The Luthor Line – An Explanation

I’m putting the Beatles post off til Friday, to address a point that came up more than any other in the (shockingly positive) comments to my last post. I said:

a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).

Now, everyone said some variant of “Luthor’s problems are emotional, not logical”. So let me explain how I see this issue playing out (in very broad strokes).

First, the background – the idea for this came from some stuff I’ve read on game theory. Fundamentally, if you assume that human beings are finite, then any interaction between two people who have conflicting goals, can be modelled as a game, in much the same way as chess, in which either there is a strategy by which one person *has* to win, or it can only possibly end in a draw. (I’m skipping a lot of stuff here, but you get the idea).

Now, looking at Superman vs Luthor as a chess game is an interesting way to look at it. Superman *HAS* to win, of course – if we’re doing a cap to ‘the Superman story’, Superman has to beat Luthor.

So we have a situation. Superman and Luthor, together in a room, having a conversation. (It would actually be good to have it over a game of chess, but that’s been so overused it would be silly. I can still picture all the story beats done that way, though, and were it not so cliched it would be powerful. Superman is trying to persuade Luthor to reform, while Luthor is essentially trying to persuade Superman to commit suicide.

Now, the important part here is that Luthor *thinks* he’s the epitome of rational humanity – in fact, of course, he’s a vicious sociopath – and so Superman is entirely logical, calm, and serene. Luthor gets steadily angrier, and actively tries to kill Superman at least three times during the story – at first with a complex, subtle plan involving hidden kryptonite lasers, but by the end just lunging at him and attacking him with his bare hands.

But after each of these attacks fails, Luthor becomes somewhat embarrassed, and reverts to talking (apparently) calmly with Superman. Superman *NEVER* mentions these attacks, and only moves minimally to block them, before continuing with the conversation as if nothing happened.

And then suddenly, towards the end, Luthor breaks down weeping, essentially saying “What have I been doing with my life?!” and joins up with Superman. The impression given by the comic – and one which would be at least partly true – is that Luthor has realised that Superman actually *is* the rational man he merely wishes to be, and he has been trying to kill someone who really does have all the best characteristics he’d like to think he possesses himself. He’s shamed by the contrast between Superman’s calmness and his own viciousness.

For the most part, Superman is using absolutely logical arguments – he might talk about the proof that game-theoretically, altruism is an optimal strategy, or stuff like that – it would be very dry reading just Superman’s side, but the conflict would come from Luthor trying – and failing – to control his anger and resentment.

But there’s another level. Superman hasn’t wanted to tell anyone his plans, of course, til they’re close to completion, but he’s telling Luthor. The information is drip-fed, in such a way that to the reader it seems like part of the natural conversation. Only very small bits of information are given Luthor – but enough that he’s figured out Superman’s plan. It comes in sentences like:

“There are an infinite number of universes out there, Lex. In many of them, we’re friends rather than enemies. Can you imagine how much easier both our lives would be?”

“If you would just work with me instead of fighting me… my job would be over by now. Do you understand me? My job would be over.”

And so on. Just a few things, but Luthor’s breakdown comes at least in part because he realises that if he just works with Superman – does the hardest thing he can imagine doing – not only will the universe be infinitely better off, but Superman will leave it. Luthor can win the thing he wants more than anything – a universe without Superman – simply by co-operating.

Superman beats Luthor because by doing it Superman’s way, they can *both* win.

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9 Responses to The Luthor Line – An Explanation

  1. pillock says:

    Ha, that’s quite neat, actually. Morrisonesque, again!

    Although for the record, I’m not sure I’d agree with the statement “Luthor’s problems are emotional, not logical”…

  2. Zom says:

    I think it all depends on the kind of Luthor you want to play with. It seems to me that the Luthor that’s been doing the rounds in the comics most recently isn’t the kind of chap that would ever co-operate with Superman and no amount of game theory or logic would change his mind. Cognitive dissonance, sociopathic tendencies, hatred, good old fashioned human irrationality would see to that. That said, I think the audience would be receptive to a slightly more flexible Luthor if he was introduced subtly enough.

    What you couldn’t do is have the audience go into this issue without having first telegraphed that this guy isn’t that guy. Go in cold – with audience expectations of the old Luthor – and there’s no way you could sell it.

  3. “The impression given by the comic – and one which would be at least partly true – is that Luthor has realised that Superman actually *is* the rational man he merely wishes to be, “

    Perhaps my perspective is the other way up, it’s Superman I don’t see as a rational being. Since the 80s, writers have had this superheroes-are-gods schtick, but they were really just grafting on associations which were never there onto a structure which would never support their weight. With Superman, I think the godlike associations are genuinely there. I don’t see Superman doing good because his brain is persuaded of the value of goodness, I see him doing good because he is goodness.

    Still, it’s an interesting notion. It just wouldn’t be in my take…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Makes sense. What I’d say though is that Superman is the epitome of *all* human virtues, including rationality *and* compassion…

      • Compassion certainly, still not sure about rationality…

        Perhaps something else is that in the early days Superman was quite a blue-collar character. (As I argued in an old blog entry about the Forties animations.) In those it’s very much codified that the crooks represent mental and he honest manual labour. He dispatches all their scheming with a sharp smack to the jaw. The fact that his dad was a scientist is rather skated over!

        Of course this may simply be my Superman I’m describing, as the ‘heroised worker’ didn’t last into the Fifties. But most of my favourite Superman stories bring it back in some form, such as Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

        Incidentally, absolutely agree with the point that there’s been very few good Superman stories. In a way the character is too good, it’s hard to think up a script big enough for him.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh absolutely – the first few issues of my story would be that blue-collar Superman, which I still think in many ways the most interesting version – just without the anti-intellectualism. I see no reason why one can’t be blue-collar *and* intellectual (e.g. Ian Dury listing “something nice to study” in Reasons To Be Cheerful).

          • No argument that you should be right. (Or you can be white collar and thick as a brick – just look at me!) I was just saying that’s the way the old Superman stories were coded. If you think of a way to challenge the anti-intellectualism but keep the blue-collar stuff, good for you!

  4. That makes perfect sense to me (or, at least, something close enough to perfect sense to work perfectly in a Superman comic).

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