Diametrically Opposed: Superman / Lex Luthor

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Diametrically Opposed is a series exploring the best hero-villain rivalries in the DC Universe.

Superman is without question the most iconic superhero in all of comic books. He was one of the first superheroes ever published, and his incredible power and unyielding goodness have made him a constant presence in popular culture in the more than 75 years that followed. It is Superman’s uniquely iconic status as one of the most incorruptibly good and impossibly powerful heroes, perhaps, that makes it all the more impressive that any single villain is worthy of being his archenemy. But Lex Luthor – an ordinary man whose own ruthlessness and ambition, though heightened to mythic scale, are still thoroughly human – has more than earned that position. He is the antithesis of Superman: his perfect foil in every material and metaphysical way.

Superman

Clark Kent / Kal-El as Superman - Justice League #1, DC Comics

Clark Kent / Kal-El as Superman – Justice League #1, DC Comics

Born on the planet Krypton, Kal-El was the son of Lara Lor-Van and Jor-El, a respected scientist who discovered that the planet was approaching imminent destruction. Unable to convince anyone of his claims, he placed Kal-El in a spaceship and sent him away from the dying planet, travelling through space until it reached Earth and crash landed in a farmer’s field in Kansas. There, the boy was found by John and Martha Kent, who took in the alien infant, hid the evidence of his crash landing, and named him Clark. As he grew older, he discovered that he had abilities far beyond those of his peers – the result of his Kryptonian physiology absorbing the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun. He began to dedicate himself to saving lives and protecting humanity, eventually learning the mystery of his origin and donning the colourful garb of his biological family. As Superman, Clark became not only the protector of Metropolis, where he made his home as an adult, but also the entire world, all the while disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.

Superman’s Kryptonian physiology allows his cells to process yellow sun radiation differently from humans, which grants him a vast array of powerful abilities. He possesses super-strength, speed, flight, as well as invulnerability. He also has telescopic, microscopic, and other visions which span the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as the ability to project powerful heat vision blasts from his eyes. Recently, this power was shown to be the precursor to the much more powerful Super Flare, in which he can expel all of the yellow sun radiation in his cells in a single, devastating blast. Additionally, he possesses both vortex and freeze breath, and a variety of lesser-known, more obscure powers. In nearly all of these abilities, Superman is considered to be one of the most powerful mortal beings in existence.

Superman is a founding member of the Justice League, and has been a member of nearly every incarnation of the team. Pre-Flashpoint, he was also a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor - Action Comics #897, DC Comics

Lex Luthor – Action Comics #897, DC Comics

Before he was Metropolis’ most notorious billionaire industrialist, Alexander Luthor was a child of poverty. Alongside his sister Lena he was raised by abusive parents, until the day he orchestrated their deaths. Using the insurance money as starting capital, he founded LexCorp and began his rise to power and fortune. A brilliant scientist and businessman, Luthor invested himself in all manner of enterprises – from engineering to media to weapons and beyond – becoming the wealthiest man in Metropolis and using his new found influence and riches to position himself as the city’s golden son. Behind the scenes, however, much of Luthor’s shrewd business acumen was directly linked to his amoral ambition, which led him to extortion, racketeering, and even murder. The appearance of Superman in Metropolis overshadowed what Luthor believed to be his mantle as the saviour of Metropolis, and his growing distrust, envy, and anger drove him further and further into criminal endeavours designed to humiliate, weaken, co-opt, or even kill the Man of Steel. He believes Superman to be at best a crutch for humanity and at worst its greatest threat.

Lex Luthor has no metahuman superpowers, but his superior intellect and massive fortune have allowed him to out maneuver Superman. Considered to be the single most intelligent person on Earth, Lex Luthor is adept in many scientific disciplines, including medicine, genetic engineering, robotics, astrophysics, and many others, with which he developed his trademark green and purple battle suit. The suit grants him flight, super-strength and durability, as well as a variety of weapons including kryptonite energy blasts. Lex is a brilliant tactician, using his considerable intellect to stay several steps ahead of the Man of Steel and always putting the fight on his terms. And through shrewd business and sheer force of monetary influence, he is almost always able to escape prison and criminal charges either through legal technicality, bargaining, or outright bribery.

As Earth’s premier supervillain, Lex Luthor has been a member of several criminal and villainous organizations. He has been a member of both the Injustice Gang and the Injustice League, as well as a founder or member of several incarnations of the Secret Society of Super Villains. He led the Secret Six under the alias Mockingbird, and during the Blackest Night  he was briefly inducted as an Orange Lantern. He even managed to become the President of the United States of America. Post-Flashpoint, Luthor made a comparable coup after being inducted into the Justice League after saving the world from the Crime Syndicate.

VS.

Superman and Lex Luthor are the perfect arch-nemeses for each other. The DC Universe’s greatest hero pitted against its greatest villain. Theirs is a rivalry that has lasted since his first appearance in 1940’s Action Comics #23, and on every single level these two mythic characters were destined to clash.

Superman vs Lex Luthor - Superman Unchained #1 (Variant), DC Comics

Superman vs Lex Luthor – Superman Unchained #1 (Variant), DC Comics

To begin with the most obvious, or at least the most frequently discussed, the powers and abilities of these two characters instantly sets them up as polar opposites. Superman is an alien whose genetics gifted him with his extraordinary powers. He did not ask for them, nor did he have to develop them. They were within him and were always going to be a part of him from the moment he entered our solar system. Lex, on the other hand, was not born with his abilities. In fact, as an ordinary human born into poverty, he was gifted nothing at all. It was his own ambition and greed and personal drive that helped him develop into the man he would become. But perhaps more striking is the nature of their abilities. Lex’s honed skills are all of an internal nature: his intelligence, his strategy, his relentless ambition. Superman, by contrast, is host to myriad superhuman abilities, all of which are physical in nature. His visions, breaths, all the way down to his speed and strength register on a physical level. They are representations of brawn and brain. This is not to say that they don’t possess some qualities of the other, but what makes them extraordinary lies in those two separate camps.

Lex Luthor defeats Mazahs - Forever Evil #7, DC Comics

Lex Luthor defeats Mazahs – Forever Evil #7, DC Comics

But beyond the simple brawn/brain dichotomy, there is a deeper, much more dangerous opposition at work. At his core, Superman is a moral hero, insofar as he both believes in a particular moral code as well as embodying it. There is a clear delineation between right and wrong in Superman’s morality, which divides the world into those on the side of good and those on the side of evil. And while he is certainly capable of distinguishing the various shades of each, at the end of the day Superman’s world view is built on this clear moral understanding. In fact, good and evil as constructs are highly important to the wider mythology of the DC Universe, often with the implication that one’s own morality is more inherent than earned. There are good people and bad people – some are very good and others are a little good, and vice-versa, but ultimately you are one or the other. By the internal logic and morality of the mythology, Lex Luthor is objectively evil, and yet despite his innumerable evil acts he has also proven himself to be heroic in times of dire need. During both the Blackest Night and the Crime Syndicate’s invasion of Earth, Lex has worked alongside other heroes and villains to save humanity. Through LexCorp, he has set up numerous charitable foundations and is responsible for a number of social and housing projects throughout Metropolis. His intentions may not be wholly pure, but his actions are undoubtedly heroic, or at least good. By his very nature, Lex is able to disrupt Superman’s rigid morality; a villainous streak becomes a heroic turn and ingratiates him with the public once more. And Lex owns that contradiction – unlike Superman, he does not conceal his identity. His battle armour has no helmet. Good or evil are both Lex Luthor, muddying the moral waters even further.

Lex Luthor addresses the media after saving the world - Justice League #30, DC Comics

Lex Luthor addresses the media after saving the world – Justice League #30, DC Comics

In the end, however, Lex Luthor has only ever done anything heroic when it benefited him in some way. His acts of good are bound only by what he stands to gain. It could be as simple as fighting an evil that threatens him as much as it does innocents, or that saving the day is a necessary step of a greater plan, or that he could use the good publicity, but the only true motivation for Lex to be “good” is personal gain. This was proven by Lex’s final days in the pre-Flashpoint continuity. Not only was he inducted into the Orange Lantern Corps for his insatiable greed, but he later achieved the power of a god on the condition that he use it to benefit others. He was unable to let go of his hate for Superman, sacrificing universal utopia for all in order to try to destroy a personal enemy. Superman, however, is a being of nearly insurmountable physical power who only uses his might in the service of others. This is further compounded by the fact that Superman is not even human – there is no reason for him to sacrifice himself for people to whom he isn’t even related, but he does so out of selfless devotion and a belief in his personal morality.

It should come as no surprise that the greatest hero and greatest villain of a mythology should be each other’s archenemy. Even in his Golden Age appearances as a mad scientist, it was clear that Lex Luthor’s intellect was a perfect foil for Superman’s raw power, but over the subsequent 75 years their rivalry remains as tense and pitched as ever. Even when they fight on the same side, the antagonism is so built-in that it’s only a matter of time before they are once again pitted against one another. Body vs mind. God vs. man. Good vs. evil. All of these dichotomies and more exist between Superman and Lex Luthor.