For the last week, we’ve been looking at the new version of Lex Luthor that was invented for Superman: The Movie — a down-at-the-heels art thief, inventor and real estate magnate, lurking underneath Metropolis’ Grand Central Terminal in a lair made out of other people’s property. The movie Luthor doesn’t need death rays; he’s got sarcasm, and National Geographic, and the ability to reprogram ballistic missiles. He’s sophisticated and urbane, and he plays the piano. He wouldn’t dream of putting on a silly costume, and trying to punch Superman in the face.
So that puts him at odds with the trend of modern thought at DC Comics in the mid-to-late 70s, where they’d spent the last several years turning Luthor into a cartoon character.
Lex was a consistent recurring villain in the comics, reliably turning up a few times a year from his debut in 1940 all the way up through the 70s. After his initial red-hair-and-robes days, Luthor didn’t really have a signature look — sometimes he wore a business suit, a scientist’s white coat, a button-down shirt with a tie, or (often) a prison jumpsuit. The bald head was his visual signature, and from the neck down, he could do what he liked.
But by 1974, the Superman team at DC decided that they weren’t having fun anymore with public enemy number one just sitting behind control panels and pressing buttons. They wanted a more active, go-getting Lex Luthor, who could dress up in a silly costume and trade punches with his super-foe.
So they debuted Luthor’s new look in Superman #282 (Nov 1974), in a story called “Lex Luthor: Super Scalp-Hunter!” The new costume was a vision in purple and green that caught the eye and refused to let go, with a sprightly popped collar that gave Luthor something of an elfin look, and a tight shirt that revealed that he’d spent his prison time mostly in the gym. This Luthor isn’t satisfied just lurking in his lair all day; he wants to go out and give the populace an eyeful.
Luthor’s look might be new, but the colors weren’t; there was a long tradition of green and purple comic book villains. Two early Batman villains — the Joker and the Riddler — both wore these colors, and in the 60s, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery consisted almost entirely of villains who wore green, purple or both, including the Green Goblin, Mysterio, the Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, the Vulture and Doctor Octopus.
The idea behind this color scheme is that heroes dress in bright primary colors — red and blue for Spider-Man, and red, blue and yellow for Superman — so their enemies should dress in sinister secondary colors. That’s how you tell them apart.
The Superman comics were using secondary colors for Brainiac (green and purple) and Mister Mxyzptlk (orange and purple), so when it was time to create a supersuit for Luthor, the obvious choice was to follow that trend.
The point of the new suit was to get Luthor up from the basement and out into the sunshine, where he could use his inventions to pose a physical threat to Superman. He could fly, using the standard rocket-boots attachments that everyone else in comic books wore, and he had a bunch of mad science features.
For one thing, he had a pain-inducing glove on his right hand and a laser-knife glove on his left hand, which are always helpful, plus a gravity-caster that made Superman so heavy that they both ended up plunging through the earth, all the way down to the fiery molten core, where the hero had to save the villain and bring him back topside to go to prison again.
The filmmakers had a very different idea about what to do with Lex Luthor, but the people working on the comics at the time didn’t have much interest in tying in with the movie. These days, Marvel and DC always put the characters from the latest movie onto the comic book racks — I’m writing this post a week after the Eternals premiere, and Marvel’s just published issue #7 of their new Eternals comic, and they’re also making a big deal about Doctor Strange, just ahead of his appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home and his own Multiverse of Madness film, six months from now.
But with a hugely successful movie featuring Superman and Lex Luthor just over the horizon, DC didn’t bother to put Luthor in a single comic in all of 1978. His most recent appearance was a team-up with Brainiac in the November 1977 Superman Spectacular, and we wouldn’t see him in the comics again until the end of 1979.
Still, in the battle for the hearts and minds of America’s youth, the green and purple Luthor clearly won. Mego produced two tie-in toy lines — a 12-inch action figure set, and 4-inch plastic “Pocket Heroes” — which included Superman, Jor-El, General Zod and Lex Luthor, and naturally they used the more visually exciting version from the comics. Nobody would want to buy a Luthor toy with a toupee and a brown suit.
Fortunately, it didn’t occur to anybody in 1978 to ask the producers to use a more toy-friendly design for the villain; the filmmakers were allowed to go their own way, without worrying about the impact on toy sales. Of course, this happy state of affairs wouldn’t last — by the 1990s, the people making the Batman films were toy designers first, and movie producers very much second.
Luthor made his Saturday morning cartoons debut in 1978 as well, leading the Legion of Doom in the TV series Challenge of the Superfriends. The purple and green outfit was perfect for the cartoon, giving Lex an easily identifiable, child-friendly visual hook.
In 1979, there was an episode of Challenge of the Superfriends called “Lex Luthor Strikes Back”, which was directly inspired by the movie. In this episode, Lex’s lair is built below a Metropolis subway line, and the backgrounds have many of the features from the movie’s lair, including archways, stone pillars, a huge bookcase, ticket windows, a desk and some Beaux-Arts flourishes on the walls.
Lex has a bumbling assistant named Orville in this episode, who addresses his boss with the same “Mister Luth-OR” cadence as Ned Beatty in the film, and there’s a Lois Lane as well, with a vaguely Margot Kidder-ish look. But even in this homage to the movie, Luthor stays in the colorful outfit, as the kids expect him to.
Business suit Lex would ultimately carry the day, starting with Superman’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot in 1986, but that costume doesn’t look much like the rundown con artist of the movie either. While Gene Hackman’s version of Lex seems perfect for the movies, it turns out to be an exception, rather than a turning point.
What did a blockbuster movie
look like when they started?
1.50: Dawn of the Blockbuster
— Danny Horn