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Ranking Every Live-Action Lex Luthor from Worst to Best

Superman (1978) - Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)

Lex Luthor has been Superman's greatest enemy for years. Who do you think played him best?

Yesterday Supergirl debuted the newest actor to play Superman's greatest villain: Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor first appeared in Action Comics #23 (1940). Since then he's been the most iconic supervillain next to Joker. Many actors have brought him to life and we're ranking them all.

From Zuckerberg to sociopath here are the greatest Lex Luthor actors ranked from stupid to genius.

9. Jesse Eisenberg

Justice League (2017) - Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg )

First Appearance: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Zack Snyder decided to do a new take on the supervillain by making him a young, hip dot.com millionaire like Mark Zuckerberg. So he hired the man who played him in The Social Network. Unfortunately, they also decided to ignore everything Lex Luthor ever did in the comic books. "I didn’t grow up reading comic books," Eisenberg said, "but when I read the script, I thought they very clearly put these iconic characters into the real world so for people like me who didn’t grow up reading it [comics] you don’t need that background, [but] it's still very exciting."

So he didn't grow up with Superman but that doesn't mean they didn't try hard. "In the comic books, [Lex Luthor] can appear campy or silly or just scary or something, but what Chris Terrio, the writer of this script, did so wonderfully is to try to create a person who is psychologically authentic, somebody who is actually troubled, someone who is actually suffering, somebody who is insecure and rageful, and all these things that you are not used to seeing in a villain," Eisenberg said.

All of that could have made for an interesting character, but on-screen he came across as unhinged, contradictory and irritating. Lex is a genius for unlocking the secrets of Kryptonian technology but doesn't know how to secure his servers. Lex figures out who Batman and Superman's secret identities are but makes up a needlessly complicated scheme to make them fight. A plan that depends on Superman not using his basic superpowers like speed and x-ray vision.

Eisenberg's long red hair actually has a precedent in the comics (Lex' first appearance has long, curly red hair) but his baldness is explained by a prison shave. It's lame.

He made a cameo in Justice League but says Eisenberg said he's not sure if he's coming back. He told Variety he "would love to do it again".

8. Scott James Wells

Superboy (1988) - Lex Luthor (Scott Wells)

First Appearance: Superboy (1988)
Superboy is a half-hour live-action syndicated television series based on Clark Kent's early years as Superboy. It shows him in college. The first season starred former model Scott James Wells as a fellow college classmate. Unlike the comic book version of Lex Luthor, this guy is handsome and has a head of hair. He's also a small-time criminal. This Lex spends most of his time rigging basketball games, and stealing priceless artifacts instead of plotting world domination.

Wells does ok with what he's given but that doesn't say much. At the end of the first season, there's a lab accident that takes away his hair and leaves him with an obsession to kill Superboy. But it's too little too late.

7. Sherman Howard

Superboy (1989) - Lex Luthor (Sherman Wells)

First Appearance: Superboy (1989)
In the second season of Superboy, the show had a soft reboot. The main actor playing Superboy was replaced with Gerard Christopher and Lex Luthor was replaced too. 

The explanation for why a man in his twenties would suddenly become a 50-year old man was that Lex kills a wealthy weapons tycoon named Warren Eckworth and got plastic surgery to look like him. He took the man's place and gained a ton of weight for some reason. To explain the voice change they said Lex poured acid down his throat to deepen it. All of it's crazy but Lex is even crazier.

While Lex Luthor is often portrayed as unhinged Howard's performance takes it to the next level. He's downright insane. This Lex has more in common with the mad scientist of the Fleischer cartoons than the movies.

While Howard's Lex isn't bald he does have a receding hairline, so it's close.

6. Lyle Talbot

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) - Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot)

First Appearance: Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
In the 1950s studios made short episodic live-action movies to play before the Saturday morning cartoons known as serials. Told in 15 parts and ending in a cliff hanger Atom Man vs. Superman pitted Superman against an evil terrorist known only as "Atom Man". He blackmails the city by using a series of deadly devices left throughout the city. In the marketing for the Superman serials, it's a closely guarded secret who the main villain "Atom Man" is. For most of the episodes, the villain wears a goofy sparkling helmet.  After Superman thwarts his schemes Luthor creates synthetic Kryptonite to stop him.

It was later revealed that the supposedly crime-fighting scientist Luthor that was behind the attacks. Luthor was a brand new villain at the time of the first serial. He didn’t even have a last name. Luthor was a generic scientist instead of the megalomaniacal businessman he'd later become.

This interpretation is the closest to the original comic book depiction of Lex Luthor. This is the first portrayal of Lex Luther so there wasn’t really a template for how he should act. Veteran character actor Talbot took on the role wearing a skintight bald cap. This Lex is more of an evil madman than the charismatic villain we know him today. His goal isn't world domination but just piles of sweet, sweet cash.

It's an ok performance but the cheap effects and ham-handed acting takes away from the role.

5. John Shea

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993) - Lex Luthor (John Shea)

First Appearance: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)

When Lois and Clark premiered Superman had gone through a radical shift in tone. Artist and writer John Byrne had rebooted Superman and changed Lex Luthor from a mad scientist to a greedy overweight industrialist.

John Shea represented that shift and makes Lex Luthor into a slim, charming and powerful businessman. But he's greedy and amoral. He's not necessarily evil but doesn't see why he should submit to the laws of the land. He's not interested in world domination but pure profit.

Shea's Lex isn't interested in killing Superman and gave up the chance many times. He wants to humiliate him. Shea defended his hair by saying "Hey, this is the '90s. Do you think a billionaire like Luthor couldn't get himself a full head of hair?"

While Lex appears in the first season but dies in the season finale. Then he's reanimated, loses his hair and appears a few times as a voice before disappearing entirely. Underused to say the least.

4. Kevin Spacey

Superman Returns (2006) - Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), Stanford (Kal Penn)

First Appearance: Superman Returns (2006)
Superman Returns is considered a sequel to Donner's Superman II, so Spacey is basically a replacement for Gene Hackman. Because of this Spacey's Lex Luthor is heavily based on Hackman's charismatic performance. But there are big differences that set them apart. Some good and some bad.

Spacey's Lex has a plan that involves real estate and mass destruction. Lex is charismatic and funny but ruthless. Superman Returns shows his scientific mind as he deduces the secrets of Kryptonian technology and how to exploit it.

Unlike Hackman Spacey shaved his head for the role and spent most of the movie bald. He also has a hard time suppressing his evil side and licks his chops in every scene. While it's not a bad performance and Spacey obviously took his role very seriously it's not the best portrayal and the movie script leaves a lot to be desired.

Although he did get to stab Superman so there's that.

3. Michael Rosenbaum

Smallville (2001) - Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)

First Appearance: Smallville (2001)

For the Superman prequel show Smallville they cast Lex Luthor as a young man who's ambitious but not evil. Rosenbaum plays him as warm, charming and caring while hiding a deep ambition to learn the secrets of his friend Clark. Unlike most of the other interpretations, he and Clark Kent are best friends and Clark doesn't suspect his friend is evil. At first.

That is until the fifth season when he's driven to take over LexCorp and pursue an ever increasing search of power and control. His narcissism drives him to greater and greater evil. In a future vision, he becomes president of the United States. But unlike the older comics, Lex isn't a scientific genius. He follows the path of the Byrne version and hires others for the science stuff.

Lex' baldness is explained by a kryptonite meteor shower and he made no attempt to hide or obscure it despite his vanity. But that's mainly because it's now socially acceptable to rock a chrome dome. It looks good on him. 

Rosenbaum left the series in its seventh season and was replaced with a bizarre series of clones but returned for a cameo in the final episode. Throughout the series, the writing goes from brilliant to goofy, but Rosenbaum pulls it all off perfectly.

For what it's worth Marvel comics creator Stan Lee called Rosenbaum "The best Lex Luthor."

2. Jon Cryer

Supergirl (2019) - Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer)

First Appearance: Supergirl (2019)
CW has a TV series following the adventures of Superman's cousin Supergirl. After teasing for years, and bringing Lex' half-sister Lena, on the show Luthor finally shows up. Cryer plays an entirely different Lex Luthor from the others. He's still a scientific genius and a sociopath, but he's not nearly as charming. In fact, he seems to relish defying conventional norms of polite society. He's vain to a fault and ruthless in his plans to kill Superman. This Lex Luthor is smart enough and evil enough to try and turn the sun red to kill the "Man of Steel". Willing to kill billions to kill a "false god".

"I do believe that if the human race was faced with super-powered aliens, it would be deeply threatening," Cryer said. "I don’t see that [Lex is] completely wrong … except the sociopath part, but that’s also part of his intellect and his narcissism." The episode starts with Lex released from prison and dying from cancer. He works with his sister to create a cure for James Olsen, but it turns out he has other plans.

Ironically enough Cryer played Lex Luthor's nephew Lenny in 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace alongside Gene Hackman. It's that same role that led to his casting and motivation. Executive producer Robert Rovner is a big fan of the actor and, along with executive producer Jessica Queller reached out to Cryer to take the role.

"Part of the reason I did Superman IV was because Superman: The Movie changed my life," he told reporters. "I was 14 years old, and the tagline was ‘You’ll believe a man can fly,’ and boy I bought it. Superman IV had very high hopes but was unfortunately very disappointing for people. That had always hurt me in a very 14-year-old boy way, so I thought this was my chance to do it right."

While he does have the old "reverse beard" he's one of the most faithful portrayals of the comic book character.

1. Gene Hackman

Superman: The Movie (1978) - Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)
First Appearance: Superman (1978)

When Gene Hackman was hired to play a supervillain many eyebrows went up. Hackman was known as a dramatic actor who received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1967. By the end of his long career, he's been nominated for five Academy Awards. Including Best Actor in The French Connection and Best Supporting Actor in Unforgiven. He won four Golden Globes, one SAG Award, and two BAFTAs. The man's skill is unparalleled.

When director Richard Donner approached Hackman to play Lex he balked at the bald head and refused to shave his head or wear a bald cap. He insisted that Luthor would keep his hair and mustache. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz came up with a compromise. The hair and makeup department styled Hackman's real hair to look like he wore a series of wigs. Donner tricked him into shaving off his mustache.

Hackman's Lex Luthor is the most iconic of all of them because of his brash attitude and ruthless determination. A scientific genius as well as a master manipulator he talked about killing millions of people as if it were a simple real estate transaction. His humor makes him likable and he shines even in a dud like Superman IV. That alone makes him the greatest.

Which is your favorite Lex Luthor actor? Let us know in the comments below!

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