For our money, Jon Cryer is currently stealing every scene (and everything that isn't nailed down) during his run of the CW's Supergirl. With that in mind, how does he rank among all those actors who have dared to portray one of the greatest super-villains of all time?
Glad you asked! Here's a look at the good, the bad, and the mediocre – big screen and small – as we rank the "Lexiest" Lex Luthors out there…
Note: True completionists may quibble with our list, as we're only including movie and television versions (sorry, no video game versions – people looking for us to trash Superman 64 will have to go elsewhere to find those rants). Also, we're not including some truly obscure versions or tiny cameos (eg, the Lego movies); and we've grouped some Luthors together for ease of discussion.
10. Superman Returns – Kevin Spacey
Controversial, I know, but in hindsight he is the weakest Luthor. Over the top acting (Wrong!), never really giving us a sense that he is the smartest person on the planet (or thinks he is), and his scheme is… a landgrab? We're going to make a new crystal continent? Lame, Luthor. Learn a new move, Lex – it's a new century. And considering what was happening concurrently on the small screen at the same time (Smallville, Justice League: Unlimited), it makes this version the smallest and weakest version. Also? F@#k Spacey.
9. Superboy – Scott James Wells and Sherman Howard
Strike one is that in the continuity of the (pretty terrible) syndicated series, two actors played Lex – which sort of says something about the quality of the show. Mostly I just feel bad for the actually fairly talented and classically-trained Howard, but there just isn't much there in this tale of college-aged Supes and Lex. His schemes mostly involved the mundane and like the series itself, is ultimately forgettable. If you want to track these down, you can revel in how late 80's/early 90's the clothes and hairstyles are.
8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice / Justice League – Jesse Eisenberg
Exactly what the hell was Lex Luthor doing in these movies – and why was Eisenberg cast? My personal head-canon is actually that Batman v Superman is a sequel to The Social Network and Eisenberg isn't actually Lex Luthor, but just Mark Zuckerberg a little bit down the road. That makes a little bit more sense, and maybe explains why he has secret files on other potential members of the Justice League – complete with their own logos? Thanks for doing our branding for us, Luthor! What exactly was he doing making Senator Holly Hunter drink pee? That's his evil plan? Then to use a veteran as a suicide bomber to splash Superman with the pee? I just can't even with this Lex Luthor. It's basically not Lex Luthor. Also not Luthor? That hair.
However, he has one redeemable moment: post credits Justice League, where he gets out of prison and meets with a certain someone on his yacht. A certain someone played by Joe Manganiello named Deathstroke. Damn but I don't want to see that movie sooooooo bad. Future head-canon: in said unmade Legion of Doom movie, Lex Luthor would've had a better supervillain plan than just making people drink pee.
7. Atom Man vs. Superman – Lyle Talbot
This 1950 Superman serial is the earliest on-screen incarnation of Lex Luthor, and as such he hadn't quite found his footing. Somewhere between a mad scientist and criminal gangster, his schemes involved hitting various areas of Metropolis with a destructive beam weapon and using a transporter to beam people into space in a sort of proto-Phantom Zone. And Lyle Talbot was not bad in the role. Trivia: he would later go on to play Commissioner Gordon in Batman serials.
That's the good. The bad? These serials were cheaply made, slowly paced, and just generally not good. There also isn't a good way to really describe the weird helmet Luthor would wear in his secret identity as the Atom Man (and since when does Lex need a secret identity?) It's like a spangled disco helmet from someone who wanted to look like an Easter Island head. But again, why does Lex Luthor need a helmet? Or a secret identity? Talbot did his best with the material he had, but that material is just not Lex-worthy.
6. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – John Shea
Some people might place this higher on the list, but here's why ultimately this version of Luthor was inferior. First, he died at the end of the first season and was in the show less from then on, and then when he came back resurrected he tried to use clones? They blew their shot in the first season.
And what was the overarching issue of Season 1? Lex and Lois are getting married! That's his big scheme? Marry Lois Lane, take her to your sewer lair, replace her with a clone? Look, we all love Teri Hatcher. But that's not really an excuse for what is overall a mostly melodramatic role. Blame the show for being more about Lois and Clark's will-they/won't-they relationship than actual Superman heroics for that.
But let's give some accolades to Shea's attempts to elevate the character. Opposite a more bland and hapless Dean Cain, Shea was definitely trying to prove he was the superior person. And his attempts to actually prove his superiority, rather than just kill his nemesis, is a key part of the Luthor persona that he managed to nail, if only briefly.
5. Superfriends – Stan Jones
"Meanwhile, at the Legion of Doom…" No other words could be quite as ominous on Saturday morning cartoons. Growing up in the 80's, this was our Lex Luthor. With the Richard Donner Superman film a little too ponderous and VHS not yet a luxury we all had, this was who we grew up with as Superman's nemesis. Above all else he was the mastermind: the guy who led the Legion of Doom from their creepy swamp lair. He was also voiced by Jones, one of those voice actors who was in everything, from Transformers to GI Joe. Fun trivia: he also played noted bald comic character Professor Xavier on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, as well as supervillains Kingpin (also bald, rich) and Doc Ock, as well as the voice of The Leader on The Incredible Hulk – nearly a bald mastermind Bingo right there.
The Superfriends show hasn't aged incredibly well, but its nostalgia is still strong. So strong, it inspired this classic promo for the Cartoon Network reminding Lex Luthor what the real key to victory is: getting Brainiac some freaking pants!
4. Smallville – Michael Rosenbaum
Whoa whoa, hold on. Before you break out the pitchfork and torches (I see all you Smallville stans out there), just let me say these top ones were harder to rank. Here on out, these are all great and arguably the definitive Lex Luthors.
Rosenbaum was everything. He was cunning, he could be evil, but just like Tom Welling's Clark Kent, we could see the good in him and wanted to fight for it. From the very first episode where he plowed over Clark in his car on that bridge, we were as obsessed with Lex as he was with finding out Clark's secrets. His sparring with his father also made him a character we wanted to root for. Lionel Luther wanted to turn his son into the cold, cunning, cynical creature we knew he was destined to be, but somehow didn't want to see him go down that road… just yet.
The downside? Lex's character took some weird turns in the show, even disappearing for a few seasons. Some of those seasons of Smallville are also nearly unwatchable. To his credit, Rosenbaum ingratiated himself further into the DC Universe by becoming a nearly ubiquitous voice actor in the animated films and series playing both Wally West and Barry Allen versions of The Flash in various projects. But in the end, Rosenbaum is the Lex we all want to root for. Which is why it pains me to put him at #4 (also, wait to see who #1 is before judging) – but he's in the best of company.
3. Supergirl – Jon Cryer
We've only had a couple of episodes with this Lex Luthor, but so far they've been magical (No spoilers, so this is as much a preview of why you should take this opportunity to catch up on Supergirl before it returns April 21 as anything else).
It took a moment to warm up to what Cryer was doing, but by the (ahhem) explosive finale of "O Brother Where Art Thou" it was beautiful, and a literal crescendo timed to classical music. It could not be more Lex Luthor if they tried. And then to see his machinations – how he is playing all sides to sew chaos for his own profit and benefit is truly beautiful to behold.
Some have previously compared Lex Luthor to Donald Trump – both billionaires who get into politics to expand their greed – but the episode "The House of L" shows Cryer's Lex to be more Vladimir Putin than Trump in terms of the games he's playing.
Indeed, this is the only time (outside of our #1) where Lex's plans truly seem so many steps ahead of everyone else: they're complex and detailed, with every possible option considered. While we still need to wait until the end of the season, he may end up being the smartest Lex Luthor we've ever seen.
This version is also brilliant in melding the nostalgic old and the modern new so effortlessly. Cryer can do a pitch-perfect yell for Miss Teschcmacher (you heard it in your head, didn't you?), and he can even quote dialogue from Batman v Superman and make it sound good. That's a feat. Also a feat? Making us even forget he once played ne'er do well nephew Lenny Luthor in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Which brings us to…
2. Superman I, II, IV – Gene Hackman
Hackman is the king. Only Hackman could keep his hair the whole series of movies and we wouldn't care because we'd still buy him as Lex Luthor. Only Hackman could be in such terrible garbage as The Quest for Peace and we don't care.
Lex Luthor! Ruler of Australia! He is so incredibly iconic: fun and campy without overdoing it, also menacing and evil when he needs to be. He's so adept at playing both sides, we almost forget he's the bad guy by the end of Superman II. He's also a few steps ahead of everyone, and I'm firmly of the mindset that he knew the part he was playing with Zod, Ursa, Non, and the molecule chamber at the end.
More than any other of the live-action performances, it's just a joy to watch Hackman work on screen – an appreciated but still under-rateded actor, his performance here is a large part of his acting legacy.
Now I said live-action actors, because our #1 spot is…
1. DC Animated Universe – Various (Clancy Brown, Kevin Michael Richardson, Michael Rosenbaum, etc.)
See, now this is why I told Smallville stans to hold their pitchforks and torches! Let's all take a moment and recognize that animated Luthor is the best Luthor. He's the most fully realized, perhaps because longform storylines really allow Lex to play out his schemes the best – and also probably because he isn't pulling some real estate/pee-drinking scheme like in most of his big-screen appearances.
With Brown playing him in Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Justice League: Unlimited we also get a truly supervillainous Lex. It also doesn't hurt having the rich basso tones of Brown on your side, and again, personal head-cannon has also-voiced-by-Brown Mr. Krabs an underwater small-fry Lex Luthor.
But especially in the Justice League cartoons, not only are his schemes giant but some are even legitimate. We also get a pathos from the dying-from-kryptonite-poisoning-cancer that Cryer's turn seems to crib directly from (steal from the best). We also like to see him hoisted on his own petard as he tries to ally himself with other supervillains like Grodd and Ultra-Humanite and someone always betrays someone else. We had his eventual merger with Brainiac, then his fragile mental health after losing Brainiac is just absolutely golden.
You also can't discount the numerous other animated features or series with Luthor where he is portrayed by others besides Brown. Rosenbaum's turn in Justice League: Doom is excellent, but we'd be remiss to also not mention voice acting legends like Richardson, Steven Blum, Fred Tatasciore, and John DiMaggio who have all taken a turn – each excellent. Let's not forget the likes of Powers Boothe, James Marsters, Chris Noth, Anthony LaPaglia, Jason Isaacs, James Woods, and Rainn Wilson also have tried their hand at voicing Luthor.
The combined talents of all of these, plus just the sheer volume and excellence of Lex Luthor work in DC's animated works, are what makes the modern animated Lex Luthor our best Lex Luthor.
Agree? Disagree? See something we missed? Have a favorite among the voice actors? Let us know what you think below – and don't forget the CW's Supergirl returns on Sunday, April 21.