Best Lex Luthor actors, ranked

(Image credit: DC Comics)

The best Lex Luthor actors aren't the only ones to have played Superman's arch-foe, but these are the people that have taken the character and evolved it with their performances. These are the ones that have helped define Luthor on the big and small screens, and some still might say that he's more super than Superman. 

So, without further ado, these are the best Lex Luthor actors of all time, ranked.

6. Jesse Eisenberg

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Jesse Eisenbrg’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Lex Luthor isn’t exactly a fan favorite (though he’s got his admirers to be sure), but it’s hard to argue Eisenberg found a niche for Luthor as a demented wunderkind bent on manipulating the world’s heroes into fighting each other.

It’s unclear what future if any Eisenberg’s Luthor has on film, but he was last seen in a post-credits scene for Justice League in which he seemingly recruited Deathstroke to a big-screen version of the Legion of Doom that may or may not ever come to fruition.

5. Jon Cryer

(Image credit: The CW)

When The CW first announced their decision to cast Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor in Supergirl, the skepticism ran deep. Four years after finishing his 12-season run on CBS's Two and a Half Men, the actor, who many still think of as Pretty in Pink's iconic, lovable, nerdy character Duckie, the actor took a huge risk in stepping into the villainous role.

He may have played Lex Luthor's nephew Lenny in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but that movie wasn't — how should we put this? — good. 33 years later, could Cryer find redemption in returning to this universe and playing the corrupt billionaire? Absolutely.

Cryer's take on the famous supervillain is much darker than what Gene Hackman did with the role. He's a lot closer to the comic book version of Luthor. But there is a sinister glimmer in this Luthor's eye here that is slightly reminiscent of Hackman's scenery-chewing glory. Let's be clear here, though: Cryer does not chew the scenery at all as Lex Luthor.

This Lex is self-obsessed and self-important. But he is also an absolute sociopath. It's a challenge for any actor to portray someone this evil and still make him fun for audiences to watch. Somehow, Cryer is able to find the inner joy in bringing Luthor to life. And that sinister glimmer we referenced earlier makes Lex Luthor's ongoing conflict with Supergirl all the more entertaining to watch.

4. John Shea

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

John Shea’s charismatic Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman version of Lex Luthor was somewhat ahead of its time, posing Luthor as an Elon Musk style tech entrepreneur with his fingers on the pulse of cutting edge technology. But unlike the modern real world archetype he foreshadowed, Shea’s Luthor had those same fingers spread into the criminal underworld as well.

Shea’s Luthor oozed confidence and friendly favor to the public, but behind the scenes his ruthless machinations and hatred of Superman colored his every action. Lois and Clark’s Luthor followed an arc far different from most versions of the character, but at the same time presented one of the most complete pictures of Luthor’s dual nature yet on screen.

3. Michael Rosenbaum

(Image credit: The CW)

Michael Rosenbaum played perhaps the scariest version live action version of Lex Luthor – because we saw him evolve from Clark Kent’s friend to the nascent Superman’s arch-enemy almost in real time in Smallville. Rosenbaum’s likable but increasingly cold Luthor was a major departure from previous well-known versions of the character like Gene Hackman’s Superman: The Movie version.

Oddly enough, Rosenbaum also portrayed the Flash in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series – and he also got a chance to portray a very different version of Luthor on that show as well in an episode where Wally West and Lex Luthor switch brains (a la Freaky Friday). The result is Rosenbaum doing his best version of Luthor impersonating the Flash, while Justice League Unlimited’s Luthor Clancy Brown (remember that name) turns in a performance as Rosenbaum’s Wally impersonating him – a classic bit of switcheroo.

2. Clancy Brown

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Unlike his Gotham City arch-criminal equivalent the Joker, Lex Luthor doesn’t have a rich history of iconic voice portrayals that immediately spring to mind. But Clancy Brown’s Luthor, whom he voiced from Superman: The Animated Series through Justice League Unlimited, breaks that mold.

Brown’s Luthor carried a snide edge that was clearly informed by Gene Hackman’s Superman: The Movie performance (more on that later), but which went an extra mile in its vicious sarcasm. Brown’s Luthor moved from the LexCorp boardroom into the Hall of Doom and eventually to deep space, seamlessly exuding Lex’s confidence and arrogance in every context he was placed.

1. Gene Hackman

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Much like his heroic counterpart Christopher Reeve’s good natured take on Superman, Gene Hackman’s affable but diabolical robber baron/real estate developer version of Lex Luthor defined the character for a whole generation of fans in Superman: The Movie and its sequels.

Hackman’s portrayal is worlds apart from some versions of the character – he’s not exactly the mad scientist supervillain type – but his Lex still informs aspects of Luthor in both comic books and subsequent film portrayals, where his grandiosity and borderline madness often come through – along with his off-beat humor.

Now Hackman's Luthor has another, more direct legacy in Superman media. John Cryer, who played Lex Luthor's nephew Lenny Luthor alongside Hackman in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, will now portray Lex Luthor on CW's Supergirl.

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)