Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Revisiting the Lex Luthor Presidency

Before I begin, a disclaimer: It was always my intention to revisit the phenomenon of Lex Luthor's presidency, which I first wrote about eleven years ago* (before most Americans had even heard of departing President Barack Obama!), now that the real-world presidential election is over. The simple reason for this is that few readers are likely to remember those comments made more than a decade ago. Let me be clear, this is not a commentary on Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton. I've made such comparisons in the past, during the campaign season, but this is no longer the time for such rhetoric. While I am certainly disappointed in the result, it was (by all accounts) a fair and decisive victory, and I accept the result. This is simply a commentary on the comic book phenomenon, tied to an appropriate moment in the American electoral cycle, and would have been posted regardless of the result.

Back when this storyline was first published at the turn of the millennium, the idea of Lex Luthor as President represented an attempt to draw drama out of the concept of one of the most well-known villains in all of fiction as holding what is arguably most powerful legitimate occupation in the world. There is certainly some debate as to how well DC took advantage of the set-up. Besides my own comments, check out this article by Grant McMillan of The Hollywood Reporter that compares the presidency of Lex Luthor with that of Marvel's Ultimate Captain America. For those who enjoy listening to podcasts, I'd also like to share Michael Bailey's Views From The Longbox. Episode 252 (not yet visible on the site as of this posting, but already available through the RSS feed) features a discussion on the "President Lex" trade paperback. It's preceded by some commentary on the Supergirl television show, currently airing on Monday nights on the CW, so if you want to just listen to the stuff about President Lex, fast-forward to about the 45:45 mark.

Although Lex Luthor is known as a "super-villain," he didn't have to "fix" the election results or cheat in any way to win the Presidency. He was actually voted into office during a legitimate election by the people of the DC Comics universe. It's still safe to say that Luthor has been shown to be a master of manipulation over the years, able to pull corporate strings and call in dark favors, always in control of events while never leaving enough evidence for anyone to link crimes to him. Superman has always, of course, been aware of the threat Luthor poses, but has never been able to bring Luthor to account for his crimes. But as far as the rest of the world knows, Lex Luthor is a philanthropist and a humanitarian.

Those of you who are old enough will remember the fears around the coming of the year 2000, when the "Y2K bug" threatened to cause chaos in any part of the world that depended on computers. The writers of the Superman comics chose to parallel that situation with a New Year's storyline in which Brainiac took advantage of the computer crisis, resulting in the arrival of a future version of himself (called "Brainiac 13") in the present, and also causing Metropolis to mutate into a literal "City of Tomorrow." Lex Luthor was able to make a deal with Brainiac 13 to leave Earth, but allow Metropolis' futuristic technology to remain, with Luthor able to control it at will.

Shortly after that, Luthor decided to run for President, promising to share his access to futuristic technology with the nation. Between his generous campaign and some particularly bad decisions by the previous administration during a time of emergency (Gotham City had been all but destroyed in an earthquake the year previously), Luthor won the election easily.

Among the highlights of Luthor's presidency was his part in resisting an alien invasion that would have destroyed the earth (in part due to his connection to Brainiac 13, who was instrumental in the invasion). He also discovered Superman's secret identity of Clark Kent, although he surprisingly did little with the information before having it taken away from him by a telepathic criminal. Luthor also used his power as President to frame Bruce Wayne (who opposed Luthor's plans in Gotham City outside of his superheroic guise of Batman) for murder.

Unfortunately, as President Luthor's failure to capitalize on Superman's secret identity demonstrates, DC Comics really didn't seem to know what to do with the idea of the foremost villain in their line-up as President of the United States, and so Luthor was eventually exposed and deposed in a story arc of the Superman/Batman comic in 2004 by openly attacking Superman (he was likely somewhat insane at the time, due to a drug he was taking to boost his strength). Luthor was replaced by his Vice-President, Pete Ross, who had been a friend of Clark Kent's from Smallville.

Pete Ross' own presidency was short-lived, and the legacy of Luthor's presidency has since been essentially forgotten and retconned out of existence by subsequent events in the DC Universe. However, references still show up from time to time in spin-off media, such as the Smallville television series and the Young Justice cartoon. So, even if the comics themselves didn't do as much with the concept as they might have done, it's clear that the idea of Superman's greatest nemesis as President of the United States is still one that intrigues writers. Who knows when we'll see it come up next?

*Here's a link to the original version, which has been edited and expanded to create this entry.

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