When it comes to supervillains, perhaps only the Joker is better known than Superman’s arch-nemesis, the supergenius Lex Luthor. Before we even know who might draw him, who might voice him, or who could play him on-screen, we already have a clear, sharp image of Lex in our heads. It’s a heavy burden for one supervillain to bear, and even heavier for anyone who has to write him. And the writers of Supergirl nailed him with some help from actor Jon Cryer.
Supergirl’s latest episode, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” had everything I could ask for from a Lex Luthor reveal – except Superman. And considering this is Supergirl’s show, that seems acceptable.
Get ready for spoilers for this week’s episode of Supergirl.
After three-plus seasons of Lex being mentioned only by name, the series finally revealed Jon Cryer’s take on Lex: a frail, dying man who can barely put a sentence together, much less a harsh verbal jab, without losing the end of a sentence in a coughing fit. And it became clear quite quickly that this was not an act. Lex Luthor’s obsession with Superman and Kryptonite had pushed him to the edge of his body’s strength.
Since the beginning of this season, Lex’s adopted sister Lena has been hard at work on a serum that would not only work as a panacea against all that ails the human body, but could also imbue the recipient with superpowers, including Superman-like invulnerability. With Lex ailing and her cure on the verge of testability, Lena finds her villainous brother being air-lifted to their family mansion on what he calls “mercy furlough,” the peace afforded a dying man who can’t possibly be a flight risk.
Lex knows Lena is working on a cure, and we watched as the two super-genius-level scientists debate the ethics of testing something on humans before it’s ready. As she’s been working on this cure, named ‘Harun El’ after the black Kryptonite that spawned it, Lena has struggled with her own morality and we as fans have watched Lena teeter between light and dark, her relationships with her good-aligned friends in jeopardy all along the way. As Lena continues to struggle, Lex sits her down for one of his classic Lex Luthor pep talks, telling her that while he – a full-blooded Luthor – was born of pure poison, Lena’s mother was a good woman with a good heart, and that Lena, too, had good in her.
At the time, I took it hook, line, and sinker. I ate it up. Yes, Lena! There’s good in you! Cryer delivered the speech flawlessly, and I wondered if their take on Lex might be that of a man on his deathbed trying to help others avoid the self-destructive path of obsession he took. Huh – that could be interesting, I thought.
But no, this is classic Lex in the very best way.
The gunshot that punctuated last week’s episode, leaving James Olson bleeding out on the floor of the Catco office, was orchestrated by none other than Lex Luthor himself and carried out by Eve Tessmacher. And similarly, the damage done by Manchester Black to the National City dam just happened to be a good excuse to cut the power to the hospital where surgeons were operating on Olson. Both were meant to force Lena’s hand. To get her to test the cure on a human subject whose last name wasn’t Luthor.
Once the cure had taken its course and proven its worth, Lex set his plan in motion. The doofus named Otis is revealed to still be alive, and Eve Tessmacher’s true alliance is revealed (and we finally get to hear Lex Luthor scream “Miss Tessmacher!”). Lex stands up out of his wheelchair, the one he’d barely been able to sit up in just hours earlier. Eve pumps a round into a very surprised guard and Lex walks casually out of the Luthor family home, waving his arms like a conductor while hidden lasers pop out of the walls and crisscross through and mines explode from under the hapless prison guards assigned to keep him confined the grounds. He starts the helicopter waiting outside with a remote in his watch while Lena struggles with frustration in the wheelchair Eve has cuffed her to.
All of this is perfect Lex. First, we get that flashback showing him trying to cripple Superman with a red sun. It shows the lengths to which he’ll go to get what he wants, and how brazenly he’s willing to go about it. Then, we get the nod to his Kryptonite-induced cancer – some of the most beautiful irony in superhero comics. We see him manipulate people as if he’d programmed them. Especially beautiful is that all the manipulation of Lena was done, Lex reveals, with the truth. He didn’t make her do anything and he didn’t lie to her – he put events in motion that would play on her fears and tendencies and let her do all the work. And finally, that walk-out moment feels triumphant in the way only a villain can make it feel.
That last shot of him meeting Supergirl for the first time gave me shivers. I want to see these two face off.
My hope is that this will tip Lena’s heart back toward the side of justice, knowing she now has to fight actively against her brother, and that the Lena/Kara pairing will be reassembled after James so deftly dismantled it last season.
I enjoyed this take on Lex because he’s equal parts manipulator, scientist, and sociopath. He believes what he’s doing is right both on a personal and an inherent moral level. He relishes his victories. He’s confident without being imposing. His plans are already complete before anyone knew he had a plan.
If this is the Lex Luthor that the CW is going to give us, who is said to play a big role in the rest of the season, color me excited. Jon Cryer feels like a great fit and the writers seem to get Lex. This guy is fun.