Lex Luthor and the War on Science

America has a distinctly troubled relationship with smart people. There’s an undercurrent of distrust and, at times, downright disdain. Americans would trust a military veteran or a movie star as president more than a college professor. Americans believe Snooki deserves higher speaking fees than Toni Morrison. However, I think this bubbling resentment emerges most prominently in the comic book Superman, where each month, the strong handsome titular figure beats the shit out of the nerdy bald guy.

Let me foist some geek knowledge onto you for a moment: Lex Luthor is bald, ruthlessly intelligent, and, although he portrays himself as a champion of human progress, his primary motivation is accumulating more power for himself. Most people know him as Lex Luthor the Corrupt Businessman, a skinny version of Marvel’s Kingpin character. Above all, he’s a scientist – the sleaziest scientist who ever lived – and, in the DC universe, the smartest human being on the planet. He’s smarter than Batman, smarter than the Atom, and smarter than Mr. Terrific (how can a character so intelligent have such a stupid fucking name). Although he could use his unfathomable intellect to push humanity into a disease-free, peaceful, glorious utopia, he only desires power. He represents science as untrustworthy and dangerous.

Superman, meanwhile, is ultra masculine, as evidenced by his full head of hair, strong, and belief in relatively abstract concepts like Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Whatever Luthor builds, he destroys. Whatever Luthor wants, he opposes. Like a bully on the playground, Superman represents the idea of Might is Right, that strength is more important than intelligence, and so it’s no wonder really that he’s frequently hoisted as a symbol of America. It seems to me that the popularity of the conflict between these two characters comes from a cultural narrative that is told over and over.

Here in America, science can’t be trusted. We can see this in the controversy in the early 2000s over whether creationism/ intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution which culminated, thank God, in a 2005 court ruling banning the teaching of intelligent design in schools. We can see this again as Americans’ concern about global warming continues to drop thanks to less and less news coverage. In fact, nearly half (48%) of Americans don’t believe in global warming at all. This comes in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that, yes, if we don’t stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, parts of the planet will become fucking uninhabitable in just a few decades. Even when the survival of our species is at stake, Americans choose to look, not to scientists, but to their most trusted experts to interpret such matters—talk show hosts. Perhaps it’s their meticulous grooming or their reinforcement of viewers’ preconceived notions about the world.

The controversy over stem cell research, genetically modified food, and alternative medicine tell the story over and over—the timeless American narrative of scientists saying one thing, and a huge portion of the public believing whatever stupid bullshit the TV tells them. I have literally heard members of my own family say things like, “Scientists are atheists. They can’t be trusted.”

Let me tell you who the real hero is: Lex Luthor. If Luthor plots to fill Metropolis with deadly nerve gas, if he unleashes a spiky alien beast onto the streets, if he travels back in time to try and murder baby Superman, it’s out of inarticulate rage at a world that refuses to place its trust not in science but in a buff moron who tosses people in jail without so much as reading them their Miranda rights.

In the film Superman Returns (terrible, but I liked Kevin Spacey), Lex Luthor says, “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind. No, I don’t want to be a god. I just want to bring fire to the people.” Superman has advanced alien technology, the accumulated scientific knowledge of a billion-year-old civilization, and his body holds the genetic secrets that could grant us all the power of flight. But he will not share any of it. Only he gets to be hero. And unlike Spider-Man, who invented his web shooters, or Batman, who spent a decade mastering martial arts techniques across the world, or even Superman’s closest analog, Captain America, who honed his skills fighting vampire Nazis and shit in WW2, Superman inherited all his powers from his parents. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, rose from a poor family in Smallville and built his company on a framework of scientific pioneering from the ground up. Who do you think is a better role model?

Maybe America needs a hero who doesn’t spend an hour every morning gelling his little curly-q. Maybe it needs a hero who doesn’t break things but builds them. A hero who doesn’t fight with his fists but with his imagination and ingenuity. TC mark

image – Leinil Francis Yu, © 2004 DC Comics, Inc.


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    And the only person who could kill Superman was an even bigger, stupider clod: Doomsday.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1415031788 Sharif Youssef

    It's true. Only morons prefer Superman over Luthor.

    • Rachel

      Only stupid kids who think they're edgy prefer Luthor over Superman.

      • http://phmadore.com P. H. Madore

        Wow. People trading venom over Superman. Yes.

  • gamesetmattsch

    I agree with your points but not with your metaphor. Superman is the nerdy intellectual. Clark Kent is a sensitive prose writer, marked by integrity as opposed to greed. Lex Luthor is also intelligent but marked by greed. Superman does not represent anti-science, but perhaps opposes science for the sake of acquisition. Superman himself is a gift of science, sent down as he was in a weird little science crystal tube.

    Also, Superman tries to save the world. He does not share his power by giving it to others. He shares it by using it to help. Perhaps this is wrong of him, but Superman has seen what power can do. He has seen how power, in the hands of man, leads to evil. And Superman, orphaned son of his own dead planet, might not trust his new home, Earth.

    This is an issue of psychology. Superman, son of the destroyed planet Krypton, finds a new home and a new family on Earth. But Earth too is in constant danger of destruction. Superman is too desperately fearful of being orphaned a second time to donate his body to science for the gain of mankind. Constantly pitted against Lex Luther, he knows that acquisitive scientific pursuit can lead to evil and malice.

    So before we blame Superman for distrusting science, let us look at how we have used it. Science may seem like the long arm of enlightenment when you think about green technology and stem cell research. But science is nuclear bombs, war, greed, McDonald's. As a human race, we forgive ourselves for our scientific mistakes (dare we say abominations) because we understand the reasons they came about.

    We hold out hope that science can be a force of benevolence, and not evil.

    But why would Superman hold this same hope? He is not quite one of us. He is a lone survivor living a second life of yet another doomed planet. His only faith is not in us. It's in himself. And frankly I don't blame the man.

  • Scary

    SO uhm.. Last friday 17 Democrats voted for at least 1 rider (siding with the climate-change denying Republicans) that would gut the EPA's authority to limit carbon pollution… this is really fucking embarassing. Luckily all 4 of these riders that would defund he EPA failed… but GOP members STILL say they want to do whatever they can to take away laws that regulate greenhouse gasses..

  • PD

    MacGyver 2012!

  • Susie Q.

    it's not called global warming anymore — science has taught us it is global climate change (not necessarily warming all over the word). Just fyi, loved the article though :)

  • Rachel

    Superman is also a scientist (though an amateur one), as are Batman and the Flash. If you seriously take the claim that Luthor is only a criminal out of envy of Superman, then you're plainly ignoring his corruption before Superman was on the scene and his continued acts of villainy at times when Superman was dead, MIA, or depowered. Luthor is science turned to the whims of the selfish capitalist, Superman is the strength and ingenuity of the working man.

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