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James Gunn's Superman Better Honor Lex Luthor Or The Character Will Become A Relic

The Man of Steel has fought many foes, but Lex Luthor has always been his most important adversary. Their conflict is one of the keys to unlocking the depth of Superman's mythos. In the comics, this billionaire businessman gobbles corporations like snack crackers in a lifelong quest to rule Metropolis and make Superman's life not just difficult, but miserable. And why? Because Superman's mega-powered goodness cannot be bought — it is driven by love, care, and genuine hope — which smacks hard against the values of a man who has never accepted a "no" answer in his life. 

In Lex's mind, Superman's ability to punch through twelve layers of concrete points toward a fundamental unfairness in the universe, and this inherent jealousy — this small-minded obsession from an otherwise brilliant man — fuels his villainous actions. 

Lex is great. Lex is iconic. There's just one problem with Lex, and that's the fact that the movies have never, ever gotten him right.

Think back on the history of Superman cinema, and you'll see that there really hasn't been a definitive onscreen version of Lex Luthor presented on either film or television. And that needs to change ,in light of James Gunn's recent announcement that he's going to be helming "Superman: Legacy" as part of his DC Universe reboot. At this stage in the game, Lex's legacy as a villain on the level of the Joker, Magneto, or the Green Goblin is at stake, and if Gunn can't deliver a villain that is menacing, complex, and perhaps even sympathetic, this legendary character will be relegated to Supes' past, a 40 cakes meme who otherwise doesn't register with fans. 

Flashy foes like Darkseid, Zod, and even Brainiac can come later. Right now, Gunn needs to give us the iconic big screen Lex Luthor, and here's how.

No live-action Lex Luthor has ever rang true

Throw a stone and you'll hit an iconic Superman for each generation. Whether your Superman is Christopher Reeve's playful charmer, Henry Cavill's intense DCEU rendition, Tyler Hoechlin's family-man-with-superpowers in The CW's Arrowverse, or even George Reeves' barrel-chested boy scout, each of these performers has captured what makes Superman... well, Superman. Each of them is recognizably playing the same character.

And yet, it's hard to pick out a truly iconic version of Lex Luthor.

Each Lex has their good points, of course. Gene Hackman's cheesy con man in "Superman: The Movie" is smarmy and fun to watch, but he never gets across the brutal selfishness that defines Lex — and, let's face it, he's not very menacing, which is why General Zod (Terence Stamp) so easily supplants him in "Superman II." Meanwhile, in "Lois & Clark" actor John Shea has cold calculation on his slide, but he's positioned as more of a leading man intended to sweep Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) off her feet. Michael Rosenbaum's Lex on "Smallville" is complex and fascinating, but he doesn't really feel like Lex, due to multiple changes the show makes to his backstory. Kevin Spacey's over-the-top take doesn't have the vulnerability Lex needs. Jesse Eisenberg's version is a unique, modern spin on the selfish billionaire trope, but far too neurotic. So far, the closest we've gotten to Lex's combination of charm, greed, and thirst for power is Jon Cryer's Arrowverse version. 

All these villains fail to capture the entirety of Lex's core set of values. Also, what's the deal with most of them boasting full heads of hair, or wigs? Lex is bald. The Joker has a white face and green hair. Thanos is purple. Magneto has a helmet. Iconography is important. 

Superman and Lex Luthor are two sides of the same American dream

Most interpretations of Lex ignore the key factor in Lex and Superman's rivalry, which is that both represent two sides of the same coin — the American Dream. 

Clark Kent is an immigrant. He has greatness thrust upon him by superpowers he never asked for, and he rises to the occasion, on behalf of humanity, to help the vulnerable. His perfect world involves peace, love, and friendship. Lex, on the other hand — whether he's being played as a mad scientist or a corporate billionaire — is defined by his self-reliance. Using his sizable brainpower, he has worked his way to the top of the food chain, become the apex predator, and proven — in his mind, at least — that it just takes willpower and hard work to achieve one's goals. 

Except the existence of Superman proves Lex's entire life thesis wrong. To Lex, Superman's power — and his existence as an outsider — comes with such ease, such a lack of effort, a notion that breeds jealousy in Lex's heart. The battle between Superman and Lex is one between selflessness and selfishness. Capitalism versus altruism. The brain versus the heart. The ego versus the soul.

But Lex's complexity is important.  Many screen versions of Lex flatten out his desire for respect into a simple lust for power, or fury — but what he really wants is love. That's also pivotal, because while Lex has no faith in Superman's genuine belief in the world, Superman thinks that Lex has goodness in him that could somebody be unlocked. Put bluntly, both Lex and Clark are ludicrously powerful people, but the difference is that Superman was raised with love (from the Kents) and Lex only had himself. 

Here's how Superman: Legacy should treat Lex

James Gunn is pretty much starting with a blank slate when it comes to Lex Luthor's personality in the new DCU. He really ought to build the character up by zeroing in on the character's intelligence, and focus on the point that the difference between Superman and Lex is their upbringing, not their physical power levels. That's the main, central tenant that should drive Gunn's Lex: he's a once-in-a-generation genius who cannot get out of the way of his own ego, and could've easily been the world's greatest hero if he did. 

Don't give Lex powers, a mechanical super-suit, or any of that nonsense. Yes, Superman needs somebody to punch, but all you have to do is align Lex with another dangerous baddie, or give him a wicked goal to accomplish that involves manipulating other dangerous forces — but make sure Lex is the one in charge, because he is supposed to be Superman's ultimate nemesis. The external details? Make him a businessman or make him a mad scientist — it doesn't matter. It's about the core character. And no live-action depiction has nailed that yet.

While heroes such as General Zod and Darkseid might be more visually exciting, the battle between Lex and Superman for the world's soul is quite a compelling story in the right hands. And Gunn, who has more than proven his ability to balance heart, action and humor in his "Guardians of the Galaxy" trilogy, could be just the right person to finally bring it to the screen.

James Gunn needs to bring the comics Lex to the screen for the first time

Ultimately, James Gunn should look deep into the DC Comics back catalog, and examine the best Lex stories to get clues on the psychology that drives this character. Lex Luthor should be the main villain of "Superman: Legacy," and it'll be a crying shame if he's relegated to a side role again. 

As for which comics? Go with "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel," which takes place entirely from Lex Luthor's incredibly skewed point of view, and which is definitely the volume that should guide the character into the next millennia. Meanwhile, forget taking influence from other TV and movie portrayals. 

Whoever Gunn selects to play the megabucks megalomaniac should dive deep into Lex's humanity, his lack of love at a young age, and his complexities, but at the same time, shouldn't be afraid to make him unlikable. Lex is a threatening, terrifying man, and while his vulnerability is important, his brutalness needs to be front and center. Any potential redemption shouldn't come easy. 

Time will tell if Gunn's movie manages to finally create a worthy big-screen counterpart that can stand tall next to the comic book version, but hopefully, he understands the importance of getting this right.