He’s had henchmen. He’s had cronies. He’s had dupes and hostages and occasional team-ups, and according to the comics, there’s a whole planet out there populated by knuckleheads who think he’s a hero. But he’s never had a sidekick before; it’s just not a thing that Lex Luthor does.
He doesn’t really have a sense of humor either, or a collection of wigs, or any kind of compelling backstory or motivation.
So this, right here? This is not a Lex Luthor that we’ve seen before. This is something new.
Yesterday, we looked at the four-minute cop movie sequence that led us from the sunny streets of Metropolis down into the underworld, a dark place where a merciless villain lurked behind a perplexing bank of controls and screens, pulling fatal practical jokes on a representative sample of normal civilized humanity.
The spider at the center of the web was all-powerful, taking personal ownership of the cinematography, and editing the movie from the inside. Lex Luthor, the calculating Bond villain, was clearly in control of something vast and unknown.
And then the first thing that we see is his sidekick, who looks at him with disgust and spits out a one-word diagnosis: “Sick.”
So it turns out that the man behind the curtain isn’t exactly the great and powerful wizard that we thought he was, and it’s not immediately clear what he is instead.
“Sick, Miss Teschmacher?” he complains, getting up out of the chair and stalking through a door into what appears to be a train station lobby that’s been converted into about six other things at the same time. “Sick, when I’m mere days from executing the crime of the century?”
There’s some kind of mad scientist equipment strewn about the set, and a comfortable leather accent chair, and some filing cabinets, and I don’t know, a billiards cue? Whatever this is, there’s a lot of it. Miss Teschmacher strikes a pose against one of the computer banks — she strikes a lot of ornamental poses, it seems to be her entire job description — and he waves her away from it impatiently.
“How do you choose to congratulate the greatest criminal mind of our time?” he continues. “Huh? Do you tell me that I’m brilliant? Oh, no no no, that would be too obvious, I grant you. Charismatic? Fiendishly gifted!”
“Try twisted,” she says, opening up a drawer in the filing cabinet, and once again he impatiently shoos her away from it.
So what do you call this, when it’s at home? The immediate thought, observing a pretty young woman being bossed around by a guy in a suit, is that she’s some kind of secretary, but he apparently won’t let her near the office equipment, and she’s dressed like a burlesque magician’s assistant from the planet Cartier. The second thought is wife and/or mistress, but he calls her “Miss Teschmacher,” and he doesn’t seem to show any sexual interest in her, here or at any point in the movie.
She’s just here because she’s the most interesting thing that anybody could think of putting next to Lex Luthor. The same principle applies to everything on the set. If you wanted to, you could make the argument that the entire film industry was assembled in order to put something interesting next to Lex Luthor.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so for now, I just want to focus on how unexpected he is. This doesn’t look like the Lex Luthor that we thought we’d see. The immediate discrepancy is that he has hair, but that’s a side detail which isn’t that important. Even if you somehow got through life without ever seeing a picture of Superman’s arch-enemy, you still wouldn’t expect him to look like this.
The greatest criminal mind of our time is wearing a brown pinstripe suit with a salmon-colored shirt and a completely impossible psychedelic floral ascot; he’s got a pinky ring, and a dead flower in his lapel, and a brown spotted pocket square that is clearly desperate to escape from his pocket.
For the first part of the scene, Lex scribbles occasional notes on a battered clipboard — notes which seem to be on the subject of how much he hates his co-workers, because he only does it when someone is annoying him — and in a minute, he’s going to open a safe on the other side of the room, put the clipboard inside it, and then close the safe door without locking it.
“Tell me something, Lex,” the vamp says impertinently, “why do so many people have to die, for the crime of the century?”
“Why?” Lex responds, because he is constitutionally incapable of answer a question with anything but a series of distractions. “You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”
He switches off the lights, and struts over to another section of his bespoke, overstuffed set. “Why is the most brilliantly diabolical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?”
That’s when Otis makes his entrance, with a jolly, “I’m back, Mister Luthor!”
“Yes, I was just talking about you,” Lex says with an irritated frown, and makes another notation on his mysterious clipboard.
Then he says, “You were followed again,” and his henchman whirls around and executes a perfect comedy pratfall, knocking over a lamp in an animated display of confusion and alarm. “In spite of those catlike reflexes,” Lex observes.
This is Luthor’s world, a tangle of wit and brilliance and self-destructive impulses. He knows that these people will annoy him, but he keeps them around and feeds them cues. He comes up with what is actually a clever lunatic scheme, but then he invites an extraterrestrial archangel directly into his lair, to brag about it. Luthor makes entirely no sense, and he is a joy on every level.
The movie version of Lex Luthor is one of those mythopoetic trickster figures like Reynard the Fox, Bugs Bunny and Dr. Julia Hoffman, who exist in order to shake things up and make life interesting for everyone else. He collects equipment and ornaments like a magpie. He employs henchpeople who don’t do anything useful, and aggravate him beyond endurance on a minute-by-minute basis. He claims to be the most brilliantly diabolical leader of our time, but he hides underground in a secret cave and shows no evidence of having ever successfully completed anything, criminal or otherwise. He appears to be both extravagantly rich and totally broke.
Honestly, if he’s anything in particular, then he’s Alexander Salkind, financier and executive producer of Superman: The Movie, who made blockbuster movies as the central feature of a slapdash money-laundering scheme, and surrounded himself with shady nincompoops. Salkind was eccentric and confusing and thoroughly untrustworthy; he lived in his own world of shell companies and Swiss bank accounts, and just before this movie was released, he literally had to flee the continent of Europe, and go hide out in Mexico until his lawyers threw up enough magic smoke to exhaust everyone until they agreed to a cash settlement, which he did not pay.
I don’t know for sure that Alexander Luthor keeps seven simultaneous passports, but like Alexander Salkind, his key advantage is his unparalleled ability to dazzle and surprise. He is an agent of pure exasperating chaos, and therefore the perfect antagonist for the first blockbuster superhero film. The whole point of superhero movies is to show the audience something that we’ve never seen before, and this Lex Luthor delivers beyond any reasonable expectation.
1.45: Hair Today.
— Danny Horn