The unlikeliest of adversaries for DC’s golden hero, Lex Luthor has been the enduring arch-nemesis for Superman since his first appearance in Action Comics #23 in 1940. As a billionaire, business magnate and man of science, he’s managed to remain a villainous figure thanks to his genius intellect and next-level engineering capabilities. While many actors have given the character their best shot, only a few have been able to encapsulate the foe’s larger than life persona as one of the world’s greatest masterminds. It takes some gall to stand up to a Kryptonian, so naturally, only a truly masterful performance can convince audiences that a bald madman has what it takes to steal the Man of Steel’s crown.
From live-action renditions to remarkable voice work, many actors have thrown their hats into the ring as the best Luthor. We’ve gathered the very best in a fight of the fittest to see who’s really worthy of ruling over Metropolis. So here you have it, Every Lex Luthor Adaptation, Ranked from Worst to Best.
Brace yourselves, this won’t be pretty.
15. Steve Blum (The Flashpoint Paradox, Throne of Atlantis, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Infinite Crisis)
Awarded the Guinness World Record in 2012 for being the most prolific video game voice actor of all time, Steve Blum has distinguished himself among his contemporaries in large part because of his distinctive deep-rasping voice. Appearing as the megalomaniac on multiple occasions, Blum has noted Luthor’s unmistakable obsession with power as a motivator behind his version of the character.
Appearing in only minor cameos in The Flashpoint Paradox, Throne of Atlantis and Justice League vs. Teen Titans as well as being featured prominently in the former multiplayer online game Infinite Crisis, Blum accentuates Luthor’s intelligence through the use of heavy pronunciation. It’s through his concise language that Blum’s take on the character is able to exhibit his imposing presence. Although we’re given the smallest sample size by which to judge his performance, Blum manages to capture a sophisticated Luthor who shows that not only does he have a sense of entitlement, but he has the means and influence to exert his power on whomever he pleases.
14. Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs. Superman)
Is there anything cooler than saying you were the first live-action performer to play Lex Luthor? How about also being the first person to play Commissioner Gordon alongside the bat of Gotham?
Lyle Talbot was truly a remarkable character actor for his time, having appeared in a variety of roles throughout 150 different films. Back when B flicks were in their prime, he took over the role of “Luthor” (the character was never given a first name) in the serial Atom Man vs. Superman. He would play alongside Kirk Alyn’s version of the superhero as a mad scientist in a post-World War II society that still lived in fear of a nuclear threat.
Although the 1950s Luthor is far from a bad adaptation, the character was nowhere near the confident business man we now know. Sporting a bald cap on his head, Talbot simply lacked the material to play a grade A version of the villain. The performance may be dated, but we’d like to see what Talbot could have done with the character if given a chance today.
13. Scott James Wells & Sherman Howard (Superboy)
Chronicling the life of Superman during his teen years, Superboy depicted a youthful Lex Luthor played by Scott James Wells who bullied Clark Kent in high school. After running for a single season, the show shifted gears following the loss of Luthor’s hair. Producer Ilya Salkind, unimpressed with the direction of the show, would replace the majority of the cast for the sophomore season, including placing Sherman Howard (Bub from Day of the Dead) in the role of the antagonist in question.
Reinvigorating the character, Howard would appear in the season two opener as a much older version of Lex after surgically changing his appearance and pouring acid on his vocal cords to permanently alter his voice. While the difference was night and day, it was a necessary step forward to improve viewership. As the mad scientist ripped directly from the Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s, Howard brought a sinister feel to the character with his maniacal smile and laughter. Often underrepresented in the debate for the best on screen Luthor, Wells and Howard’s version falls short only due to the subpar quality of the show in which they appeared.
12. Chris Noth (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths)
The only Lex Luthor on the list that could be described as a “good guy”, this alternate version of the character is voiced by Chris Noth, most noted for his role as Mr. Big in Sex and the City. As the only survivor of the Earth-2 Justice League, he turns to the heroes of Earth-1 for help following his escape from the evil Crime Syndicate. With his first big voice acting gig, Noth brings a bold stoicism to the part. Thanks to his yellow and black warsuit, he appears noticeably more noble with a fortitude that’s a departure from the Lex audiences are used to seeing.
Although Noth does his best to present the hero of Crisis on Two Earths as the admirable archetype of what a savior should be, there’s still an underlying mistrust present in the character’s demeanor. Whether it’s the hint of a smirk or a confident standing posture, the character never quite escapes the audience’s perceptions of the menacing Earth-1 Lex. As a villain gone good, Noth remains as convincing as possible, showing a side of Luthor we doubt we’re likely to see much of again.
11. Jesse Eisenberg (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
In his fifteen year career, Jesse Eisenberg has built a reputation as a millennial’s Woody Allen – a neurotic intellectual who can outwit the best of them with his spastic outbursts. As the self-indulgent Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, it was a winning combination. The character was perfectly filtered through Eisenberg’s real world persona, capturing the actor’s manic mannerisms while still showing the underlying dimension of a media mogul alienated from the world. It was a style that could have been applicable to Zack Snyder’s version of Lex Luthor, if only the rebooted villain had stayed within Eisenberg’s realm of believability.
In Batman v Superman, Luthor is an extension of Eisenberg’s Social Network performance, that is, if Zuckerberg had finally gone off the deep end and crossed over into sociopathic territory. It’s not that the actor doesn’t know how to pull off being menacing with his jerky ticks and overt sense of inferiority next to the Man of Steel, but he lacks a commanding presence next to the hero. Without much room to stand out next to so many characters, we can’t help but feel Snyder pulled the trigger too early in revealing this foe to the DCEU.
10. Stan Jones (Super Friends)
As a classic voice actor, Stan Jones has had a hand in many notable animated creations — including contributing his voice to various characters in cartoons such as The Transformers, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk — but perhaps no role was better suited to his diabolical tone than Lex Luthor.
Appearing in Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends franchise between the late-1970s to mid-1980s, Luthor was the biggest recurring comic book villain of the series. Dressed in his pre-Crisis purple jumpsuit, he was shorter than than the Luthors of later years, but made up for it with his maniacal laughter, technological prowess and madman personality.
Bringing together the Legion of Doom as a response to the formation of the Super Friends, he takes a clear leadership role due largely to his intellectual advantage. Jones supplies the kind of forceful voice that seems to reign over his opposition, imposing his will onto anyone who gets in his way. As the bad guy, he plays the part of the evil-doer intent on taking over the world, giving us a dash of the retro villains of the time that were happy just to be the big bads on the block.
9. Kevin Michael Richardson (Batman: The Brave and the Bold)
Although he’s more known for his portrayal as the Joker in The Batman, for which he was nominated for two Daytime Emmys, Kevin Michael Richardson has become a prominent name when it comes to voicing bad guys. Recognized for his deep, sultry voice reminiscent of James Earl Jones, his take on Luthor is a product of the impoverished Suicide Slums of Metropolis, having grown up in a broken home with abusive parents.
Compared to the size and appearance of the other Luthors on our list, the Brave and the Bold version is considerably more daunting. Showing up in the third season episodes “Battle of the Superheroes!”and “Triumvirate of Terror!,” he’s depicted as a hefty, fat-chinned villain with a height advantage and broad shoulders. He holds considerable influence in both scientific research and technological advancement, as he’s able to get his hands on some red kryptonite and plot his escape from prison with the help of a robotic double. He also sports his signature battle suit, which he uses to knock Batman unconscious after ambushing him in the back cave. With plenty of strength to tap into, Richardson supplies the deep tone to make his Luthor an antagonist to remember.
8. John Shea (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman)
Although Lois and Clark was more of a romantic comedy between the Man of Tomorrow and the Daily Planet’s top journalist, it gave audiences one of the most apt portrayals of Lex Luthor to date. As a main cast member in season one, John Shea epitomizes the Lex of John Byrne’s Post-Crisis Superman era. He was a vicious capitalist with a coolness about him that spoke to his truly selfish nature. He was the kind of guy to always surround himself with luxury, whether it was with a glass of cognac or a stunning model.
Shea differed the most from the other actors on this list due to his affections for Lois, even going so far as to almost marry her before being left at the altar. The diabolical Lex would jump to his death in the season one finale, only to return sporadically over the next three seasons. As an overlooked version of the villain, Shea had a debonair charm and business-like acumen that was only matched by his tendency to lash out in spurts of anger. Never over the top, he was a prime example of an antagonist that didn’t overcompensate to prove his worth.
7. Mark Rolston (Young Justice)
Soft spoken and charming beyond compare, this Lex is at the apex of the food chain. As the CEO of LexCorp, the bald billionaire is an expert manipulator, perfecting his craft through philanthropic upkeep to maintain appearances. It’s all a facade maintained to keep the populace at arm’s length, of course, as the Machiavellian evil-doer gets involved with several shady deals to prevent the formation of the Justice League from inhibiting the natural order of things.
Mark Rolston exhibits the conniving side of Luthor hidden under all the polite talk. Often shown in a suit and tie, the Young Justice take on the comic book antagonist is well kept and seemingly trustworthy, putting him in the dangerous position to rise to meteoric heights through his political acuity. Behind the scenes, he’s a founding member of the Light, a council of like-minded personalities intent on making sure mankind cannot escape the tragedies necessary for it to evolve. It’s all about turning an idea into a money maker for the Young Justice bad guy, and if no one else is willing to do the dirty work, he’s going to be the one to get it done.
6. James Marsters (Superman: Doomsday)
Patterned after the designs of Superman: The Animated Series (more on that in a bit), this direct-to-video version of Luthor is as cold and remorseless as any version of the character we’ve seen. James Marsters, who’s most famous for playing Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fits the profile well. Although his calm voice puts Luthor’s truly cunning demeanor on display, this version of the bad guy is at his best when his emotions are aflame. Equipped with a kryptonite knuckled glove inside a Red Solar room, he mercilessly beats Superman with an uncontrollable passion while delivering lines like “Who’s your daddy?” with just the right touch of hilarity.
As appearances go, the Doomsday Lex is tall and slim with a defining jawline. His intelligence is at its peak level as he’s said to have cured every known form of muscular dystrophy, which he plans to use to his advantage to make a profit. As an amoral businessmen, Lex keeps the audience guessing as to what scheming plot could come next. Marster’s version remains one of the most unpredictable renditions, which inevitably leads to the abomination that is Doomsday. As an animated villain, we’d say he gets an A+.
5. Gene Hackman (Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace)
Gene Hackman was a name brand actor making the rounds by the time the script for Superman: The Movie landed in his lap. He had starred in successes like The French Connection and The Conversation, proving his ability to deliver a serious performance capable of turning heads. So when his comedic version of Luthor finally debuted on the big screen, it was clearly divisive among fans. But despite the hubbub over the performance, he managed to turn in a memorable villain whose subtleties had just the right hint of nefarious wrongdoings lurking beneath the surface.
Refusing to go bald for the role, Hackman sported a multitude of bad hair pieces to varying degrees of amusement. As a businessman with a scheme to line his pockets and wipe out most of the U.S. West Coast, this Luthor was in it for himself. Of course, if the Kryptonian got in his way, he wasn’t opposed to showing him the true extent of his power. He might have cranked up the theatrics to 110%, but that didn’t stop Hackman from pushing a detective in front of an oncoming train, making this Lex a cold, calculated monster that stood his own against Christopher Reeve’s Superman.
4. Anthony LaPaglia (All-Star Superman)
Imprisoned thanks to a genetically-enhanced clone that he’d set to kill Superman, Lex Luthor spends time behind bars in 2011’s All-Star Superman. With the caped hero slowly dying from solar radiation, Luthor plots to gain powers of his own from inside his cell by stealing a super serum that Superman made for Lois’ birthday. When the antagonist is ultimately defeated by the superhero, he laments the loss of his powers, talking only of how he could have benefited the world with his newfound abilities.
A proven actor, Anthony LaPaglia, best known for his role as Jack Malone in Without a Trace, injects a humanity into an otherwise undeterred criminal mind. After experiencing the world firsthand through Superman’s eyes, Luthor comes out the other side having had a spiritual revelation. Rather than squandering his chance to do some good with his powers, he continues his ever-lasting feud with his heroic nemesis, only to see him die. Realizing how purposeless his objectives have been, he atones for his past mistakes by recreating Superman’s genetic makeup through a human ovum. LaPaglia tapped into a rarely seen side of the billionaire baddie, showing that even the most sinister villains are nothing without a hero to oppose them.
3. Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville)
A standout among the other Luthors, Rosenbaum is one of the only actors to portray a young adult version of the character. The cards weren’t in his favor at the beginning of Smallville. The CW show was plagued with issues, including not being able to include much of the iconic imagery associated with the DC Comics that inspired it, but that didn’t stop the actor from turning in an admirable performance as the megalomaniac that, as it turned out, started out life as Clark Kent’s friend.
It was a years long process that slowly saw the mental unraveling of Rosenbaum’s Luthor into the egotistical entrepreneur he would someday become. He went toe-to-toe with his father, Lionel Luthor, whose position as the manipulative founder and CEO of LuthorCorp put Lex in constant conflict with his own moral sensibilities. In the end, he would cave under the pressures of his own vices, consumed by the desire to learn Clark’s secret. He was a loyal friend, who succumbed to his role as the archenemy after a long history of deceit finally caught up to him. And while it was mostly unexplored terrain for the character during the time, the history of the villain was expertly crafted.
2. Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns)
In many ways a continuation of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, Superman Returns features a Lex Luthor reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s early portrayal. Kevin Spacey turns on the boisterous line delivery, but with each moment of slight comedy, the hardened criminal becomes more evident. Dipping into hysteria, we get a glimpse into the future of Spacey’s acting career with just a hint of Frank Underwood from House of Cards bubbling to the surface. This version of Lex is contained — a man of business with an interest in science who can utilize his power to manipulate anyone he wants — but at the same time, he’s not afraid to come off as being deviously out of control, lashing out in anger to eyebrow-raising effect on more than one occasion.
As a live-action version of Superman’s greatest foe, Spacey has embodied the character better than any other. While the campy element of Hackman’s performance remains, it’s Spacey’s darker side that proves a winner. He gets his hands dirty, going so far as to stab the Man of Steel with a crystal forged from kryptonite and leaving him for dead. It’s an admirable take on the villain that stands out on the lengthy list of bad guys Spacey has played on screen.
1. Clancy Brown (DCAU)
Smooth, confident and coated with enough hatred to keep viewers in suspense — Clancy Brown has embodied every beloved aspect of Superman’s greatest enemy since he began voicing the role in Superman: The Animated Series. As a veteran actor, he understands the allure a powerful figure can have. With the right amount of solemnity and wealth, the billionaire industrialist can turn the invincible Man of Steel back into a cowardly farm boy from Smallville. As a tall, broad specimen, the Luthor of the DCAU was physically intimidating, towering over his enemies and matching Metropolis’ hero with his stature, perfectly reflecting the attitude Brown brought to the part.
One of the most menacing voice actors of our generation, Brown rivals the likes of Mark Hamill’s Joker for the best foes in the DCAU. While never outright sociopathic in his delivery, he manages to nail all the nefarious underpinnings of the corporate version of Luthor with ease. He is a man with unlimited resources and the wherewithal to see his plans through to the end. As Brown put it himself, “Lex is the bad guy. He’s the archetype. He’s everything that’s ugly about who we are as people.” It’s that inner ugliness, the temptation of the dark side, that makes him the ultimate Lex Luthor.
Who do you think was the best Lex of all time? Do you agree with our rankings? Sound off in the comments.