Captain Luthor's real identity revealed! Superman & Lois star unpacks that twist
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Tuesday's episode of Superman & Lois, "Man of Steel."
It turns out Wolé Parks' Captain Luthor isn't a Luthor after all.
The latest episode of Superman & Lois, "Man of Steel," revealed that Parks is actually playing John Henry Irons, who is known as the hero Steel in the pages of DC comics.
In comics lore, John Henry builds himself a suit of armor and becomes the superhero Steel in the wake of Superman's death, inspired by his sacrifice. (Shaquille O'Neal played a version of the character in a 1997 movie that's better left forgotten.) But that's definitely not the case with Superman & Lois: The show's version of John Henry is determined to kill Tyler Hoechlin's titular hero because on the parallel Earth he hails from, Superman went rogue.
The hour, which was written by Jai Jamison and directed by Arrow's David Ramsey, flashed back to John Henry's life before he arrived on Earth-Prime. We already knew he was married to Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) on this alternate planet, but this episode also revealed he and Lois had a daughter named Natalie. Unfortunately, that Earth's evil Superman, who conquered the planet with an army superpowered people, murdered Lois when she shared his weakness with the world. In turn, John Henry and Nat started building a battlesuit to fight Superman. (The suit's A.I. was originally set for Lex Luthor, hence the naming mix-up.) John Henry eventually discovered Kal-El's location and took the suit out to kill him. Unfortunately, that was the last time he saw his daughter before arriving on Earth-Prime.
In the present, Superman came face-to-face with John Henry once again. But this time around, John Henry incapacitated him with red sunlight and beat him with a powerful hammer, a nod to Steel's weapon of choice in the comics. Thankfully, Jordan (Alex Garfin) and Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) showed up in time to save their father's life. John Henry ended the episode behind bars at the DoD.
Ahead of the episode, EW hopped on Zoom with Parks, Jamison, and showrunner Todd Helbing to discuss this incredible twist.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with you, Todd. How early in the development process did you know the Stranger would actually be John Henry Irons?
TODD HELBING: It was a little bit of a problem. We knew from day one that we just didn't want to do a classic villain. We wanted to do something cool with Luthor. And then it was pretty early on where it was pitched by our writers' assistant, Adam Mallinger, that we should make him Steel. I mean, that was really early on. And I can't remember when I called you, Wolé. That was in like June or something, right?
WOLÉ PARKS: Yeah, it was like June or July. Or something like that.
HELBING: But it was just one of those pitches where you're like, "Oh my God, this just takes it to a different level! And then we can do Nat, and we can just expand this family." And it was just one thing after the other. And then the story got so much richer and deeper.
So it sounds like you had the Captain Luthor bit first, and then this came later?
HELBING: Yeah. It was like a redemption story, and we just really wanted everybody, like with all the villains, to understand where they're coming from. Any argument, if you understand both sides, it just makes the argument that much richer. And with a character, if you empathize with them, it makes it so much richer. And that's really what we were going for from the beginning, but we didn't have that special thing, I think, that would make it really pop. And that was it.
Jai, how did you react when this pitch came up in the writers' room?
JAI JAMISON: I remember the first week we got a packet with possible characters to use. And I was flipping through and I was like, "Oh, John Henry. Oh, that's interesting." And I kept moving. When Todd came through and told us about Adam's pitch, I was like, "Yes, that's it." It's one of those ideas that I wish I had thought of.
But, I grew up [with] the Return of Superman run. That was when I was reading Superman. So, being able to put this iconic character into the mythos and lend some thoughts and some ideas to that character was just amazing. And I just got so excited. Todd will tell you, I spent so much time thinking about John Henry's Earth and background. I came in one day and was like, "And then all this happened and then this happened, and then this." And we're not going to see any of it, but…
HELBING: It's funny because Jai came in one day [after] emailing me [with] just a machine gun of ideas. And I was like, "Dude, don't take this the wrong way, just pump the brakes a second. We got to slow down just a second. I haven't had this many ideas thrown…" No, but it was awesome, because you want the staff, everybody, to be that enthusiastic about it. So it was fantastic.
JAMISON: From the beginning, there's this idea that John Henry is the hero of his story. And so approaching it from that angle, coming at this character from a different point of view and a different perspective, was exciting and important.
And Wolé, what was your reaction?
PARKS: It was interesting because when I first auditioned, it was Lex Luthor. [The audition sides had] a fake name, like Mark Smith or something, but you could tell. And that was cool because, like Jai's talking about, I was a big fan back in the day too. I read the Death of Superman. I watched Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited. I watched all that — actually rewatched it even after I got the show. So I was just excited about the idea of playing Lex Luthor. And then Todd calls and was like, "Hey, I want to talk to you about the character." And I told him, "Just tell me what I need to know. I don't want to know stuff. I kind of want to find out as we go along." And he's like, "No, you need to know this."
No B.S., I actually got kind of emotional about it, because I remember when that comic came out. I was about 10 or 11. And I remember seeing that as a kid. And you know how it is: Back then, there wasn't a lot of diverse representation. So for this little Black kid to see this Black guy who was a superhero in his own right, that was amazing. I felt overwhelmed and appreciative. And then immediately after we hung up the phone, I was like, 'Oh s---, how am I going to play this character?' Just because I'd done all this work for Lex. Then it's like, "Oh, that's not going to work. He's not a megalomaniac."
How did you change your performance after finding out?
PARKS: With John, especially when they talk about the fact that he had this past you see [in episodes 2 and 7], this guy comes from a place of trauma, and a lot of pain. So I started doing a lot of research on soldiers, and soldiers with PTSD. Because this is a military guy, he's not a rich guy. Morgan Edge [Adam Rayner] seems to err more on the Lex Luthor kind of vibe. This guy doesn't come from that world.
My perspective on him changed. He got a lot darker, as far as his perspective. I remember Todd [said], "He's on a mission. He's on a mission." I'm like, "This is true. I need to kill Superman." But I understand that, because for him, the way I approached the character was, he's lost everything. He left his daughter. He lost his wife, his friends. The idea of having to fight a bunch of Supermen is crazy, if you really think about it. So for him, the only thing he has driving him is his hatred for Superman. And in a way, if he loses that, what is his identity? That's another journey he has to continue going on as the season progresses.
This show is already filled with and focused on parent-child relationships. Jai and Todd, can you talk about adding another one of those dynamics to the mix?
JAMISON: Bringing that in was the second game changer. You had John Henry, all that, but then giving him a daughter, giving him a family, it makes it so much richer. I'm not a father, but I have a younger sister. So I kind of wrote Nat towards her, actually. It was actually interesting, all the stuff in the bunker? I'm writing that in my apartment that I've been holed up in with my sister for the past year. So it feels a little method. [Laughs]
Through John Henry, we also learn a little bit about Superman, which I love about this concept. Where it's the other world, right? And you look at the variables and you look at what's similar and what's changed, and you can [see] Lois Lane is one of the variables, actually, in that equation. And so it's kind of like the old Walter Murch thing where you learn more about water by studying steam and ice. John Henry is the Superman of his world. And you look at those factors and you look at that family, and you get to explore that and dig into the emotion of what it means for this man — Wolé spoke to it — to go in fighting Superman knowing it's probably a suicide mission. Tying it back into family, which is what our show is all about, was the part of the episode that I most [leaned] into.
Wolé, did you find it helpful to have another actor directing you?
PARKS: Yeah, definitely, because I think the thing about actor-directors, which I appreciate, is that we speak a similar language. My first day was when we did all the bunker stuff, which was kind of crazy. It was honestly a little scary, only because I had just met Taylor, who plays my and Bitsie's daughter. So the first scene is us saying goodbye. So it's like, "Hi, nice to meet you. So listen, we're going to play a scene where we're going to basically say we're never going to see you again, and I love you, and all this craziness." But David gave the space for that to happen, that's the thing which was beautiful about that. Because he understands [and] really helped create an environment to foster that. And I hope it came through. I can't say enough positive things about David.
How did it feel to wield Steel's hammer in that final fight?
PARKS: Let me tell you about this hammer. Believe it or not, it was cool. No, it was super-cool. Rob Hayter, who runs the stunt department, gave me, a couple of weeks prior, he gave me this little… We're going to call it a stick, okay? To practice with. Like, an inch thick in diameter and then maybe two and a half feet long. He showed me some moves and is like, "Go home and practice this, how to wield it." And I get on set —we had a couple of night shoots back-to-back where we do that whole sequence — and [the real hammer is] this huge fricking thing. The thing is like three inches thick, it's got this big-ass top, the head of it. I'm like, "I can't throw this around. Everything we worked on is out the window." So partially it was like, "Whoa, this is really cool." And then the other side was, "How am I supposed to do what I practiced the whole time?" But again, it was super-cool. You can't, I mean, the idea to hold this thing, this iconic weapon? It was ridiculous. It felt absolutely amazing.
HELBING: It's funny, just to add to the hammer part, though: When we were in prep and Slade Young, our prop guy, had four different versions of this thing. And one of them was just ginormous. And it's like, "Well, is that one too small? Is that one too big? We don't want it to look like Thor's hammer. How is this different?" You know what I mean? So there's all these conversations, and it's like an hour and a half talking about a hammer. It's like, "Is this going to be too heavy for Wole? Is it not going to be heavy enough? It has to have enough oomph, so it feels like you're actually holding…" Some of these conversations, you're like, "Man, I'm a 40-year-old man and I'm talking about this. What is going on?"
JAMISON: When writing that sequence, I definitely had a mop in [my] apartment that I was swinging around at like 3 in the morning, trying to figure out how the sequence would go.
You touched on exploring what it looks like when someone like John Henry loses their mission. What do you think it would take for Captain Luthor to change his mind about this Superman?
PARKS: I don't want to really get into heavy spoilers. We will see some of that stuff happen. But I think it's more, just in general, just about, how do we accept the past? And I think to me, that is his journey. Which we're going to see, in the next couple episodes, is just acceptance. And that's something which is really hard for him because obviously, in my mind at least the way I portrayed him, is that he blames himself. "If I would have done this, and maybe this wouldn't have happened. If this would have happened," somehow he could have changed the past. But you can't change the past, because the past is the past. And as long as you let we keep holding on to that, that's just going to keep your rage, that resentment is never going to go away.
Todd, will we see Nat again?
HELBING: Yeah, I think you'll see her. There's some cool stuff coming up. I'll just say what we always go back to is family. So, how does Natalie influence John Henry in the past, and is she able to influence him in the future?
Superman & Lois airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CW.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.