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Lex Luthor: Who played the Superman villain best?

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Jesse Eisenberg in Now You See Me

Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor has been in the headlines recently after it was revealed that Jesse Eisenberg will be playing him in the upcoming Batman vs Superman movie.

The super-villain first appeared in the DC comic books in 1940 and, although the archenemy of Superman, he has also come into conflict with Batman and other superheroes in the DC Universe.

Originally depicted as a mad scientist who used his intelligence to create futuristic weapons, Lex Luthor evolved into a bald businessman and industrialist whose sky-high intelligence compensated for his lack of superpowers.

With Eisenberg stirring debate as the newest incarnation of the villain, we take a look back at the actors who've taken on Lex Luthor and ask who played him best.

Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs Superman)


Talbot was not only the first actor to take on Lex Luthor, he was also the first live-action actor to play two prominent DC characters onscreen (the other character being Commissioner Gordon in 1949's Batman and Robin). Appearing in the 1950 serial Atom Man vs Superman, Luthor creates the new identity 'Atom Man' as he invents deadly devices that plague Metropolis, including a machine that disintegrates people to their basic atoms. The film itself faced criticism for being too gimmicky but it didn't stop DC Comics from using the face of Talbot as Lex Luthor in the comic books until the 1960s. His Luthor can be be glimpsed briefly in the video above.

Gene Hackman (Superman: The Movie)


1978 saw Hackman portray Luthor for the first feature-length Superman film. Although maintaining elements of the original scientific expertise that the villain has, Hackman's version of Luthor was more of an arrogant, money-driven underground gangster whose only dislike of Superman comes from his interference with his criminal activities. In addition, due to Hackman's refusal to shave his head or wear a bald cap, this incarnation of Lex Luthor was seen to favour extravagant hairpieces.

Scott James Wells and Sherman Howard (Superboy)


This television series ran from 1988 to 1992, and documented the early life of Superman. Wells played Luthor for just one season, with Howard taking over for the remaining three. The series provided context behind Luthor and Superman's ongoing feud, with Luthor originally being depicted as a college bully whose main pastimes were basketball and humiliating Superboy. The first season finale adapted the comic book's origin of the feud, with Superboy rescuing the bully from a lab accident that caused him to lose all of his hair. Luthor then blamed the hero for his hair loss and became hellbent on destroying him. The remaining seasons focused on Luthor's attempts to destroy Superboy, with the tone of the show becoming dramatically darker for seasons three and four.

John Shea (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman)


This 1990s television series had Luthor established as the third-richest man in the world, who tries to keep a lid on his ruthless and power-hungry nature. His obsession with Superman is ongoing as he not only fears the exposure of his criminal enterprises, but also harbours a crush on Lois Lane, fuelling the villain's desire to destroy Clark Kent. In a shock twist, the first season ends with Luthor committing suicide after being caught for his criminal activity. However, in future episodes he is brought back to life, and with his fortune and business gone he becomes even more focused on killing Superman and marrying Lois. Similarly to Superboy, Luthor originally has a full head of hair in Shea's portrayal, but when he is brought back from the dead one of the side effects is baldness.

Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville)


The 2001 hit American series Smallville features younger incarnations of both Superman and Luthor. In this depiction, the two boys become friends, but before long Luthor becomes obsessed with gaining more power, which leads to the demise of their friendship and Luthor's villainous rise. Rosenbaum left the show after seven seasons, with various stand-ins then portraying his character with obscured faces. However, Rosenbaum reprised the role for the show's finale in 2011, which climaxed with Luthor's memory of his immoral life being erased and him eventually becoming president of the United States.

Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns)


In 2006, Oscar winner Kevin Spacey took over with a version of Luthor similar in arrogance to Gene Hackman's in the early Christopher Reeve Superman films, but with a much more serious and bitter undertone alongside the addition of a personal hatred towards Superman. Spacey was the only actor considered for the role by Bryan Singer (who worked with him on The Usual Suspects) and the script was written with him specifically in mind.

Who's your favourite Lex Luthor? Vote in our poll below!
Lyle Talbot0.51%
Gene Hackman20.85%
Scott James Wells0.40%
Sherman Howard0.62%
John Shea8.23%
Michael Rosenbaum55.84%
Kevin Spacey13.56%

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