Lex Luthor is a comic book super villain in the DC Comics universe, and is mainly arch-nemesis to Superman. In the books he has been commonly conceived as either a mad scientist or a billionaire tyrant bent on world domination. Either way, his characterization is that of a brilliant Machiavellian strategist who always deduces the weakness of his enemies and uses it against them. He has been the leader of the Legion of Doom as well as the President of the United States under various artists' interpretations. His hatred of his enemy, Superman, stems from his eagerness to be Earth's greatest savior, and his belief that the very existence of Superman hinders humanity's chance of evolution.
He was initially played by character actor Lyle Talbot when the character went up against Kirk Alyn's Superman in the 1950's, and was the lead villain in the animated "Superfriends" series. But it wasn't until Academy Award Winner Gene Hackman was cast as Lex Luthor in Richard Donner's "Superman" that the character first appeared on the silver screen.
Hackman's Lex Luthor was a criminal mastermind bent on gaining top beachfront property after demolishing California with a hijacked nuclear missile. He attempts to destroy Superman with a kryptonite rock in order to see his plans through, but alas both plans failed. He returned in Richard Lester's "Superman II" where he escaped from prison and allied himself with Kryptonian arch villains General Zod, Ursa, and Non in order to see Superman suffer. Once again his efforts failed. Hackman would make one final appearance as Luthor in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace".
In the mid 90's Deborah Joy LeVine developed a romantic-comedy/action series called "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" which focused on the romance between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. It is here that Lex Luthor is portrayed as a wealthy and powerful businessman who quietly yearns for more power, and runs various criminal organizations around Metropolis. LeVine cast actor John Shea to play the role. Though she didn't have Shea shave his head, nor wear a bald cap, insisting that she wanted her Lex to be a more romantic suitor for Lois, and thus a threat to Clark as well as Superman. Shea was unable to commit to the long commute the show required and thus the character was killed off in the Season 1 finale. His character returned to wreak havoc 3 more times before the show was cancelled.
Clancy Brown was cast as the voice of Luthor in "Superman: The Animated Series" and subsequently the "Justince League of America" and the "Justice League Unlimited" series'. As of 2009, Brown has played Lex Luthor more than any other actor when he played the role one more time in "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies". His character spanned the entirety of his comic book arcs, as he began as a corporate titan, then President of the United States, a mad scientist, and finally leader of the Legion of Doom.
Though Brown is largely considered the most accurate Lex Luthor portrayal, it is Michael Rosenbaum's turn on the WB/CW show "Smallville" that fans have embraced the most. Series originators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar wished to create a sympathetic and likable Lex Luthor that would begin as Clark's best friend only to fall down the dark path of villainy and become his inevitable nemesis.
On the show, Lex is a young, brash bad boy of sorts who rebels against his manipulative and powerful father, Lionel. He strikes up a friendship with Clark after Clark rescues him from a car accident. Though Lex is grateful for Clark's actions, he begins digging into the strange circumstances surrounding the accident, as he is positive Clark was struck by the vehicle at full speed. His obsession with the mystery of Clark Kent consumes him and soon the two begin to lose trust in one another. It isn't long before Lex's jealousy of Clark's loving family and beautiful girlfriend, Lana, that he yearns to possess everything Clark has. By Season 5, Lex embraces his dark side when he sees a possible image of the future where he is left penniless and unable to protect the ones he loves. His conclusion is that "money and power" is all he needs to live "happily ever after".
Lex's relationship with his father, Lionel, is a tragic one that began to deteriorate the day Lex took responsibility for the murder of his infant brother Julian, when, in fact, he was covering from his mentally ill mother, Lillian. This drove a wedge between father and son that would shape both of their fates. Once Lionel begins looking on Clark as his own son, Lex grows wary of his father's actions and soon learns the truth about Clark's secret. He murders his father by pushing him out a 30 story window, thus sealing his destiny as "the villain of the story". After Lex uncovered Clark's fortress, he went missing for several years, only to return and confront his destined nemesis in the show's series finale.
In the show's final episode, Lionel Luthor willingly gives up his heart and soul to the dark lord Darkseid in order to resurrect his son. Lex is revived, now donning his infamous black leather glove as he had in previous prophetic visions of the future. He confronts Clark in the charred remains of the Luthor Castle. He tells Clark that he accepts his destiny as his arch rival, and they will become great men because of their rivalry. After murdering Tess, claiming he did it to spare her from becoming "like him", Tess rubs a neuro-toxin on Lex's face which causes him to lose his memory; thus Clark's secret is safe. Seven years later, Clark Kent is now Superman and Lex Luthor is elected President of the United States, just as their destinies had foretold years ago.
The character saw life on the big screen again as Academy Award Winner Kevin Spacey took on the role in Bryan Singer's 2006 "Superman Returns". Here, Luthor is out of prison after 5 long years and is eager to get his revenge on his returning enemy. While Spacey's Luthor is essentially a follow up to Gene Hackman's Lex, the humor is cut to a minimum, and his menace is pushed aggressively forward.