How Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor is different from Gene Hackman's -- Spacey takes the villian seriously in ''Superman Returns''

”It’s rule No. 1 when it comes to making [superhero] movies: Your hero is only as strong as your villain,” says Superman Returns director Bryan Singer. Fortunately for his film, the Man of Steel comes with the advantage of being pitted against Lex Luthor, the most iconic bad guy in comicdom after Batman‘s Joker. In three of Christopher Reeve’s four Superman flicks, the criminal mastermind was memorably portrayed by Gene Hackman with a winky sense of wickedness. By contrast, Kevin Spacey’s Lex is nearly all wicked, speaking openly of killing billions of people — and liking the sound of it. In one brutal scene, he gets to stick it to Superman with a jagged piece of kryptonite in a way no villain has ever done before. ”He still has that shocking humor, but not that wonderful used-car-salesman quality Hackman had,” says two-time Oscar winner Spacey. ”This is a bitter, angry Lex. He’s been in prison for five years because of Superman. Now he wants revenge.”

Although early versions of the script featured some yuk-yuk flourishes of Hackman’s Lex, like the outrageous attire and toupees, Spacey had different ideas. He asked that the costumes be dialed down, the wigs scaled back. To darken the characterization further, he and Parker Posey, who plays Luthor’s partner in crime, decided to imbue their banter with what Posey calls a ”volatile Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor late-marriage vibe.” Ultimately, Spacey’s take was ”edgier than we intended,” says screenwriter Dan Harris, ”but it’s better and scarier. And it makes his confrontation with Superman more powerful.”

Spacey, 46, has been threatening to mess with the Man of Steel for almost a decade. Directors Tim Burton and Brett Ratner each spoke with the American Beauty star about playing Luthor during their attempts to relaunch the Superman franchise. But Spacey, who has generally eschewed playing outright baddies ever since his name-making diabolical double shot of The Usual Suspects and Seven in 1995, says he’s happier to be playing the role now instead of nine years ago, when ”all anyone ever thought of me was dark and evil.” As for shaving his hair, no big deal: Spacey lost his locks for Seven, too. He fondly recalls how director David Fincher shaved his own head in a show of support. ”I told Bryan that story. He didn’t take the bait,” says Spacey with a mischievous smirk. ”Coward.”

Superman Returns
  • Movie
  • 157 minutes