Who Should Play Lex Luthor? And Which Lex Luthor Should They Play?

We look at contenders for the role, and the comic-book incarnations of the Superman baddie

Man Of Steel

by Helen O'Hara |
Published on

Following those mentions of LexCorp in Man Of Steel everyone, including us, assumes that the planned sequel will feature Lex Luthor – potentially as the big bad, at least as part of the ensemble. But while feverish speculation about his casting has already begun, that seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Far better to ask what sort of Lex we’re looking for, and figure out from there who might fit the role. Here’s what we’ve come up with...

It’s comic-book lore that Lex Luthor was originally the proud owner of a mane of red hair until one day artist Leo Nowak confused him with a bald henchman and drew the now-iconic slaphead. Still, the Titian locks have resurfaced occasionally, and the young Lex who – in several versions of the story and a run of Superboy comics – befriends and sometimes tangles with the young Clark Kent is often a ginger. The pair, however, gradually find themselves more at odds than not.

Given that Man Of Steel was something of an origin story, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we could see an equally young, pre-hair-loss Lex in a sequel, although the Smallville connection seems less likely based on the first film (where the town redhead is Pete Ross), and the fact that it was played to death in the TV show Smallville.

We’d cast:** **Naturally red-headed actors are few and far between, but that Domnhall Gleeson is a bit of an up-and-comer and could be a nice foil to Henry Cavill’s ultra-muscliness. He’d just have to be careful never to smile and look as sinister as possible to counter his natural likeability. For an edgier young Lex, Paul Dano might be an interesting call.

Lex Luther Mad Scientist

The first outing of Lex Luthor in the comics saw him as a classic mad scientist, living in a flying city hung from a dirigible and taking control of European countries to set them at one another’s throats – this in 1940, as if they needed help with that. But he also had death rays at his disposal, and soon he was merrily recreating dinosaurs – take that, John Hammond! – and planning to drain all the world’s oil wells.

We quite like the notion of a batshit crazy super-genius Luthor, but it probably doesn’t fit with the established Man Of Steel aesthetic. A better work-around would be to emphasise the “scientist” in “mad scientist” and have an expert in, say, robotics (as Luthor is often portrayed) pit his creations against the Man Of Steel to prove their superiority, getting homicidally irate if and when they fail to do so. But it’s a fine line to walk.

We’d cast: Bryan Cranston is the most obvious choice here: we know he can play a (breaking) bad scientist already. Another TV-inspired option might be Michael C. Hall – we know that the Dexter star can do twisted but charismatic, and he’s at home in a lab. But we’d go for Jason Clarke, who gives good bad guy but needs a chance to play something other than a heavy.

This is the Lex we’re most familiar with: the tycoon with sinister sidelines in crime that we’ve seen on The Lois & Clark Adventures, in Smallville (more 'Lionel' Luthor than Lex, admittedly) and to some extent in Gene Hackman’s portrayal. That’s because it works, and it should be particularly resonant in these times of increasing disparity between rich and poor.

The humanity and interest here comes from the fact that this Lex pulled himself by the bootstraps out of the worst slums in Metropolis, and resents the fact that Superman’s mere existence grants him godlike power. That sympathetic backstory makes this Lex a little more complex than some, and would fit in nicely with the issues of destiny established in the first film. In the sequel, he can be elected President and we'll be into really new (screen) territory.

*We’d cast: *There are two clear and obvious contenders here, both of whom look great without hair and give great villain: Mark Strong or Stanley Tucci. They might be slightly too obvious choices, if anything, but that’s because they’re really, really good at this sort of role. If you want to go for something a little more surprising, try Denzel Washington, who doesn’t play evil corporate nearly enough.

This is a slight variation on the Evil CEO: in this version of Lex’s backstory, he was born to fabulously wealthy but psychopathically uncaring parents and raised in a brutally loveless environment. So you get someone with unlimited resources and some serious daddy issues encountering an alien hero who is more of a golden boy than he could ever be *and *who can fly. It was never going to go well.

What works about this twist on Lex is that you get common ground between villain and hero on their absent fathers and the pressure in living up to the ideals and ambitions of those towering presences. That said, do we need yet another film about men struggling with a father complex? This might be a little played out.

We’d cast: Jude Law or Bradley Cooper give good preppy, and neither plays a villain terribly often (these days) so they’d feel relatively fresh in the role.

Another slight variation on the character: there’s a thread running through the comics, expressed especially well in the alternative history of Red Son, which holds that Lex Luthor would have been a hero and a force for good on the planet were it not for Superman. The mere existence of the Big Blue Boy Scout twists and corrupts Lex, who can never resign himself to being merely the second most amazing person on Earth.

As with Mad Scientist Lex, there’s a job of work to do in nailing this for the Man Of Steel universe: you’ve got to communicate the tragedy of a man who could have been a contender hero going completely the other way instead. But if they managed it, they’d have a beautifully Shakespearean edge to Superman’s best baddie.

We’d cast: Were he not already occupied on another comic-book franchise, Michael Fassbender would be a great fit here and a nice foil for Cavill (happy accident: Fassbender’s also kinda red-headed), but if he’s busy with Magneto, Zack Snyder could do worse than consider Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who does conflicted rather nicely in films like Headhunters and, of course, in Game Of Thrones.


This one’s a bit of a stretch, but bear with us. In several comic timelines, Luthor has visited another world and helped to revive its moribund technology, causing the inhabitants to appoint him king of everything and rename their planet 'Lexor' (maybe we should rename this planet Kal-Earth?). Lex marries one of the natives, has a child, and then it all goes horribly wrong when a fight with Superman – because he just can’t let that go – causes the disruption of the device Lex built to stop Lexor going the way of Krypton and the whole planet explodes. Which just goes to show that sometimes revenge is a dish best not served at all.

That’s a more-than-somewhat difficult fit for the Snyder universe, but if they wanted to maintain the sci-fi touches of the first film this would allow them to do so (more space dragons!) and keep the focus beyond Earth. Also, the idea of Lex as the ruler of an alien world is at least a fresh one on film, so it has that going for it.

We’d cast: It’s probably too obvious to cast Zachary Quinto for this interpretation, which is a shame, but someone with experience in selling alien craziness would be beneficial. Perhaps Paul Bettany could take another shot at sci-fi?

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