Say hello to our latest Lex Luthor! James Gunn has found his villain for Superman: Legacy and David Corenswet has found his on-screen nemesis in the form of Nicholas Hoult.
A former superhero himself, thanks to his role as Beast in the X-Men franchise, Hoult becomes the fifth actor to play Metropolis’ most hated man in a live-action movie, as well as joining the lengthy list of names who have brought the iconic comic book foe to life across the many mediums over the decades. So, no pressure, Nicholas, but you have big shoes to fill for sure. At least we know he looks good with his head shaved, thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Hoult is a talented actor, and Gunn’s casting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was always unmatched, so it would be unwise to bet against him becoming one of the finest Luthors we’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, a few of the following ten performances may prove difficult to beat. Others… not so much.
10. Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey’s Lex from Superman Returns rounds out this list because… Well, he’s Kevin Spacey. In addition, the now-disgraced actor wasted a golden opportunity to reinvent the role for the 21st century and simply does his best impression of Gene Hackman, thereby delivering a hackneyed and dated depiction of a movie supervillain.
9. Lyle Talbot
Prolific 1940s character actor Lyle Talbot has the honor of being the first person to bring Lex Luthor to life, appearing opposite original Superman actor Kirk Alyn in 1950 movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman. Talbot’s interpretation is a perfect snapshot of who Lex was at the beginning of his storied history, very much a classic pulp-y mad scientist.
8. Titus Welliver
As part of Titans four-season plan to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, Titus Welliver turned up for a single episode of the show’s final season — that’s all DC let them use the character for, FYI. With only a few minutes of screentime under his belt, then, the Bosch star wasn’t able to fully get under Lex’s skin, but he provided a solid rendition of the modern-day Lex.
7. Michael Cudlitz
And, for some reason, it’s an unwritten rule that the modern-day Lex has to have a beard. See also Michael Cudlitz’s incarnation from Superman and Lois season 3. The brilliance of the acclaimed CW show is that it brings a new dimension to very familiar characters, and that’s on full display with its portrayal of Lex. Uniquely, Cudlitz plays him as a jumped-up thug, Kal-El’s very own version of the Kingpin.
6. Jesse Eisenberg
Look, I’m not happy Jesse Eisenberg ranks this high, you’re not happy about it, let’s move on. By nature of being the most prominent cinematic Lex of the century so far, Eisenberg has to land the sixth spot. And, to be fair, at least he served up a version of the character that we hadn’t seen before — even if that’s because he seems to think he’s playing the Riddler.
5. Jon Cryer
Who would’ve thought Jon Cryer would make a great Lex Luthor when he played Gene Hackman’s dim-witted nephew in Superman: A Quest for Peace? Supergirl casting him as his former on-screen uncle decades later proved to be a stroke of genius, as Cryer shrugged off his Two and a Half Men persona to play an egotistical villain we love to hate. Oh, and you can blame him for the whole “Lex has a beard” trend.
4. John Shea
The little-remembered John Shea from Lois & Clark in fourth place? What, I’m a ’90s kid, sue me. The first season of the Dean Cain/Teri Hatcher “Moonlighting meets Man of Steel” series is definitely its best, and that’s in large part thanks to the consistent presence of Lex Luthor as both Superman’s enemy and Clark Kent’s rival for Lois’ affections. Shea deserves heaps of credit for helping reinvent Lex as a sophisticated, three-dimensional figure.
3. Gene Hackman
Whoops, don’t tell James “I hate Gene Hackman’s Lex” Gunn that he’s ranked at number three. Yes, Hackman’s interpretation is far goofier than we’re used to these days, and it took many, many years for Lex to be able to be seen as a formidable threat again, but you can’t deny how iconic and influential the legendary actor’s portrayal is. Even if he did refuse to shave his head.
2. Clancy Brown
Now for the Lex that everyone forgets. He might not have played him in live-action, but Clancy Brown gave us perhaps the most authentic Luthor of the lot across the DC Animated Universe, encompassing Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and more. Brown’s voice oozes malevolence as perhaps the most truly despicable Lex we’ve ever had.
1. Michael Rosenbaum
You saw this one coming, right? Smallville‘s very own Michael Rosenbaum — and James Gunn’s buddy, incidentally — is widely regarded by Superman fans as the greatest Lex of them all, and for good reason. Across seven seasons of the beloved prequel show, he took the young Luthor from Clark Kent’s rich best friend to the dark-hearted evil businessman he was always doomed to become. Thanks to both Rosenbaum’s textured performance and the sheer amount of time he spent in the role, he’s unlikely to be topped anytime soon.
But, hey, Nicholas Hoult, give it your best shot.