I’ve said a lot of things about a lot of Superman villains on this little site of mine, but I don’t think I’ve said much about his most iconic villain: Lex Luthor. I think the concept of Lex Luthor as a nemesis has reached the world at large. I’m sure I could think of some little ways to improve on Luthor’s usage as a Superman foe, but honestly, once they expanded his mad scientist role to include all the evil capitalists that Clark fought in his early days, they got what I needed from him. Maybe I’m less concerned with him being the “smartest human on Earth” (I think such superlatives are a poison to the superhero genre) and I know I like him to be a little bit goofier than many readers, but in general I think we’re getting good Luthor most of the time.
But one thing that I’ve found controversial even among Superman fans is whether or not Clark Kent and Lex Luthor should be friends who tragically became enemies? I always preferred when they weren’t.
It’s one of my least favourite things when creators think superheroes have to have personal connections to their enemies for the sake of drama. And Superman especially! Superman shouldn’t need personal connections to a problem to want to solve that problem. And anyway, Superman has too many enemies with personal connections anyway! Brainiac is a space-faring baddie who once captured a city right off of Superman’s homeworld! This time it’s personal! General Zod (and most of the Phantom Zone criminals as well) is actually from Superman’s homeworld and maybe even knew Superman’s father! This time it’s personal! It’s a crutch and I don’t care for it.
It also bugs me that Superman just happens to grow up with the kid who goes on to be one of the richest and smartest businessmen in the world? It strains credibility and makes Clark less of the everyman they wanted him to be when they made him a smalltown boy.
But it’s surprisingly popular considering how rarely it’s actually been the status quo. It came about during the Silver Age, and I am acutely aware that Silver Age concepts seem to grow back any time they are removed. A lot of the time I’m in favour of the Silver Age concepts coming back. It was also the case in the live action Superboy television show, but compared to the various movies and show’s where it hasn’t been the case, that show can’t compare. The comics did away with it in the 80s reboot, but it has swung in and out with different revisions of continuity. Of course, the biggest reason for the popularity of this setup today is the show Smallville, which was about young Clark and Lex. That show did run for a decade, so it’s got a generation of Superman fans who like the friends setup.
And I don’t know. I don’t like it, but at this point I’m kind of just accepting it. I don’t know if either of the currently-running Superman shows have Clark and Lex as former friends or not, but if they do, I’ll just accept it.
Here’s what I think we need to do to make it acceptable for Lex and Clark to have been friends: We need Superman to have other nemeses who are as important as Lex but are not This Time It’s Personals. If I accept Brainiac and Zod as being slightly personal, let’s get at least three more who have no personal connection to Clark or Superman before they met as foes. As I’ve said, the Terra-Man is a good criminal inversion of some Superman tropes, so let’s put him on the list. But also, let’s finally give the Ultra-Humanite a chance to shine. I’m sure I’ll do a post about them sometime, but yeah, they were Superman’s big foe before Luthor came alone, so let’s get that back.
Or, of course, there’s always Tal-Var.