The chilly splendor of the Fortress of Solitude interior, the glass-lined maze of the Daily Planet newsroom, the unbelievably well-landscaped jungle of Lois Lane’s balcony — Superman: The Movie is full of enormous art installations for the characters to live, work and fight in. But the most spectacular of all is Lex Luthor’s lair, two hundred feet below Park Avenue.
Overstuffed and shabby chic, this subterranean museum of crime is the perfect hideout for a villain who’s trying to convince the audience that he’s important, in a hurry. Luthor enters the film with a messy murder that immediately establishes his villainous credentials, but after that, he spends a lot of the movie just hanging around downstairs. Superman gets to fly around catching crooks and saving the day, while the villain sits in the basement, reading back issues of National Geographic. If he’s going to get any respect from the audience, then that needs to be a damn impressive basement.
And oh, look at this. This set is so big and complicated that it’s hard to keep it all in your head at one time. It seems to refresh itself every time we see it, showing us new angles and attractions. It is grand, and it is central to understanding the very complicated villain who has just entered our lives.
In fact, it’s based on New York’s Grand Central Terminal, a Beaux-Arts landmark built in the first decade of the 20th century.
The terminal features wide-mouthed archways and staircases with big chunky balustrades, and classy typeset signage.
In the introduction to this first villains sequence, Otis walks through the real Grand Central Terminal on his way downstairs to the lair, preparing the audience for the fantasy space that we’re about to enter. Otis hops between train cars and along the tracks to a secret portal, and then goes down a ladder to what we’re supposed to imagine is a forgotten area of the station.
So today I just want to pay attention to this magnificent set, which deserves close inspection. As we move through, we’ll see seven distinct spaces in the set: the control room, the map room, the study, the pool, the sun patio, the bedroom, and the ticket windows area.
The control room is the first area that we see, and it’s full of magic TV screens that show anything that Luthor wants to look at, like a wizard’s scrying pool. That ability gives Luthor some evil sorceror powers that establish his foresight and cunning, and there’s an immediate visual joke of seeing a main screen surrounded by displays on mismatched, scavenged television sets.
Still, there’s not much to see here in this dark, windowless space, and Luthor spends most of his time here either bored or frustrated. This is the standard spy-movie villain set, which he finds awkward and confining.
But then they exit into the map room, and things get a lot more interesting in a hurry. I’m not really sure what to call this area — a lobby? a rotunda? It doesn’t seem to be anything in particular.
This is when we discover that Lex has converted an abandoned part of Grand Central Terminal into his private headquarters. We see lots of archways, with some of them blocked up, implying that Luthor somehow walled off a part of the station that people weren’t using anymore. The arch that leads to the control room is marked “To Lower Level – Baggage Delivery”, but the door that Lex and Eve emerge through is a sci-fi metal door that slides up and down, sporting a radioactive hazard symbol that suggests this is a mad science lab.
The room is ringed by blocked-off archways, festooned with mysterious black electronic equipment that continues the Bond-villain control room theme. But there’s also a comfy leather chair with matching ottoman in the foreground, next to a side table with a couple of bottles, which indicates that this is also a private, homey space — a piece of public property that Lex has claimed as his own.
The most important feature of the room is the inlaid floor showing a map of the United States, with lines indicating the train routes accessible from the station.
The legend around the circumference says Metropolis & Transcontinental Railroad – Linking the Peoples of America, a gorgeous detail that represents Luthor’s continent-spanning plan. His scheme stretches from Metropolis on the east coast to California on the west, via long-range ballistic missile, and this is the place where Luthor connects the dots for Superman.
Exiting the map room, Luthor and Eve walk into the study, which is the part of the set that gets the most use. This is where he schemes and plots, and that’s basically his entire job description, so it’s the most detailed area of the set.
In the actual Grand Central train station, the spaces feel appropriately functional; you don’t imagine that you’re walking through someone’s house. But when Lex treats one of these areas as if it’s his living room and fills it with furniture and art, the vaulted ceilings and stone pillars become the skeleton of a mansion. He’s essentially squatting in the basement of a bus station, which sounds pathetic, but the grand scale of the rooms and the run-down opulence of the furniture elevate this space above the ordinary.
There are a couple of big statues in another part of the set that look like they might have been part of the train station, but everything else that’s here is clearly scavenged. There’s a piano, for one thing, and on top of the piano there’s a blizzard of black-and-white photos in little frames. Over on the credenza parked behind the couch, there’s a big black inkwell that’s made in the shape of a crouching devil. Lex is clearly a pack rat, sneaking ornaments and treasures from the surface world, and carrying them downstairs to build his nest.
Across from the piano, there’s another couch with a fancy side table and more objets d’art, and there are two doors set into the wall. One of them is the steel door that leads from the trackway into the lair, which Otis uses when he enters the lair. That’s also the door that Superman busts his way through rather than knock and ask to be let in, because as we’ve seen, when Superman has feelings to express, he tends to say it with doors.
Next to that, there’s a corrugated steel garage door, where Lex keeps his “babies” — a set of ferocious animals of uncertain species who live in a special pit for dangling people over. You won’t see this in the regular movie; it only appears in the Extended TV cut, which we’ll talk about tomorrow.
But the really eye-catching part of this area is the enormous set of bookshelves built into the back wall, where Luthor keeps all of his reference material. This is one of the more fantastic elements of the set. You shouldn’t think for too long about how they could have built this in an abandoned part of the train station, and stocked it with all these books, with nobody noticing all of the material being carried through Grand Central and across live railway tracks, en route to a secret area that nobody knows about. The idea doesn’t stand up to verisimilitude-level scrutiny.
But nobody thinks about it, because this is mostly metaphorical. This is the physical manifestation of Lex’s restless intellect, demonstrating the storehouse of factual information that he can draw on, when he’s devising his lunatic schemes.
So, yeah, the pool — another utterly fantastic amenity that acts as the setting for a major plot point, later on. There’s a grand staircase sweeping down from the study, leading to a blocked-off area labeled “To Bar and Restaurant”. Lex has blocked all of the passages and built himself a swimming pool here, where he can get some exercise without having to go outside and get caught by the prowling policemen.
Again, this room’s tenuous connection to reality is not very important. It’s another expression of Lex’s questing intelligence, looking at this space, and finding unconventional ways to turn a crumbling ruin into a palace.
Overlooking the pool, there’s an absolutely crazy beach patio area: an empty space transformed into a sunny beach, decked out with palm trees, furniture and even a beach ball. There are screens in all of the archways projecting images of a tropical beach, and in the brief time that we see this area, there’s Hawaiian music playing.
Before I started writing this post, I never really understood why this is part of the set; it seemed like random eccentricity to me. But now that I’m spending time thinking about the living quarters, I get it — these people spend a lot of time hiding underground, and they need a big sun lamp to keep from turning into pale, bedraggled ghosts. They need to sunbathe regularly, so they turned this area into their own version of a beach.
It’s possible that everybody else caught this the first time, and I’m just slow, but that’s my personal eureka moment for the day.
Okay, we’re almost done. Lex and Eve’s private quarters are up another set of stairs. We only see this for about 20 seconds, when Lex gets out of the pool and shouts for Otis to bring him his robe. It’s a tantalizing little peek at the bedroom, which is overflowing with various items of what I presume is everybody’s wardrobe. We see Otis fussing with Lex’s wigs, which is a clue for the audience that yes, Lex Luthor is bald, just like you think he should be.
Finally, there’s departures and arrivals, which we only see glimpses of in the film. In this first lair sequence, you can see some of it around the corner and a bit more later, when Lex walks Superman over to the pool, and when he stands on the balustrade and talks to Superman.
The wall has a row of ticket windows…
with a big departures and arrivals board that’s rotted away.
Flanking the crumbling information board, there are posters for the U.S. Navy, the Barnum & Bailey circus and U.S. Bonds.
On the landing, in front of the boarded-up ticket windows, there’s a line of pinball machines and a pool table, so this must be the lair’s entertainment area. (You can get a much closer look on CapedWonder, where there’s a high-res picture, and lots of other behind-the-scenes shots.) And I’m sure there are other interesting things scattered around that we don’t get close enough to see.
So obviously, I’m in love with this set, which is why I’ve written a long post just looking around and pointing at things. Partly, it’s the level of craftsmanship that went into it, taking a completely imaginary space that could have been a few dark rooms, and turning it into a palace.
But the most important thing is that the set tells a story about Lex Luthor — who he is, and what he’s been doing all this time, before we meet him. It shows how clever he is, taking a public space and repurposing it for his own needs, and how little regard he has for the public that it was originally built for. It demonstrates the scale of his ambitions, laid out in marble and wood and brass.
Importantly, it also shows us that he can be playful, filling the space with whimsical curios and setting up a make-believe beach. The movie wants us to enjoy spending time with Lex, so that we look forward to seeing him again. He enters the film by murdering a policeman, and by the end, he comes close to slaughtering several million people — but there’s all that time in the middle when he makes us laugh, and strange as it may seem, we like him, and we want to see more of him.
Luthor’s pit of ravenous beasts
don’t make the cut in
1.48: Feed the Babies
Thanks to Jim Bowers of CapedWonder.com for letting me use the lair picture. The site is full of amazing images from the four classic Superman movies, and he’s got a great CapedWonder Superman Podcast paying tribute to the film series.
Luthor’s pit of ravenous beasts
don’t make the cut in
1.48: Feed the Babies
— Danny Horn