The Top 5 Countdown: Who Played the Best Version of Lex Luthor in TV and Movies?

From Superman to Smallville, we countdown the best versions of Lex Luthor throughout the history of the Man of Steel in TV and movies…

By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer

For more than half a century, Lex Luthor has served as the ultimate enemy for Superman and he’s appeared in just about every form of media to oppose the Man of Steel. From comic books to TV shows to movies, Luthor has become the universal sign of evil when standing next to Superman’s paragon of good.

With the recent announcement that Jesse Eisenberg will play the latest incarnation of Lex Luthor, we’re going to take a look back at the other famous faces that have played the bald baddie over the years. This list will only comprise the appearances Luthor made in TV shows or movies featuring Superman/Superboy so we’re skipping the numerous ways he’s been portrayed in the comic books.

We’re also not going to mention the dozens of voice actors that have played Luthor in the various DC Comics animated universe although Clancy Brown would surely take home the prize if there was a best in show in that category. Admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of excitement about Jesse Eisenberg playing Luthor in the new ‘Batman vs. Superman‘ movie when so many had their hopes up for an actor like Bryan Cranston to take over the role.

Be that as it may, Eisenberg’s Luthor hasn’t even appeared on screen yet so as much as everyone wants to judge him (and certainly we have as well), the real story will be told when the Batman vs. Superman movie opens in 2016. And hopefully this whole tattooed badass version of Luthor that’s circulating the internet is just a bad dream or a hoax on somebody that thought they had their hands on a real Man of Steel script.

So without further ado join us as we countdown the greatest Lex Luthors of all time:

Honorable mention to Lyle Talbot, who was the first person to portray Luthor in the live action film ‘Atom Man vs. Superman’.

5 ) — John Shea from ‘Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman’

John Shea played Luthor in the series ‘Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman‘, which was sort of meant to be the romantic comedy version of the Man of Tomorrow. Shea wasn’t great but he certainly wasn’t bad playing Luthor. In this part, Shea was an unscrupulous Luthor with money signs in his eyes and bank rolls caressing his head at night. Not so much

4 ) — Kevin Spacey from ‘Superman Returns’Kevin-Spacey-Lex-Luthor-Superman-Man-of-Steel-Zack-Snyder

Let’s get the 9000 pound elephant out of the way right now — Superman Returns was a steaming pile of donkey poo but the one shining star amidst layer after layer of dung was Kevin Spacey, who didn’t really get Lex Luthor right as much as it’s Kevin freaking Spacey and he really can do no wrong. This Superman sequel was supposed to pick up following the events in Superman II, but the only thing this followed was a long walk off a short cliff into mediocrity. The story was rehashed and dumb, Brandon Routh was an awful Superman, and the direction of the movie was somewhere between lost and confused.

Still, Spacey could deliver any movie part and do it well enough to almost make us forget the awful things surrounding him. If he can pull off Verbal Kint and Keyser Soze than he can certainly find a way to get Lex Luthor right. In all honestly, with the right material Spacey could end up playing the best Luthor ever, but he certainly didn’t have that kind of script or leadership when making ‘Superman Returns‘. Just take what Spacey does so well on ‘House of Cards‘, mix in a little John Doe from ‘Seven‘ with a dash or two of Soze and that’s the Luthor we’ll wish he could have been.

3 ) — Sherman Howard from ‘Superboy’

Sherman Howard may best be known for his role as Bub in ‘Day of the Dead’ or even the fat starving artist from ‘Seinfeld’ but his flamboyant version of Lex Luthor in ‘The Adventures of Superboy‘ was a really fun take on the character. He had a maniacal smile that made his version of Luthor look sociopathic in a different way than other actors had played the role in the past. Howard actually took over the part from Scott James Wells, who was Luthor in the original season of ‘Superboy’ before he literally fell off the acting map and disappeared (we assume into the phantom zone). Howard’s spin on Luthor was a fun romp in a very 80’s version of the Man of Steel.

2 ) — Gene Hackman from ‘Superman’ I, II and IV (although you might want to skip 4)Superman_gene-hackman-lex-luthor

The campy superhero movies of the late 70’s and 80’s were defined by Gene Hackman’s turn as Lex Luthor in the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. Hackman is an Academy Award winner so there’s no shock that he can play just about any role he chooses with great flare and style, but he added the comedic buffoonery that was needed for this particular version of Luthor going up against the all-time greatest boy scout in Reeve’s Superman.

Hackman played Luthor as a criminal mastermind, who could never seem to find any decent help throughout three different movies battling Superman, but he was always fun to watch and brought a different flavor to the films to offset a very straight laced performance from Reeve. Truth be told, Superman is probably always going to be the same guy in all of the movies and TV shows for the most part, so where the real variety comes in is from his enemies and Hackman delivered in his portrayal of a campy, over the top Luthor. If you haven’t seen it, watch the Richard Donner cut of ‘Superman II’ for Hackman at his very best — he’s not even the lead villain, but he steals every scene he’s in during the entire movie.

1 ) — Michael Rosenbaum from ‘Smallville’Michael-Rosenbaum-Guardians-Of-The-Galaxy

Over the years, Lex Luthor has been played by some great actors as well as many different versions of the character, but none did it better than Michael Rosenbaum during his time playing the titular bad boy on the TV series ‘Smallville‘. Now to his credit, Rosenbaum had season after season of material to build a base to make people first learn to love Luthor and then grow to hate him versus a Superman movie where any one actor only has about two hours to fill that same space.

Still, Rosenbaum’s performance as a young Lex Luthor growing up beside Clark Kent as his best friend turned mortal enemy was a brilliant turn year after year. From his work to protect Clark and his family in the early days to his eventual turn where he married Lana Lang and wanted nothing more than to crush his former friend made the Luthor on Smallville the most complete version that’s ever been done.

There’s no doubt that Rosenbaum had the chops to pull it off, but he was fantastic in every season of the show that he stuck around for, and the moment he bolted the series, Smallville started to lack something special. Thankfully he returned for the series finale, which remains one of the best ending scenes in sci-fi/fantasy TV history, and his stare down with Clark as they both realized they are meant to be attached to one another eternally was just an amazing shot from start to finish.

“Every villain is only as great as his hero” — the delivery still sends chills down the spine.

Check out the scene below and then to see the entire turn of Michael Rosenbaum as the ultimate Lex Luthor pick up Smallville on DVD or blu-ray.

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2 Responses

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  1. Joey Nelson
    Feb 08, 2014 - 11:39 AM

    Couldn’t agree more about Rosenbaum. As a huge fan of Smallville, his portrayal of Lex was always great. Was very happy when he returned for the finale to be in that great scene with Clark. One thing I do disagree with on here though, is the bashing of Superman Returns, which I believe to be an underrated film. It’s not the best Superman film by any means. Is it a great epic action comic book film? Not really, but a good film about a hero trying to find his place in the world. In the end, that was its downfall. As for Routh, I also felt he did a good job as Clark and Superman. In the end though, I am happy that movie failed to produce sequels, as if it did, Man of Steel wouldn’t have happened, which I believe to now be the best Superman movie we’ve seen yet.

  2. Matthew Hecht
    Oct 06, 2015 - 03:22 PM

    I consider Clancy Brown to be the best Luthor. After him I would put Rosenaum and then Hackman. I saw Superman Returns before the original Superman movie and do consider Hackman to be a much superior version of Spacey.