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Ask Chris #327: The Thin Line Between Love And Hate

Ask Chris #327, background art by Curt Swan
Background art by Curt Swan

 

Q: Is it possible that Lex Luthor is actually in love with Superman? Is it the reason for his obsession and jealousy?@RedEarth18

A: No.

Don’t get me wrong: As much as it’s been overused and misapplied over the years, the trope of a villain who’s lashing out at a hero through some twisted kind of love isn’t exactly one that I’m opposed to. It can be the source of some genuinely great storytelling, like Noelle Stevenson‘s Nimona, and it adds a lot of layers to villains that you don’t often see in straightforward adventure stories where someone wants to punch someone else because they robbed the Crossword Puzzle Museum. I just don’t think it works for Lex.

 

Superman Adventures, DC Comics
Superman Adventures, DC Comics

 

I’ll say right up front, though, that there’s a lot of support for this idea, both textually and subtextually. Lex is, after all, a man who’s devoted his entire life to Superman, and whenever you’re dealing with that level of obsession, it’s inevitably going to point towards love — or at least some twisted variation on it. Plus, depending on your continuity of choice, there’s the idea that before they were mortal enemies, they grew up as friends back in Smallville. It’s a connection between them, this idea that they were friends once and maybe could be again, that’s played out in comics and served as the core of a television show that ran for a decade.

As Mark Waid has said about these two characters — and honestly, he’s a guy who’d know — there’s no hatred that burns hotter than one that used to be friendship, and if that friendship could lead to emotions that intense, it seems easy to believe that it could lead to other intense emotions that have been bent by anger and resentment into something else.

The Joker, for instance, is without question the most high profile example of this idea, because he’s absolutely in love with Batman. For certain values of “Love,” anyway.

 

The Dark Knight Returns, DC Comics
The Dark Knight Returns, DC Comics

 

It’s not exactly romantic, because most traditional definitions of romance do not involve trying to poison someone with smile drugs, but it’s certainly rooted in affection. I’ve written before about how the Joker’s approach to Batman is different from almost every other villain’s, because his obsession doesn’t allow room for anything else.

Compare that to all of the other big villains that Batman comes up against. They all have secondary — even primary — motivations that lead to conflict: Two-Face has his coin, Mr. Freeze has Nora, Poison Ivy has her plants. The only one who comes closest to pure obsession with Batman is the Riddler, and even then, it comes from self-interest. He wants to prove he’s smarter as a victory for himself; Batman is just the standard by which criminal genius must inevitably be judged.

The Joker, on the other hand, is obsessed to the point of myopia. I’ve written about it before, but in his mind, nothing else exists other than Batman. Everything the Joker does is built, either directly or indirectly, to affect him, and anyone else who gets caught in the backdraft is either incidental or a pawn. And honestly, while that might be pretty standard villain stuff, what really sets it apart is motivations.

The Joker doesn’t really want to kill Batman — well, he does, sort of, but that’s not the primary goal. What he wants to do is prove him wrong, to make him see things the way he does. He wants to change him. After that, well, there might be some light murdering to close out the relationship, but the fact is that he sees something in Batman that he can relate to, something that attracts him. That changes his interactions. It makes him toy with Batman, setting up lethal situations designed to push him to a breaking point rather than just breaking him, and — perhaps most importantly — it makes him root for Batman against other villains.

 

Batman RIP, DC Comics
Batman RIP, DC Comics

 

The Joker doesn’t want to see Batman lose to anyone else, not in the way that, say, Ra’s al-Ghul would probably be perfectly happy if his one major obstacle to world domination was removed from his path. He wants him to change, and while he waits for that, he wants to be the stone that sharpens the sword. He wants to cultivate. And that makes for a very interesting relationship.

But that’s not the way Luthor thinks of Superman.

The hatred that Luthor has for Superman is rooted in an entirely different set of emotions. It’s built on racism and xenophobia, and it’s built on jealousy, but there’s something else that dominates all of that. It’s built on the idea of what Lex deserves.

 

All Star Superman, DC Comics
All Star Superman, DC Comics

 

The key to understanding Lex isn’t just knowing how he sees Superman, but how he sees himself — and the key to that is understanding that there’s a level where he’s right.

He sees Superman not just as an invader from space, but also as someone who was handed everything without any effort. The truth of the former is, at best, dubious, but that second half? There’s no getting around that that’s exactly the way it is. Superman was sent to this planet as a child specifically because Jor-El knew that it was a planet where his son could thrive. He didn’t have to work to become stronger, faster, and more resilient than anyone else on the planet. He literally gets them from sunlight, and that’s not just probably the most abundant source of energy on Earth, it’s something that comes to you. He can just stand in a field and get everything he needs.

That is, of course, not the entire story — the fact of the matter that we accept as readers — is that Superman does work, not on acquiring the powers, but on using them. He devotes his entire life to the benefit of others, but that’s not what Luthor sees. Luthor just sees someone who has achieved effortless perfection, and he’s not wrong.

Lex, on the other hand, has worked. Getting back to Smallville for a second, the idea of Lionel Luthor has never really appealed to me. Even if we can all agree that John Glover is the single best thing on that show, the idea of Luthor inheriting a company — inheriting anything — runs counter to something that’s at the core of his character.

Superman, for all that he stands for, is someone who inherited everything — powers from his Kryptonian heritage, morality from the Kents. Luthor, on the other hand, built an empire by himself, through force of will, a cultivated genius, and the sweat of his brow. Whatever “Lex Luthor” is, he has chosen to be and worked to become. And the irony is that his inarguable hard work comes with a sense of entitlement that Superman’s inheritance doesn’t.

Like Bruce Wayne — a character with whom Lex shares a lot of core characteristics — Lex has natural advantages. He’s a genius, with a level of intelligence that you don’t get just from studying, and he has a drive to succeed that has made him who he is. And, like Bruce Wayne, those things have led him to believe that he can and must operate outside the system.

But the core difference between Luthor and Superman, between Luthor and Batman, is the entire concept of altruism. It’s not the needs of the many against the needs of the few, it’s the needs of everyone against the needs of me.

The questions that Luthor asks are simple ones. Why should he be bound by rules that have been made for lesser men? Why should anyone’s needs or desires be put above his, when he is not only their mental superior — measurably, objectively superior — but when he has the drive to accomplish what he wants? Has he not overcome every obstacle that has been put in his way in order to achieve greatness, whether those obstacles were a disadvantaged youth or the laws that, had they been obeyed, would keep him from acquiring what he wanted? Does he not deserve to be the most powerful man in metropolis? Has he not earned the right to be above the law? Should he not be recognized as a superior and be lauded and loved as such? Is he not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

In Luthor’s mind, of course he is. He’s put the work in. But Superman says no.

I mean, society and civilization in general say no, too, but Superman’s the more relevant mouthpiece here. Superman says no, you can’t do whatever you want even if it hurts people around you. Superman says that no one is so far above the law that they can act with impunity. Superman says that it is the duty of the powerful, no matter how they got that power, to use it to benefit everyone, especially the powerless.

Luthor, who worked and strove and killed and stole to achieve his power, hoards it for himself. Superman, who was handed his power, only uses it for the benefit of others.

And that drives Luthor mad, because Superman is the only person on Earth who has more power than he does.

 

All Star Superman, DC Comics
All Star Superman, DC Comics

 

Part of the reason here is that for all of Luthor’s intelligence, he cannot even begin to grasp the context of altruism. It simply does not exist. It’s a sham, a scheme cooked up by someone who needed to mask their true intentions in order to dupe the rubes. And the thing is, for Superman, not using your power to help everyone is an equally alien concept. If you could, why wouldn’t you?

Even in stories where Superman “goes bad,” the ones that ring truest are the ones where Superman decides that protecting people outweighs their personal freedom — that he sees humans not as peers, but as pets, as children who need to be kept from touching a hot stove because they simply can’t do it themselves. It’s such a core part of his character that it remains consistent, even in those dystopias, and the same can usually be said for Luthor.

I read recently that the definition of Good is always putting the needs of others above yourself, and the definition of Evil is always putting your needs above everyone else’s. As human beings, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but Luthor and Superman aren’t humans. They’re concepts, with all the purity that entails.

The great thing about the panel above, Morrison and Quitely’s famous “How would you feel if someone deliberately stood in your way, over and over again?” is the irony that Clark Kent knows exactly what what’s like, because Luthor is doing it to him every single waking moment of every day. Because Luthor only wants to better himself, always at the expense of others, Superman has to stand in his way — and because Superman will always be there, Lex will always stand in his way. They are fundamentally opposed forces.

That kind of hate doesn’t grow from love. It comes from a necessary opposition between ideas that simply cannot coexist. And while Superman will never truly hate Lex, because he will always truly believe, even to his own detriment, that Luthor can put his gifts and his work ethic to better ends, Luthor will always, always hate Superman for being what he can never be.

 

Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.

 

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