I’ve always had an affinity with Lex Luthor. Maybe it’s the shared haircut, and maybe it’s the mutual dislike of the big blue schoolboy, but Luthor is one of my favorite villains in the entire history of comic books. So after previously reviewing Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker, which I appreciated greatly even as I disagreed strongly with their interpretation of the character, I went back and pulled out their 2005 collaboration, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. And I’m here to tell you folks, I’m glad I did. This one comes highly recommended, sans reservation. It is certainly my favorite Superman story to date, and may eventually emerge as one of my favorite graphic novel reads.
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel shares the same structural pattern as Azzarello’s Joker in that we see the object of the character’s obsession, in this case Superman, through the eyes of an outsider, in this case Lex Luthor, who we follow about Metropolis as he sets up his plan. But unlike Joker, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel scores in two important respects: One, this really is the “authentic” version of Luthor, not a divergent take on the character, but the character through and through, and two, this story has a much more complicated and interesting plot, hence more plot points, hence a more engrossing read.
In the story Luthor enlists a scientist named Doctor Sergei Federov, liberated from Al Hasballah kidnappers, and one billionaire named Bruce Wayne with his own rather-justified grudge against the Man of Steel, in the creation of an alternative to Metropolis’ chosen hero. I won’t say what it is exactly, as the reveal is part of the impact of the tale. But alongside this plot and against the backdrop of Luthor as Metropolis Humanitarian we see Luthor’s current civic project, an enormous skyscraper, dubbed the “Science Spire,” that he offers as a testament to every human achievement and potential, representative of his professed belief in humanity. In fact, in his stirring speeches about what we are capable of and should aspire to, this Luthor is a pretty likeable fellow.
This Luthor talks about forgoing the easy road, sprouting such pontifications as, “We were created to create ourselves it’s the greatest gift our creator gave to us.” He encourages young kids to stay in school, promotes locale business, and proclaims “everyone deserves a chance at greatness.” Indeed, he sees Superman as an impediment to our own dreams, a sort of glass ceiling on our potential, robbing human beings of a chance to believe in themselves. “All men are created equal. All men. You are not a man,” he charges. In this, he has truth on his side, if not justice and the American way.
When Bruce Wayne points out over dinner that it’s a good thing Superman is on our side, Luthor responds, “What if he changes his mind? What if tonight he looks down and decides we’re not capable to manifest our own destiny? What if tomorrow he wakes up believing he knows what’s best for us? That it’s not enough to protect the world when he can rule it? The only safeguard we have against that happening is his word.”
There’s really subtle storytelling going on here. For one thing, Luthor is essentially correct in his opinion. Superman is only as safe as he is morally perfect, and as a rather shocking tussle between he and the Batman demonstrates, he isn’t. But Luthor’s problem—and his downfall—is that he himself assumes the role to which he fears Superman might one day ascend. Because, of course, all that we have seen is in furtherance of something larger. And towards this end, Luthor willingly threatens and takes human life (and at least one instance of non-human life) in pursuit of what he perceives as the greater good.
A humorous dig at Rupert Murdoch—couched as a dismissive attitude towards “insecure” people who have to control what people think—is both ironic and hypocritical when it is later revealed that the entire plot has been Luthor’s attempt at manipulating the public image of Superman, an extravagant plot that he’ll deem successful if even one person changes his mind and sees the Man of Steel for the “arrogant alien bastard” Luthor believes him to be.
The tragedy of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel is that for all the gazing at his reflection in the window that Luthor does, he can’t see into his own soul as Superman professes to be able to do. Because this Luthor is a very bad man, but one who falls just shy of being one of the good guys. He’s a Luthor comprised of numerous good works, maybe predominantly of good works, but the evil that he does in that final ten percent is colossal and unforgivable. Yet this conflicted nature renders him more accessible than his adversary, even with all his flaws, even as it damns him.
There’s a passage early on where one character begins to speak of another’s fate. They begin, “The rest is in ” and Luthor snaps, “Don’t say God‘s hands.” The character replies, “I was going to say yours.” That’s the only overt reference to divinity and Luthor’s reaction to it, but it’s what’s really at stake behind the scenes here, the struggle to wrest fate from out of the control of higher forces. It’s a tale as old as any Greek play, as haunting as that of Captain Ahab and his White Whale. The power in the story is that Luthor is only incorrect if we see Superman as anything less than representative of divinity, because if he is ever less than divine, then he can’t be trusted and is as dangerous as “a hurricane with a will.” And that he can be trusted may be what makes this a comic book, because I for sure wouldn’t trust someone with his powers in real life. Luthor, therefore, is the ultimate humanist, his Science Spire absolutely a modern day Tower of Babel. That he topples it himself, as an act of defiance against anything that sets itself as greater than human potential, is what makes his neurosis so painful. Because if Luthor is correct that destiny is something we hold in our hands, he has no one to blame but himself for throwing his away. But in the end, that is what makes him what he professes to be, what he earnestly hopes that he still is after what he’s chosen and all he’s done: a Man. One with a will of steel, but toppled by his own feet of clay.