Ask Chris #188: Lex Luthor And The Joker
Q: Who do you find more psychologically interesting, the Joker or Lex Luthor? – Jordan, via email
A: You know, it’s weird. As much as you see Superman and Batman together in stories where they’re continually contrasted against each other, full of endlessly terrible first-person narration about how “Clark likes pancakes because he can’t understand what it means to be vulnerable” but “Bruce always told me Alfred makes the best French toast, he has so much trouble trusting others” or whatever, their arch-nemeses don’t often get compared with each other in the same way. They team up from time to time, sure, but usually the focus is just on their common goal of murdering the good guys, so you don’t get too much there. That said, I like both of those characters a lot, and after thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that as the World’s Foremost Batmanologist, as someone who has written extensively about the Joker and his relationship with Batman, it’s definitely Lex Luthor.
Boom. Y’all just got swerved.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t think the Joker is interesting, not by a long shot. He’s up there with Dr. Doom, who I think we can all agree is the gold standard, as one of the greatest villains in comics history. But at the same time, he’s not really all that complex. Not really.
When you get right down to it, the Joker is actually very simple. No matter what version of the character you’re looking at, he’s only ever motivated by one thing, and that’s that he wants to defeat Batman — and I say “defeat” instead of “kill” because murder is only part of the equation. It’s a big part of it, because it tends to make for the most thrilling straightforward adventure story, but it’s certainly not the only thing. It’s the common factor to everything he does, whether it’s trying to push Batman into crossing the line and taking a life or trying to win a surfing competition to become king of the beach. It’s all about proving Batman’s fallibility and mortality, and with it, that everything Batman stands for is fallible and mortal, that it can all be destroyed with just the right application of death and destruction.
And really, that makes sense. In a world where everyone and their cousin’s dog has seen The Dark Knight, it’s pretty cliché to talk about how the Joker is (sigh) “an agent of chaos,” but in a lot of ways, that’s true. Batman’s entire deal is that a random act of violence cost him everything as a child, taking away safety and comfort, and his response is to grow up dedicated to imposing order on a chaotic world. He becomes a crimefighter, and crime by its very nature is chaotic. The Joker disrupts that order, but the thing is, he does it in a very calculated way. Everything he does is designed around a specific goal, a twisted love letter to one person. Everything else is incidental.
That’s what makes the Joker such a compelling villain, because while the goal is always the same, the method of attack is always different. Is he going to poison all the fish in Gotham City and then use that as an excuse for a series of murders, setting up a game with rules that don’t make any sense to complicate the simple fact that he’s killing to prove that he simply can’t be stopped? Is he going to set up an elaborate killing spree built on misdirection, where all the death and suffering is only a side effect of the true plan? Is he going to shape an impressionable young doctor into a living instrument that he can use and discard as necessary? Is he going to go after Batman directly or undermine and provoke him by attacking his allies? He’s going to do all of that. Or he might just rob the box office at a showing of Pagliacci. It could go either way.
The most interesting psychological development for the Joker is the one that Grant Morrison came up with, which he debuted in Arkham Asylum and later brought up again during Aztek and his run on Batman, where he characterized the Joker as having “supersanity,” where his personality is constantly reinventing itself in response to a chaotic world. It’s a neat idea, and I really like it as an explanation of the different versions of the Joker that crop up, from the mass murderer to the would-be King of the Surfers.
But at the end of the day, that’s kind of all it is, too — a metatextual explanation for something that exists because the stories have been written by different people in different eras. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s bad — you give me half a chance and I’ll talk your ear off about how much I love that part in Batman R.I.P. where he treats the Black Glove like a pack of amateurs because they have no idea what you need to do to even come close to scoring a victory over Batman — but in terms of being “psychologically interesting?” It’s pretty simple. Dude wants to beat Batman, and will do anything, on any scale, to accomplish that. No one else matters, they’re all just tools and resources.
Luthor, on the other hand, is fascinating.
When I talk about Lex Luthor, I should probably go ahead and note that the version of the character I’m working with is primarily going to be the Evil Billionaire version first introduced by John Byrne when he rebooted Superman after Crisis on Infinite Earths (or the Superman: The Animated Series version, for those of you more cartoonishly inclined). Lex has seen a handful of different versions himself over the decades, but unlike the Joker, he doesn’t have that handy metatextual out for different versions, and that’s my favorite. Not coincidentally, it’s also the version I grew up with, but, you know, that’ s how it goes with this stuff.
Luthor and the Joker both share a few interesting points in how they’re built, but there’s one key difference: With the Joker, Batman is the goal. With Luthor, Superman is the obstacle.
The Joker exists because of Batman. I mean, in the literal sense, all villains exist because they’re created as a foil for the protagonist, but it’s been established within the story since way back in 1951 with “The Man Behind The Red Hood” that Batman was instrumental in the creation of the Joker as we know him today, whether he was a criminal before he got dumped into that tank of crazy chemicals or not. It’s remained consistent for 63 years, to the point where it’s actually pretty notable that The Dark Knight, probably the most widely known Joker story in history, didn’t make that connection and instead chose to have the Joker appear fully formed, but even then, that movie was thematically all about criminals like the Joker coming to prominence in response to Batman. The connection was still there, just shifted to a more metaphorical level.
With Luthor, there was originally the same connection. Plucky young scientist Lex Luthor is working on a Kryptonite antidote to help out his buddy Superboy when the experiment goes wrong and Superboy intervenes, putting out the fire and causing Young Lex to believe he sabotaged the experiment rather than share the glory with a mere human. It’s actually the blueprint for the later Reed Richards/Victor von Doom relationship, except that a) Dr. Doom was dabbling in forbidden black magic and trying to rescue his mother from the actual devil, which is rad, and b) Lex went bald instead of getting a scar that made him wear a metal mask for the rest of his life.
It stems from around the same time, but over the years, the stories have largely moved away from that idea. With the exception of Smallville (which is riddled with problems), the prevailing trend recently has been that Lex was, if not outright evil as a kid, at least a contrasting figure from the very beginning. Even when he and Superman are shown as childhood friends, there’s still a contrast of ideals at play:
With Businessman Lex, it’s especially pronounced — Clark Kent arrives in a Metropolis that’s utterly dominated by a completely amoral Lex Luthor. It’s one of the best reimaginings of a character in history, because transitioning Luthor out of being a criminal scientist (which, for the record, produced some amazing stories) allowed him to explore changing ideas of what power actually was. Before Superman’s arrival, Byrne’s Lex Luthor was the most powerful man in Metropolis, someone who held the city in a subtle stranglehold, someone who had positioned himself, literally and figuratively, above everyone else.
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank actually took this idea even further in Secret Origin, a story that I actually really love, recasting Lex as a sort of evil Willy Wonka, who was not only the master of the city in an economic and political sense, but who even had a monopoly on hope, giving it out to people of his choosing in order to bend the population to his will and condition them to look to him as something to be worshipped and feared.
And it all stems from arrogance.
The affront to Luthor from Superman isn’t that he’s an alien, it isn’t that he’s standing in the way of human progress. It’s not even that he can’t understand why someone would use unlimited power for the benefit of others, because his brain is simply hardwired for self-serving pragmatism with no concept of altruism, although that’s a much larger part of it. The affront to Luthor is that Superman is someone, the only person in his entire life, who has the ability stop him from doing whatever he wants. He’s the most powerful man in Metropolis.
The sheer level of narcissism at play with Luthor is endlessly interesting to me. It’s a big part of what I like about Dr. Doom, too. If you really wanted to put me under the microscope, in fact, you might even go as far as saying that I’m drawn to it because it’s something that I relate to and that I see it in myself, but that’s pretty flimsy. I mean, where are you going to find, say, 188 examples of me thinking I know everything?
Either way, it manifests itself as a pretty great lens of understanding a character. I talked before about how the Joker doesn’t really see other people as people — they’re tools and resources, the only other person who’s “real” in his mind is Batman, and everyone else is just there as part of this big machine that he can use as part of his plans. With Luthor, it’s a little different. They’re still not “people,” but they’re not nonexistent, either. They’re property. They’re assets on the balance sheet, to be used by him, but no one else.
Luthor believes that he should, by all rights, own everything, which is actually why it makes sense to see him occasionally turn on other villains, since killing anyone in Metropolis is damaging his property. But at the end of the day, their lives belong to Lex Luthor. Not only does Superman stand in his way, but he’s out there flying around, inspiring people, making them think they have a choice in the matter? It’s infuriating.
The arrogance itself is incredibly compelling, and it’s the focal point of one of my absolute favorite stories, “How Much Can One Man Hate,” by Mark Millar and Aluir Amancio, from Superman Adventures. It’s when you couple it with the level of self-delusion that he operates under? That’s when things get really interesting. The old line that Lex and Superman alway likes to pull out is that he could better the world if he wasn’t so focused on Superman, but, like Dr. Doom’s vaunted nobility, that’s not true. Lex was never going to make the world better. Lex was going to make his own life better. Anything else that was bettered as a side effect would be incidental and minimized because no one else deserved it.
It’s his relationship with Superman that really sets it, though. Luthor’s perception of things operates under that narcissistic delusion — he doesn’t just want to beat Superman, and he doens’t just want to kill him, either. I think he wants to punish Superman. And why? For his arrogance. For Luthor, Superman is the ultimate egotist, someone who is imposing his will on a man who should be above such things. Luthor doesn’t just want him dead, he wants him brought down and humbled, he wants him to take his proper place in the world which, of course, is lower in the heirarchy than Lex himself. But the irony, of course, is that arrogance is Lex’s own sin. Superman is free of ego. Superman doesn’t impose his will on anyone. That’s what makes him Superman. He helps people. But for Luthor, that help is standing between him and treating people like disposable assets, stopping him from toying with the lives of others for his own amusement.
The Joker has no illusions about who he is and what he does. He knows he’s the villain, he knows he’s the force of chaos. Luthor, on the other hand, holds that twisted idea in his mind, rewriting and rearranging the facts so that he’s the hero and Superman is the fascist would-be overlord. And he believes it, because, after all, he’s Lex Luthor. He’s the smartest man in the world. Why shouldn’t he be in charge?
They’re both good characters, but Luthor’s delusion and narcissism are so much more relatable than Joker’s off-the-scale chaos. We all want to be Superman and Batman (or we should, at least) but in reality, we all tend to edge closer to Luthor, believing that whatever we do is necessary because we’re the heroes of our own stories, and that the people who get in our way are enemies, even if it’s just something as simple as rolling our eyes at those idiots in line in front of us at the bank who didn’t bring a pen to fill out their deposit slips. Joker represents the fear of the chaos that exists outside us, the things beyond our control, and in defeating him, Batman shows us that we can endure those things and come through stronger on the other side. But Luthor is the ego that’s inside us all, that thing that says “he doesn’t deserve that, I do.” It’s that reflection that we see in him that makes us hate him, and when Superman wins, when Superman shows that that can be stopped, that altruism is real, that we can do what’s right instead of what’s expedient, it’s easier for us to conquer that part of ourselves. There are different aspects at play, and I find one a little more compelling than the other.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be partners.