IVP - Strangely Dim - Sympathy for the Bad Guy

July 3, 2006

Sympathy for the Bad Guy

I like Lex Luthor. I sent him a letter once, along with a copy of my book. I thought he might endorse it. He never wrote me back, but that's OK; Lex Luthor is a busy guy.

Luthor, played on the television show Smallville by Michael Rosenbaum, earned my appreciation in the first season. Here was a character known universally as a villain--the villain in the minds of many--reconceived as a tragic hero, struggling to come out from under his cold, calculated machine of a father's thumb to do right by his friends and his community. I knew that Lex would eventually go bad, but on Smallville Lex won my sympathy.

This summer we meet the fully grown Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. He's a villain again, but maybe he's just getting bad press. After all, he's playing opposite a superhero--the superhero in the minds of many--that some equate with the Messiah.

There's more to Lex than a bald head and a bad attitude; recent storylines in the comics are reconsidering the Superman-Luthor conflict not as muscle-envy or longstanding grudge (the early 80s SuperFriends cartoon suggested that Superman caused Lex to lose his hair) so much as a clash of worldviews. Lex sees humankind, not Superman and not even necessarily himself, as the world's savior.

According to Lex's worldview, Superman is in the way, a pressing problem in humanity's evolution. Superman is not one of us; he's an alien come to Earth by accident, merely pretending to be human. He can't be hurt by men or women or anything natural. He can't even be grounded. He isn't human and thus can't appreciate the human struggle. It takes one to know one, Lex believes, and by extension, it takes one to save one.

Lex reflects as he looks out the window of his helicopter in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel:

It's ironic that Metropolis never looks more magnificent to me than when I see it from his angle. But does he see what I see? Does he see the finest example of what humanity can accomplish, reaching for the sky? . . . Or does he merely look down on it?

He's not the only person to hold this conviction; consider the reflections of David Carradine in Kill Bill, Vol. II:

When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, . . . that's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.

If Bill and Lex aren't authoritative enough for you, orthodox Christianity professes a Savior who was fully human. To presume that a being not fully human could accomplish our salvation is to commit heresy. Superman, of course, is not at all human, and so Superman condemns us even as he saves us.

Score one for Lex Luthor. But where, then, does he turn for salvation? Humankind is its own hope, Lex argues, the source of its own deliverance from its unique crisis: lives of mundane mediocrity. Addressing the entire world in the miniseries Justice, Lex allows that heroes like Superman

may save us all from a giant alien starfish in the middle of the ocean from time to time. But they save us only to send us back to our old lives. Back to our bills, back to our useless jobs, back to our suffering. If they were really the heroes they claim to be, they'd save us from those same lives as well.

The ultimate solution to this fundamental human problem is the actualization of human greatness. "Someone has to change the way this world works. That's what we're about to do. That's what we are inviting you to be a part of." Lex argues that we create hope out of nothing; it's our birthright, our responsibility. Again, in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel: "We were created to create ourselves. . . . Fate was invented by cowards. But destiny is something we hold in our hands."

Lex manifests his worldview for the rest of us. According to the first Superman motion picture, he's the greatest criminal genius of all time. In some continuities he's president of the United States. He's an icon of power and greatness. But how he achieves greatness exposes the flaw in his worldview. His power is consolidated through the methodical manipulation of people and events. He'll even help his greatest enemy on occasion; in issue 123 of Superman he co-opts messianic language: "As always, the question is this: do I gain more from Superman's suffering--or his salvation?"

Behold our "savior" in action, according to the worldview of Lex Luthor. A savior that is not fully human is insufficient, but a savior that is merely human creates a similar problem. The capacity to save is a kind of power, and power, in the hands of mere humans, corrupts. Mere humans cannot save themselves without destroying themselves and others in the process.

So we're left with a paradox: the source of our salvation must be human but cannot be merely human. We need the otherness of a deliverer as much as we need the sameness of a savior. Superman and Lex Luthor alike are not enough. But a God who created us, who took on flesh out of love for us, who is not so distant as to be "unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but . . . has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin"--such a savior would be enough.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at July 3, 2006 12:54 PM Bookmark and Share


Man, I really like those last two paragraphs about the paradox!

Superman has always been my favorite cartoon superhero. I like that he did not have to put something on or charge-up in order to be who he was; he was created super.

Lex Luthor’s and Kill Bill’s interpretive powers are warped (but amusing). Superman could not protect his true identity by simply being meek, but he must throw off all suspicion by being somebody who could not possibly do the things that Superman does. If Superman viewed the human race like the bad guys said he did, would he deny himself a wife and tirelessly pursue justice? I don’t think so.

And yet, how would I live if I had those super powers? During family devo’s this morning, we read from Romans, chapter 3 (“There is no one righteous…”).

Lex may be more manipulative than discerning, but the sad truth is that our hero is not realistic. The story of Superman is a beautiful dream to be enjoyed, rather than a hope to anchor upon.

Comment by: Craver VII at July 7, 2006 10:24 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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