Thursday, 12 July 2018
The Love of Luthor AKA The Misguided Hatred of Superman
The subject of Lex Luthor has always been a bizarre one in the comicbook world, thanks both to his presentation and who he opposes. When you sit down and look at him, the character is one of countless contradictions and contrasting elements, thanks as much to his history as the man he opposes. He's depicted as a ruthless businessman atop a skyscraper while also a self-made entrepreneur. Someone who is a philanthropist but also a representation of capitalism's worst excesses, and a figure who could accomplish great good but is held back by all too human failings. He's hardly relatable in any way, and yet an odd number of people continually root for him. Some so as far as to claim that he is the true hero of the story rather than Superman.
The question is, why?
By every definition Luthor is an unrepentant figure who would sooner tie the entirety of Metropolis' population to railroad tracks than admit Superman's thoughts had any merit. He will take the most convenient route to gain what he wants, and will never lose sleep over murdered innocents or broken laws required to get there. Worse still, his ego and superiority complex often drives him from necessary evils to acts of outright spite, often going out of his way or even wasting precious resources in such endeavors. Unlike those who try to take extreme measures for the betterment of others, no matter how misguided they might be, Luthor is instead just an outright bastard with a small handful of redeeming moments. Unfortunately, that is all too often forgotten in the face of the man he opposes.
Superman is, by every standard, the boy scout. There have been plenty of jokes over him in past years in this regard, and the varied number of abilities he has. However, the problem is that with his standing comes every criticism possible. It ranges from the usual misguided and cherry-picked theories that he is unrelatable and inhuman, to people going through Silver Age stories to cite how he is a prick. Even when he's de-powered people seem to dislike him, claiming he doesn't fully live up to expectations, and I think in the minds of many this is where the issue lies: His abilities. When you make a character a god, or give them enough power to move the entire planet, all too often those figures are the villains. They're treated as detached from reality, seeking to rule over us, and must be beaten by a far more human hero with less power. There's plenty of examples of this, but ultimately when one character is being forced to outsmart a more powerful opposite, it's usually the hero against the villain.
Equally, an issue stems from how there is a perpetual conflict between characters who are relatable and those who serve as escapist figures. Iron Man is considered an escapist figure, but because he repeatedly makes very obvious mistakes, suffered from alcoholism, has a titanic ego and has a bitter past, people tend to ignore him. With Superman, while he has the loss of his father and planet, many other events have never reached public consciousness. You can name multiple plotlines and key events which do contradict this, and even a multitude of major A-list villains who do contradict the idea of his invulnerability. A personal favourite among these is Parasite, if you're wondering. Yet, because he is openly idealistic, openly hopeful and seeking to make the world better without being bitterly cynical or sarcastic, he's seen as distanced from humanity.
The issue of his distanced nature is only made worse thanks to the fact his abilities aren't born from magic, science or some ingrained enhancement, but a part of his natural biology. As a result of this, so many people want to see someone like Batman repeatedly beat him in a fight because they feel that they're the underdog, and that they have earned their skills. People will argue that he relies far too heavily on powers he gained due to circumstance or sheer luck, and that he didn't build them up like others, often overlooking facts like how he gradually developed them during his childhood.
The unfortunate end result of all of this is that those with only a passing familiarity with comics or even go from pop culture knowledge simply go from where Superman stands in power. Rather than fully looking into it, the baseline elements are judged. This isn't an exact damnation of the trend - it's present in damn near everything, entertainment media or otherwise - but it is still a problem, as media has developed in a way which leaves Superman at a disadvantage. One where, after so many years, people are predisposed to support the person individually less powerful and seemingly working off of personal innovation over natural strength. To quote Grant Morrison:
"It's essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man-god armed only with his bloody-minded arrogance and cleverness."
So, with all this said, why do people like Superman? Why is it that he still has supporters, when he has so many inherent advantages, and Luthor is in a position which would typically be heroic? Once again it all comes down to power.
What people tend to forget is that Superman and Luthor are in a very similar position in many regards. They are an authority unto themselves, they have access to resources which entire countries cannot hope to match, and stand above the average person in almost every sense. Then, consider how they use them.
Luthor argues that Superman diminishes humanity via his sheer presence, and that humanity cannot be fully allowed to simply rely on him. However, that only comes about thanks to how Superman has chosen to use his power. No matter how noble the act might be, Luthor's every decision boils down to self-service. He could save an entire orphanage or guarantee a man's family safety, only to kill them as part of a scheme to make Superman look bad. He's actually done that as well, if you want to look up Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. If he offers up a charity event it's to bolster his ego, and if he tries to uplift someone in society, it's largely done to keep the spotlight on him. On its own, this might not be inherently wrong, as heroic characters like Booster Gold have retained this as a character trait. Yet, when combined with his lack of morals, it ensures that he would burn down all of Metropolis, if not the Earth itself, if he could be rid of Superman and remake it in his image.
By comparison, you could stop and look at any moment where Superman has acted to help others, save lives or defeat villains, simply because it is the right thing to do. Not out of ego, self-satisfaction or even a misguided attempt to create his own legend. He has the capacity to help others who cannot help themselves, and he uses that in order to do things humanity cannot currently deal with. It doesn't matter if it's a supervillain or a natural disaster, the reasons are always the same. It would be easy to set himself up as a king among them, and yet refuses, and doesn't hold humanity back either, hoping one day that they will "join him in the sun."
Even if you do argue that Superman's abilities stem from some genetic advantage over a personal creation, that can still apply to Luthor as well. He was born smarter than others, had none of the genetic disabilities which plague others, and had the ingrained ruthlessness which allowed him to murder his parents for financial gain. He only reached the heights that he did due to his specific advantages in brain and body, ones he started out with from an early age and gave him a benefit many typically lacked. Perhaps some amount of that animosity (or even a substantial part of it) could be seen to come from how he beat Luthor at his own game, earning a far more beneficial head start due to his alien origins. We do see, after all, in events such as Blackest Night that he ultimately wants to be Superman, and that his justifications and arguments stem from a bruised ego over a personal ideology.
Yet, if there is nothing else to consider, take a moment to think of class. Over the last several years, the divide between lower class and upper class has become ever greater, to the point where "working class" is considered a bad joke. Almost every story we have about these individuals in power is constantly negative, be it from the USA, UK or Russia, and those are just the ones which make the headlines. The bad doesn't simply eclipse the good, it swallows it whole, until the news of a billionaire or politician actually doing the morally right thing is downright shocking. Luthor emulates these figures in almost every sense, from the extreme self-interest to sheer arrogance they radiate. By comparison, Superman is an embodied hope, the desire that someone who would end up with that power from a lower standing would use it to do good. Keep in mind that, while Luthor lives the high life, Superman was raised as Clark Kent first and foremost - Someone who worked on a farm, and then lived as a reporter with a middling salary.
Perhaps more than anything else though, it's the idea that someone from a lower standing in life might end up with power to oppose those who would abuse it. That someone of humble origins and without the benefits of a richer environment might gain the power to fight back, and to push back against bullies who would use their abilities to make life hell for others.
Or, if you want to boil this final point down to a clip, compare it with this, just replacing Loki with Luthor and the Hulk with Superman:
It's a one-sided fight, painfully so. But what makes it so satisfying is the fact that Loki has spent the entire film lauding over others, proclaiming his superiority and acting out of spite. As such, rather than it seeming unjust, that moment offers a sense of much-needed catharsis in seeing someone being given a taste of their own medicine. Hulk meanwhile, whatever his flaws, is using his powers to try and stop him from taking ove the Earth, even after being shunned for so long by those same people.
An entire book could be written on the subject, but I just personally wanted to touch on these themes. It's easy to see why someone might fall into the trap of sympathising with the devil, and defending Luthor as a possible hero simply due to his standing and who he fights against. At the same time though, it's hardly a chore to recognise why Superman is needed in fiction, and the dream he inspires is needed more than ever.