The Definitive Live-Action Lex Luthor
Prior to Jon Cryer taking on the Lex Luthor role in Season 4, Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum was basically the undisputed king when it comes to live-action depictions of Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman’s cinematic Lex may be iconic, but that version of the character is fairly one-note. He’s evil, he’s brilliant, he wears a wig and he’s obsessed with ruling the world through real estate scams. Rosenbaum spent almost a decade bringing his version of Lex to life, and as a result his Lex is a far more nuanced, sympathetic, and overall fascinating character.
Cryer’s Lex isn’t necessarily superior to Rosenbaum’s. After all, he’s only been playing Lex for a little more than a year, whereas Rosenbaum was a mainstay for more than half of Smallville’s 10-season run. It’s hard to top such a long and definitive portrayal. But the two versions are distinct enough that they stand alongside one another very easily. If Rosenbaum plays Lex at his most sympathetic and tragic, Cryer’s Lex is a much more traditional take. His Lex captures the best qualities of the versions seen in DC’s modern Superman comics and Superman: The Animated Series. He’s an egomaniacal supervillain, but one who genuinely believes he has humanity’s best interests at heart. He’s superhumanly brilliant, yet his one Achilles heel is his tendency to be blinded by his irrational hatred of Superman and Supergirl. He’s both terrifying and sad in equal measure.
The end of Season 5 basically cements Cryer’s Lex as one of the all-time great DC villains. He’s not just the strongest and most fully realized villain in Supergirl’s five-year history, he’s really developed into the show’s most fascinating character. Lex has all but stolen the spotlight for himself by now, but that’s been to the series’ benefit.
Hijacking the Crisis
The Lex-ification of Supergirl Season 5 is all the more impressive considering Cryer didn’t actually return to the fold until midway through the season, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. Thanks to the Monitor, Lex returned to life just in time to help save the multiverse from complete annihilation. Lex turned out to be one of the true highlights of Crisis. He was the chaotic, unpredictable X-factor, one who wound up playing a pivotal role in saving existence despite his single-minded obsession with tormenting every Superman in the multiverse.
Crisis was really just the starting point for Lex’s Arrowverse arc. Apart from the creation of a unified Earth-Prime, perhaps the single biggest change to come out of Crisis is the fact that Lex is now head of the DEO and among the most beloved public figures in the world. Lex may have helped save the multiverse, but at a cost heroes like Supergirl and Martian Manhunter are finding hard to bear. He was able to rewrite existence to better suit his own grandiose self-image.
Lex has become a far more integral part of the puzzle in the post-Crisis era of Supergirl. This new status quo allows Supergirl to really hone in on Lex’s fundamental character flaw. According to Lex himself, he hates heroes like Superman and Supergirl because he believes they make the world weak and complacent. How can humanity rise to its full potential if all-powerful aliens are always around to save the day? Lex would have everyone believe that the only thing holding him back from ushering in a new utopia for mankind is Superman.
The truth is that Lex, for all his wealth and power and brilliance, has a deeply rooted inferiority complex. He hates Superman and Supergirl precisely because the world adores them. One of the dominant themes of Lex’s character arc in Season 5 is that he can’t help but sabotage his own success for the sake of his vendetta against Superman. Even after creating a new world where he’s a beloved public figure and global hero, Lex is consumed by his hatred of Kryptonians. He can’t allow himself to simply enjoy his victory. And with Season 5 ending with Lex seemingly on top of the world, the only question now is what he’ll do to bring it all crashing down.
Crisis has added another layer to the Lex Luthor onion. Having been killed by his own sister in the Season 4 finale and resurrected by the Monitor, Lex now has an uncomfortable familiarity with death. He’s obsessed with doing anything and everything he can to ensure he never dies a second time. That fear of dying remains with him even in a post-Crisis world.
Lex Luthor vs. Leviathan
Lex isn’t really the main villain of Season 5, per se. That honor instead falls on Leviathan, a secretive organization pulling the strings of the Arrowverse for centuries. Leviathan was the big threat to Team Supergirl leading up to Crisis, and the creation of Earth-Prime basically reset that conflict to square one. The key difference this time? Lex Luthor is involved.
Season 4 aside, Supergirl has never had a great track record with its major, overarching villains, and Leviathan hasn’t really been an exception. That organization has gone through two major incarnations in the comics, first as a terrorist cell led by Talia al Ghul and then as an organization hellbent on wiping out the world’s intelligence agencies and forcing a new era of global peace. Supergirl’s take on Leviathan shares very little in common with either of those versions. It’s basically a secret society of powerful gods who seek to enslave humanity through technology, resulting in the same sort of heavy-handed social allegory that can be both a blessing and a curse with the series.
Frankly, Lex has been the glue holding the series together during its Leviathan Redux storyline. Where Leviathan and villains like Gamemnae and Rama Khan aren’t really enough to drive the series on their own, the addition of Lex Luthor to that dynamic helps make the series much more exciting and unpredictable. It taps into that old chestnut “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and forces Team Supergirl to accept Lex as an unlikely ally against a common foe, even as they know he can’t be trusted. It casts Lex in a less villainous light while also leaving viewers to question whether he truly wants to defeat Leviathan or simply harness the group’s power for his own ends.
This new status quo has also paved the way for a fascinating dynamic between Lex and Brainiac 5. The two became reluctant partners in Season 5, with Brainy making the choice to sever his mind from his emotions and work with Supergirl’s enemy in order to ensure Leviathan’s defeat. That’s resulted in a terrific character arc for Brainy. He and Lex have been trapped in an ongoing battle of wills. Brainy is the only person on the planet who might be considered Lex’s intellectual equal. He thinks he can steer Lex in the right direction to ensure a better future, but each new run-in with Leviathan results in Brainy’s hands becoming more stained. That pseudo-alliance culminates in the Season 5 finale, where we finally learn whether Brainiac 5’s 12th-Level intellect is is enough to outmaneuver Lex Luthor (spoiler alert – it’s not).
Crisis on Infinite Earths Aftermath: All the Ways the Arrowverse Has Changed
The Luthor Family
While Cryer’s Lex is a relatively recent addition to the Arrowverse, the Luthor family at large has long been a Supergirl staple. Matriarch Lillian Luthor was revealed to be the head of Project Cadmus, one of the bigger thorns in Supergirl’s side over the past five years. And Lex’s sister Lena has always been the series’ biggest question mark. Will she redeem the family name in the eyes of the world? Can a friendship between a Luthor and a Kryptonian truly survive?
That last question has been all the more pressing in Season 5 now that Kara and Lena have had their big falling out. Lex’s parting “gift” to his sister in Season 4 was the reveal that her BFF Kara is Supergirl, a fact that Lena somehow never picked up on. That one act destroyed the Kara/Lena friendship and sent Lena down a dark and ruinous path. Even if Lex had stayed dead after Season 4, his role in transforming Lena from friend to enemy would have been enough to elevate Season 5. Lena’s descent into darkness and her slow climb back to the light has easily been among the strongest Season 5 plot threads. Even more so in the wake of “Deus Lex Machina,” which revealed just how much Lex’s secret identity leak was motivated out of jealousy over Lena’s bond with Kara.
As for Lillian, while the character never fully clicked as the ruthless head of Cadmus, she’s taken on a second life in her new role as Lex’s confidant and mentor. It’s been a real treat watching the two interact in Season 5 and watching Lillian steadily lose faith in her son’s ability to put aside his ego and finish the job. She understands Lex better than he does himself, but even that isn’t enough to alter his self-destructive trajectory.
Season 5 ends with a victorious Lex harnessing the stolen power of Leviathan and reuniting with a proud Lillian, even as Lena and Kara finally bury the hatchet and rekindle their friendship. On one hand, it’s a shame the COVID-19 pandemic cut Season 5 short and we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see Supergirl continue these threads. On the other, maybe the series will be able to use that delay to its advantage. Rather than quickly wrap up the Lex Luthor/Leviathan storyline, the series can build an entirely new season on the idea of Lena battling her estranged family members for the fate of mankind. The more Luthor family drama, the better.
For more on the current state of the Arrowverse, check out our reviews for The Flash: Season 6 finale and Batwoman: Season 1 finale, learn more about the surprise reveal of Bruce Wayne’s face and find out which two series will take part in the next Arrowverse crossover.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.