Heath Ledger as the Joker, Michael Keaton as Batman, even Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man..
Still, eyebrows were raised late last year when Supergirl cast Jon Cryer as tyrannical super-mogul Lex Luthor – sure, it’s a cute nod to Cryer’s role as Lex’s weaselly nephew Lenny in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but was the Two and a Half Men actor really the right choice to play the Man of Steel’s power-mad nemesis?
It’s a doubly valid question to ask given Hollywood’s history of mismanaging the character: though we’d certainly not suggesting that there’s never been a satisfying version of Luthor brought to the screen, film and TV have got him wrong more often than they’ve got him right.
That’s especially strange when you consider he’s, on the surface at least, such a stock villain type: the corrupt, power-hungry businessman with aspirations to rise to the very peak of power, his greatest weakness a petty jealousy directed towards a foe with abilities he can never hope to match.
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Gene Hackman’s portrayal in the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s is often held up as the pinnacle, but while no-one’s questioning Hackman’s chops, his Lex is a thoroughly unthreatening creation, more pompous conman than genius criminal mastermind. (See also Kevin Spacey’s take in 2006’s misjudged Superman Returns, which strongly apes Hackman’s performance just as the rest of the movie seeks to emulate all other aspects of the Christopher Reeve pictures.
More recently, the early Worlds of DC movies spearheaded by Zack Snyder opted to portray Luthor as a snide, socially awkward genius, seemingly more influenced by Jesse Eisenberg’s earlier portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg than by anything you’d find in a DC comic.
Michael Rosenbaum, previously best known for teen sitcom Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane, proved to be one of those casting ‘risks’ that paid off on Smallville, giving us a charismatic and powerful Lex far closer to what fans of the source material were used to.
But in this case, he was hamstrung by the confines of the show‘s prequel setting: this Lex spent several years serving as Clark Kent’s slightly morally ambiguous chum, and with Rosenbaum opting to leave the show as a series regular several years before its end in 2011, his Luthor’s rise to true super-villainy was cut disappointingly short.
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John Shea faced similar obstacles.
He was terrific in Lois Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a series that’s sometimes dismissed as soapy but that nevertheless gave us one of the most comic-accurate interpretations of Lex: cool, calculating, powerful in his own way but crippled by a raging inferiority complex.
(Lois Clark ran for another three years with Shea guesting in just three more episodes across the second and third seasons.)
Which bring us back to Jon Cryer.
There’s little of Superman IV’s Lenny, or Two and a Half Men’s Alan, or even Pretty in Pink’s Duckie in the brief glimpses we’ve been afforded of Cryer’s Luthor, who rages at estranged sister Lena (“I was the man of tomorrow.
Perhaps we’ll soon be adding Cryer’s name to the list of surprising comic book casting choices that turned out just great. Let’s hope so, because the list of misjudged attempts to bring Lex Luthor to the screen is already plenty long enough.
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