way to distinguish him from earlier portrayals and help kick Zack Snyder's version out of the shadow of Richard Donner's cinematic Superman. With that in mind, casting Eisnberg makes perfect sense — if you're doing an Evil Mark Zuckerberg, you might as well get the guy who played him in The Social Network, right?

In practice, however, Batman v Superman's Lex Luthor is arguably the worst take on the character in any medium — and with the nearly endless number of comics, cartoons, and other stories out there, that's saying something. Eisenberg's portrayal as a legitimately offensive gay-panic sex creep, complete with poutily intimidating other characters by rubbing hard candy on their mouths and gleefully whipping blurry Polaroids from crotch-height at a kneeling Superman, would've come off as being a little over the top even in the '70s. Beyond that, he's working with a script that never quite gets around to explaining why Lex wants Superman and Batman to fight each other, but makes sure to spend plenty of time focusing on why he's building a big part of his evil master plan around literally pissing into a jar and mailing it to someone. There's a lot of effort from Eisenberg, but there's just nothing good here.

There is good news, though. In any other movie, this version of Lex would've easily been the worst thing about it. In Batman v Superman, though, even a Luthor this terrible doesn't crack the bottom three.

Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns, 2006)

Many viewers cite Kevin Spacey's performance in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns as one of the high points of the film. They're right, but that's also like saying that getting a taste of a melted candy bar is the high point of shoving a handful of trash into your mouth.

Spacey's Luthor is the best part of the movie by default. In a movie that's defined by being so achingly slow that Superman never throws a punch, he's the only one who actually gets to do anything. To his credit, he makes the most of what he's given, chewing scenery to create a performance so memorable that screaming "Wrong!" in Lois Lane's face became a meme in its own right. Even with that, though, there's only so much you can do.

The fact that Singer's take on Superman was a throwback to the Richard Donner films of the '70s wasn't a secret — it was, in fact, a selling point. Unfortunately, that meant that Spacey's Luthor wasn't just involved in a large-scale real estate scheme, he was also just doing a cover version of Gene Hackman's performance. In a better film, that kind of homage could've worked, but here, it's just a constant reminder that you could be watching something better.

Scott James Wells (Superboy, 1988)

The first season of the Superboy TV show that ran from 1988 to 1992 is, to put it charitably, not very good. Focusing on a younger version of Clark Kent in an effort to update him for what the promos billed as "the superhero of the '90s" was a good idea, but the shoestring budget for special effects doesn't really go well with a character whose best known quality is his ability to fly, and the stories often fell pretty flat.

In the second season, the show would add long-time comics writer Cary Bates as a story consultant and get into some pretty memorable stuff, but in the first season, it stumbled pretty hard trying to figure out how to do Superman stories that would work with a college-age hero, and wound up with a Lex that was more forgettable than anything else. As a scaled-down version of the villain he was meant to become later, Superboy's Lex was a far cry from the devious scientific mastermind that viewers were expecting, to the point where his major criminal accomplishment was attempting to fix a basketball game he was betting on.

The one really interesting part, though, came at the end of the season, where Lex went from unsuccessful point shaving to straight up murdering people and stealing their faces in the span of about a day. Unfortunately, it marked such a new direction for the show — and saw both Lex and Superboy's actors, Scott James Wells and John Haymes Newton, replaced — that the first season might as well have not happened.

Sherman Howard (Superboy, 1989)

If you've never watched them, the thing you really need to understand about Seasons 2 through 4 of the Superboy TV show is that they are wild. It's one of the weirdest versions of Clark Kent to ever hit the screen, as evidenced by the fact that the most famous piece of it is a dream sequence where Superboy is replaced by a new version of himself played by professional wrestler Lex Luger — who, despite his similar name, is not to be confused with Superboy's follically challenged arch-nemesis. But while that sequence had the excuse of being a dream to explain its goofy leaps of logic, the way the show rebooted Lex is just full-on bonkers.

In an effort to combine the classic version of Lex, who was a childhood friend of Superboy's before going evil, with the evil older businessman of the modern version, the Superboy show came up with a pretty interesting solution. At the end of the first season, after suddenly losing his hair in that classic Silver Age style, Lex murdered a local businessman and then got plastic surgery to steal his identity, with the show switching to new actor Sherman Howard to go along with it. Unfortunately for Lex, his ruse was quickly exposed, but he never got around to switching back to his original look, and remained in the body of a 50-year-old man for the rest of the series.

It's pretty bizarre, but there are some good points to it, including the fact that Howard just goes for it when he's tasked with acting like a criminally insane 20-year-old trapped in an older man's body. It does, however, raise a very important question: If Lex was that mad about losing his hair, why did he choose to look like a guy with a receding hairline?

Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs. Superman, 1950)

Given the overall quality of the Superman serials of the '40s and '50s, it might come as a surprise to find out that they managed to do Luthor as well as they did. It was, after all, the first time the character had ever been brought to live action, and despite a few missteps, Lyle Talbot's performance is pretty great.

The biggest misstep is obvious. The "Atom Man" of the title is, of course, actually Luthor, who keeps his identity secret by wearing what film critic Matt Singer accurately referred to as a bedazzled kettle with eyebrows and affecting an accent that can best be described as vaguely German. For a good chunk of the serial's 15 chapters — which amount to a whopping four hours of total runtime, in case you were thinking about dipping your toe in that water — Talbot is tasked with menacing the Man of Steel while wearing a glittery robot mascot head, and he actually manages to pull it off. The scene where he makes Lois Lane choose between two levers, promising that one will kill Superman and the other will save him, while knowing that both are actually deadly? That's classic Luthor, in a very real sense of the word.

What really makes Talbot's Luthor work, though, is how forward-thinking it seems in retrospect. The Atom Man's sinister plot revolves around a teleportation device that's essentially the same idea that Star Trek would use for its transporter beam 16 years later, and at one point, Luthor traps Superman in an "Empty Doom" dimension that predates the Phantom Zone of the comics. Even the Atom Man disguise is there because Luthor is masquerading as a legitimate businessman, an idea that would become part of his character 37 years later. For all the shortcomings of Atom Man vs. Superman (and there are many), its Luthor holds up pretty well.

John Shea (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, 1993)

More than any other live-action Lex Luthor, John Shea's version of Lex from Lois & Clark got the sheer arrogance at the core of his character. Like his counterpart in the comics at the time, this was a Luthor who was a criminal because he simply saw no reason why laws made for lesser men should apply to him, and whose all-consuming hatred for Superman was rooted in the idea that there was one person he could never position himself above.

It's spelled out explicitly in the first episode, when Superman's parting shot to Lex is "if you ever need to find me, all you have to do is look up." And when Lex finally has Superman at his mercy, he doesn't want him dead — he wants him humiliated and broken, and holds off on killing him just so that he can lord it over him for as long as possible.

But for all that he had going for him, Lois & Clark's Lex had a pretty weird path as a character. He was dramatically killed off at the end of the first season, spent most of the second dead before his inevitable return, and was then used pretty sparingly for the rest of the run. In the fourth season, Shea only appeared as a voice. Still, what there was of his Lex was good stuff.

Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville, 2001)

Smallville was another attempt at revitalizing Clark Kent for a younger audience by showing what he was like in the years before he became Superman, but there was one big problem: It was way too successful for its own good. The show was popular enough to run for a full 10 years, meaning that by the end of it, Clark had done pretty much everything you'd expect to see in a decade-long television show about Superman — including working at the Daily Planet, marrying Lois Lane, forming the Justice League, fighting Doomsday, dying, and coming back to life — all before he actually became Superman. The only thing he hadn't done by the series finale was wear his costume.

Since it had to fill a monumental 217 episodes, the show wound up trying to have its cake and eat it too with regards to certain elements of the Superman mythos. The most extreme example of this was a bizarre arc where Jimmy Olsen was killed off and passed down his camera to his young cousin, also named Jimmy Olsen, so that there could still be a Jimmy around to be Superman's pal later. Lex, however, got it as bad as anyone. The original idea was that they'd start the show as friends and grow to become foes by the end of it. Since nobody expected that journey to take 10 years, Lex wound up bouncing back and forth, being manipulated, and eventually having his memory wiped so that he could finally serve as Superman's arch-nemesis — handily erasing all that character development in the process.

That said, Michael Rosenbaum brought an incredible charm and intensity to the role during his tenure on the show, and was frequently the best part of it regardless of where he fell on the good-to-evil alignment chart. The only real problem was that Lex was often overshadowed by his father, Lionel (John Glover), whose delightfully pure, mustache-twirling evil made him a far more entertaining character than Lex, or anyone else on the show. Don't feel too bad for Rosenbaum, though — he also provided the voice of Flash on Justice League Unlimited, and turned out to be just as good at playing the hero as he was at playing the villain.

Gene Hackman (Superman: The Movie, 1978)

There's a moment in Superman II, when the Phantom Zone Criminals have taken over the White House, where Lex Luthor walks in wearing the most crisp, tailored three-piece suit and offers the three super-powered Kryptonians the one thing they haven't been able to get yet: Superman. When they ask him how, he tells them straight up: "As I explained to you before … I'm about the best there is." And he's not wrong.

Gene Hackman's portrayal of Luthor is full of great moments like that. As much as Christopher Reeve embodied the role of Superman, Hackman's Luthor gave him the perfect foil, selling the ridiculous idea of a nuclear-powered real estate scheme in a way that made moviegoers truly believe he could be the greatest criminal genius of all time. He was slick, stylish, and purely motivated by self-interest — there wasn't even hatred in his dealings with Superman, there was just an understanding that he was never going to be able to do what he wanted while this hero was there to stand in his way.

Another great piece of Superman II comes at the climax of the film, when he agrees to help Superman and then immediately betrays him, only to find out that Superman was counting on his betrayal and won the day by being one step ahead. That's what works about Hackman's Luthor, and it makes that a perfect character moment: He's evil, but he's always honest about it. But the thing that really makes him the best live-action Lex of all time?

Hackman was even great in Superman IV.