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Why Lex Luthor Turned Into A Villain On Smallville

Since the moment DC introduced Lex Luthor in 1940, the villainous genius — usually known for his smooth-topped look, though not always — has been scheming and plotting ways to bring down Superman. And for over 80 years, Superman has countered Lex's machinations, albeit with varying degrees of success. While Lex's motivations vary across different media, the version of Lex portrayed in the 2001 series "Smallville," as played by Michael Rosenbaum, can trace the origins of his dark descent to his two most important relationships.

When Lex is introduced on the first episode of "Smallville," he's a young adult still under the thumb of his father. Indeed, it was Lex's father Lionel (John Glover) who dispatched him to the small Kansas town in the first place, with the task of running the family's local fertilizer plant. Early in his move to Smallville, Lex is involved in a car accident, and is subsequently saved by a teenaged Clark Kent. And it is Lex's complicated relationships, with both his father and his new friend Clark, that set him on the path to evil. 

Lex's trouble began with his father

In many ways, the trajectory of Lex's life was set early in his upbringing. Lionel, an incredibly wealthy business mogul, raised his son after his own image. That included being tough and shrewd, as well as gaining and maintaining power whatever the cost or collateral damage. Believing his son to be a poor reflection of the Luthor name, Lionel spends much of Lex's childhood and early adulthood pushing and testing him in order to fashion his son into a proper namesake.

When Lex, in Season 3, discovers that his father killed his own parents in order to launch LuthorCorp, Lionel has his son drugged and committed to Belle Reve Sanitarium. However, the discovery of Lionel's familicide — and the subsequent attempt to silence his son — change Lex's perspective, as he realizes the true extent of his father's megalomania. Even the healthiest of psyches would have difficulty reconciling these events. For Lex, who was molded by his father and instilled with Lionel's "take no prisoners" mentality, the revelation is disconcertin,g and eventually leads Lex to become the Luthor his father envisioned.

Lex needed a friend that Clark could not be

The friendship Lex struck with Clark, after the latter saved his life was genuine... at least, in its infancy. Yes, Lex became obsessed with discovering how he survived the accident, but his initial interest was borne out of curiosity, rather than nefarious intentions. 

Despite Lex's sincerity, Clark keeps him at a distance. Clark, of course, has valid reasons for keeping parts of his life secret. But Clark's well-intentioned emotional walls are perceived by Lex as distrust. Lex is already isolated at this point, particularly when confronting the truth about his father — as well as other violent secrets in his family's history — and in need of a friend's support. Unfortunately, the friend he has is Clark, who will not be entirely open with him.

The wedge between the two friends grows deeper and deeper over the course of "Smallville," until the distance between them is finally too great to overcome. As we see in later seasons, Lex becomes so desperate for a confidant and friendship that he even clones his deceased brother. 

Lex didn't have to become a supervillain. If Lionel had not treated him so poorly, and if Clark had been able to fully commit to the friendship, it's unlikely that Lex would have become Superman's arch-nemesis.