Save Me: the Redemption of Lex Luthor
Okay, so if you're not already one of the many converts to Smallville, I'm not sure I can help you. You must be immune or something, because the addiction is viral and intense.
If you've been won in by Tom Welling's winsomely coy Clark Kent, with his clear-eyed idealism and clenched-jaw disillusionment … if you've been rendered sweaty-palmed and short of breath by Michael Rosenbaum's sex-on-a-stick portrayal of Lex Luthor … well, then you've probably also managed to ignore the things the show does wrong.
Like the scripts, for example, which are badly paced and contain painful clunkers in almost every episode. Like the editing, which lingers on the aforementioned clunkers and seems to have a passionate thing for egregiously bad CGI.
If you watch enough, it all changes. Kristin Kreuk's wooden Lana Lang becomes less an inexperienced actress in a passive role, and more of a foil for Lex's ruthless pursuit of Clark Kent's heart. Jonathan Kent's badly-written platitudes become less annoying screenwriting and more an illustration of a black-and-white world that will give Clark the basics of ethical behavior, but which cannot sustain him as he sees more of Lex's world -- Metropolis with its many shades of grey.
And then there's the thing with destiny.
Clark Kent and Lex Luthor. It's tantamount to calling your main characters Joker and Batman, Brutus and Caesar, Cain and Abel. We know this story of old -- the more you love, the more you can hate. We don't bother to become enemies if we don't feel betrayed. There's every sign, from seers with visions to parents with predictions, that the friendship of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent is destined straight for hell. You might as well have named 'em Jesus and Judas -- the betrayal that comes with a kiss.
We've never seen this particular Clark Kent and Lex Luthor before. It's set in 2002, which right there makes a lot of the subtextual love-you/hate-you vibe that's part of Luthor's character a lot less threatening than in any of his previous incarnations (and, considering Tom Welling's exquisite, unearthly man-boy prettiness, a lot more understandable). Previously in the DC universe, a 21-year-old with a hard-on for a sixteen-year-old could only have been a bad, bad man.
We're not in Kansas anymore.
Lex and Clark have never been friends at the outset before. In any of the films or DC versions or various TV explorations, they've either met as adults, their roles and identities fully formed, or they met as kids -- as instant rivals and enemies. Lex Luthor as Whitney Fordham.
(OK, I can't go there either, really.)
Lex is also slightly older money than the self-made Luthor of the comics -- he's got two poles vying for his soul, in the form of his father Lionel, the Magnificent Bastard, and Clark, the Boy Who Would Be Superman. One runs an agricultural and real estate empire, one's the son of an organic farmer. One's an amoral bastard who tells brutal truths; one's an ethical orphan who hides secrets. It's a tug of war, and Lex is caught in the middle -- happy to be caught. Desperate to be wanted, even as he claims he's on his own.
That's a different guy than the genius/sociopath Lex that I remember of old. Much as Batman Beyond messed with the canon of Bruce Wayne and his allies, Smallville is playing fast and loose with an alternate universe -- an alternate universe of a story that itself has a wildly contradictory canon and a Crisis on Infinite Earths.
"Somebody save me," goes the theme song, and it's not a song about 911, or even Superman himself. It's a song about love, about souls -- Lex's soul, and Clark's, and how they can "break right through" their destinies and -- perhaps -- save each other.
In the pilot episode, Lex drives a car through Clark and off a bridge. They should both be dead -- except Clark's specialness, his abilities (his secrets), save them both. The character of Lex Luthor is reborn in front of our eyes -- no longer Clark's nemesis, no longer his murderer. He's plowed a Porsche through the kid, to no avail, and now that Lex Luthor -- our old one, the guy who shoots ray guns and masterminds Superman's destruction, is a dead man.
In his place, the Lex of Smallville, ethically and sexually ambiguous, sincerely wishing for a new beginning, sincerely pinning his hopes for salvation on Clark Kent. In case you missed the baptism-by-CPR, we get a crucifixion later in the same episode -- and Lex, hearing Clark's cry in the fields, runs to help -- he isn't willing to accept this sacrifice. Lex cuts Clark down from his near-execution, more affronted for Clark than Clark is for himself.
Lex isn't all good. But his actions, like Clark's lies and evasions, come from a single place -- to protect himself and, by extension, Clark -- his reliable rescuer. Lex's relentless pursuit to know Clark's secret is a desire for mastery, yes, but it's also a desire for patronage. Lex wants to save Clark -- save him from familial debt, from high-school ennui, from the football players -- even from virginity, as his push-me/pull-you games with Lana illustrate. He wants Clark to shine, and he can't figure out why no one else sees what the kid is worth.
You can think he wants Clark sexually (and I do think that), or you can think he's starved for some kind of family (and I think that, too). But what we've got here is a Lex Luthor that can be redeemed. A guy who's horrified by his destiny, whatever it might be. Someone who honestly doesn't want to be evil -- only powerful. He's trying to unlearn power's corruptions -- even as, at his side, Clark is coming to the realization that he himself can kill a man with one angry blow.
If (and when) Lex falls, it may well be because he can't bear to drag Clark down with him.
Which, in its own way, is a hero's irony.
Thing is? I think Clark may be stubborn enough to stick with Lex in even the darkest places. And that may mean the greying of both of them -- a Dark Knight-esque Superman and a Lex Luthor with Odyssean roots and a ideological cousin or two on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may mean that they will have to have a brutal break -- a truly unforgivable betrayal -- before they can bear to oppose each other.
Either way, this is not your father's Smallville. All bets are off, and if the show's producers have said Lex will be a bad guy in the end … well, I've written enough stories to know that strong characters can wrestle a story right away from you. And what's evil, anyway? Drug abuse? Patricide? Statutory rape of underage space aliens? I'd forgive Lex all of these -- hell, I'd write all of these.
So. I claim myself to be a Lex redemptionista. The enemy in this show is not Lex Luthor, nor even the Magnificent Bastard -- it's destiny, and expectation, and foreknowledge. Their fates are sealed -- we know where they're headed. But they, as characters in their own story, have no idea what's ahead. And maybe -- just this once! -- they can change their future.
Just this once.