Expectations for the second installment of any series are always high after a successful pilot. This is true for Superman and Superman II, as well as for Superman ‘78, which falls chronologically in between the two.
Superman ‘78 #2
Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Dave Lanphear (letterer), Wilfredo Torres (artist), Robert Venditti (writer)
September 28, 2021
An advanced review copy of this comic was provided by DC. This review contains spoilers.
In my last review, I talked about how the creative team managed to successfully navigate artistic and narrative challenges through several smart creative choices. Perhaps there is no challenge greater than the one faced in the second issue: Lex Luthor, as portrayed by Gene Hackman.
As a millennial raised on Smallville, there is One True Lex Luthor of my Heart, Michael Rosenbaum, and every movie and television version of Lex Luthor since then has been nothing but disappointment. Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex was the Tom Hiddleston Loki of its day, young and sexy and surprisingly vulnerable, showing us a twenty-something Lex with massive daddy issues and Succession-level family dysfunction. I’m not alone in believing that the performance holds up to this day as the best Lex Luthor–and the complex dynamic that Rosenbaum and Tom Welling were able to develop over several years is why it will never be topped.
Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a horse of a different color. Readers familiar with various Superman stories tend to think of Lex’s aspirations as nothing short of world domination. In hindsight, his genius plot to set off a series of seismic charges so that Los Angeles falls into the ocean and the California desert becomes the new beachfront property seems more like a symptom of mental illness than supervillainy. Rewatching this movie with my Gen Z friend, I remembered that Superman was capitalizing on an anxiety frequently depicted on film in the 1970s — natural disasters. This was the era of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Audiences then were horrified by the scenes of natural destruction on earth, a reminder that we might have won the Space Race but were still helpless to Mother Nature.
Today we live in an age of climate crisis, when wildfires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes with the power to wipe out entire cities. Natural disasters are real, not hypotheticals, so it makes sense that the creative team for Superman ‘78 turned away from that to play on the other cultural theme of the 70s–robots and cybernetics, as I mentioned in my last review. But it’s here in the second issue that the creative team pushes Hackman’s Luthor into the villainous comfort zone modern audiences know well: Lex Luthor + technology.
Superman enlists the help of Lex Luthor to understand Brainiac’s technology, and the fact that Superman asks Luthor for help is something else that I love. Today, we are used to Batman being Superman’s Go-To for tech support because what is a superhero BFF for if you can’t ask him to look at something your supercomputer can’t understand? But this Superman has no Batman, so he goes to the only person he knows who has the ability to understand this technology: Lex Luthor. And while some might say it’s a plot hole for Superman to go to Lex before attempting to contact the Fortress of Solitude, I also think that’s painfully true to Clark–and this Clark in particular.
Clark has always put his faith in people, and to our modern eyes, it can feel naïve. But Clark’s decision to visit Lex–which he is able to do because Lex is out on parole, because Clark had insisted to the parole board that he would personally look after him–shows the depth of his belief that there are no bad people, only bad situations. Clark tells Lex that he needs his help and that this is Lex’s chance for redemption. The reader, knowing Lex better than Clark, can expect that Lex will not only not be redeemed, but will probably make things worse. It’s a classic Charlie Brown and Lucy-with-the-football dynamic that endears him to Superman fans and infuriates people who don’t like Superman.
The issue ends with a cliffhanger that draws upon another Superman character trope–the martyr suffering for humanity’s sins. Brainiac has come to kill Superman, and when the people of Earth try to defend him, he threatens to kill them because they harbored a Kryptonian. Superman surrenders, because of course, he does, and Lex, having rushed downtown after realizing that Brainiac is out to get Superman, is there to see it. What will happen, faithful readers? Will Lex save Superman? Or will he partner with Brainiac and Lois or Jimmy to save the day? I have no idea, but I enjoy Lex becoming integral to this story and Superman’s survival.