It’s a good time to be bad at DC Comics, as the company kicks off its Year of the Villain in an explosive way. Lex Luthor is making an offer that none of the villains in the DC universe will be able to refuse: The power to do away with their least favorite superhero for good.
But why would Superman’s nemesis do something so twistedly altruistic for his fellow supervillains? We sat down with Justice League writer and Year of the Villain architect Scott Snyder to answer just those questions.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for Year of the Villain #1 will follow.]
In the pages of this week’s 25 cent issue, Lex explosively faked his own death, and “his fortune, his discoveries, [and] his assets” have been distributed to all the villains of the DC Universe, in individually tailored packages. That plot hook will fuel stories in a score of DC Comics issues arriving this July, from Black Manta in Aquaman and Cheetah in Wonder Woman; to the Court of Owls in Nightwing and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman & The Outsiders. Some villains will reject Lex’s help, according to Snyder, some will embrace it, and even some heroes will be tempted.
According to Snyder, the fundamental question raised by The Year of the Villain is one he thinks is more relevant than ever: Are humans meant to look out only for ourselves? Or to work collectively for a greater good?
Polygon: How is Lex Luthor the start of everything Year of the Villain?
Scott Snyder: With Year of the Villain, me, James Tynion and [Joshua] Williamson shaped it. It springs out of a lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing in the Justice League group since [Dark Nights Metal]. Lex Luthor has played this central role in all of our stuff, and in Justice League in particular. And a lot of it has been this journey towards Lex’s realization that he was always right, as he struggled with being a hero or a villain. And at his core is this ego; he believes that humanity is selfish.
His inability to get past the realization that Superman is always doing things just a little bit bigger than him, or better than him, has held him back from being happy in life, and accepting his legacy as a great inventor. All those things make him a villain.
What happens in Year of the Villain is that Lex realizes that the beginnings of the DCU were such that humans weren’t what we are now. We were this immortal, predatory species created by this celestial god Perpetua, the mother of the DC Universe — we’ve been sort of exploring this whole story in Justice League. And when he realizes that he was right, and all the things that he’s been struggling with or feeling — this ego; and this sense of self-importance; and this longing to be more important, and to be bigger, and to live longer, and to have more of an impact, and for everything to be more immediate — all that stuff is real and we were meant to be something else in our first form.
He’s suddenly faithful and he believes that evil is our true nature, selfishness, self-interest, and that if we only embrace that, in this massive cosmic way, we will become the thing we were always meant to be, and we will be truly happy for the first time ever as a species.
So Year of the Villain is Lex finally coming to the realization that he was always right [laughs], and that the cosmos agrees with him. And so he goes to every villain in the whole DCU and says, “I’m going to make you an offer. And what I offer you will help you beat your hero once and for all. And together we will rise. We will be the great heroes of humanity, because we’ll show them how to be villainous and selfish and evolve into the thing we were always meant to be, our true divine form.”
It’s incredibly compelling and fun for me because it’s a culmination of all of this stuff that we’ve been building in Justice League from Metal to now. So from 2017 all the way through this point in DC history.
In the Justice League, everyone has a shared sense of purpose, but the villains in the Legion of Doom don’t always play well together. Lex’s offer seems like a great way to get all the villains on the same team.
Completely. What we want, at the end of the day is for [Lex’s] argument to be really, really compelling, but also for everyone to approach it in an individuated way. I believe that what he’s saying, at least for me, is relevant and resonant to this moment more than any other, where we have people in power across the world appealing to both sides of that argument.
Some of them saying, “We have these huge systemic and problems and the only way we’re going to beat them is to believe in something bigger than ourselves and work collectively.” That’s J’onn J’onzz; that’s Martian Manhunter saying “We have to be a community of heroes.”
Lex Luthor is saying “Forget all of that.” He’s saying, “Live your best life.” He’s saying “Be you. What matters is you getting what you can get for the people you care about and eff everybody else, who cares? Protect our own. Us, that’s it.”
And so that argument to me is in the zeitgeist all over the place, regardless of where you fall on a political spectrum, regardless of where you live, it’s either give yourself up to problems that you’re not going to solve in a day and you’re not going to be a hero for; you’re going to have to sacrifice any sense of self for a greater good.
Or you forget about all of it and say, “How do I get my best day today?” My best day, hour, minute, year, anything, “for me and mine.” And that’s the core thread from Metal on; that’s what Justice League is about, that’s what Year of the Villain is about; Lex getting more evidence than ever that his way is right, and that the way to be happy is to forget the fallacy of heroism and communal effort and instead say “It’s about me and what I care about; about my own subjective experience, and that’s it.”
So every villain and every hero, they’re going to react differently to that. And I think to speak to your question, some villains are going to immediately say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need. Give me what I need to beat my hero, let’s do it.’ Other villains are going to say, “You’re scaring me and I don’t actually want to go that far.” And some heroes, might even hear Lex and be like, “I kind of believe what he’s saying.”
We’re not doing this, or I never signed on to do any of this, because I need to do an event or to do something that’s a big DC initiative. At this point in my career, I feel pretty comfortable just doing the things that matter to me in a personal way. The beauty of this thing is that it’s the culmination of a story I’m telling for my kids — and the kid I’m going to have in two weeks.
I want our heroes to represent the best in us and our villains to represent our worst impulses and for both to be deeply resonant with us. So I really believe in Year of the Villain and what it builds to.
In May you learn Lex has an offer for everybody [...], in July the offer actually hits the books, where he appears for all the villains and says, “This is what I set up for you, do you want it or not? And then from July to November, the battle really rages between our heroes and villains on this epic scale. And in November you see who wins. And depending on who that might be, it will probably start the largest battle between every character in the history of the DCU in the biggest way we could do it.
I want to give you more than your money’s worth, if I’m going to do this one last time; go in there and do you know the biggest stuff I can do. And then say, “Hey, it’s time for me to do smaller stuff.” I want you to feel like you’re getting more than you paid for with every book and that it’s one giant communal, personal, resonant, immediate and relevant story.
Justice League is nearly the first time you have come to Lex Luthor as a character. How did you figure out who your Lex Luthor was going to be? Do you have any like particular inspirations?
There’s so many stories where I love with Lex in them, from All-Star Superman to Geoff Johns’ Action Comics — and how he wrote him in Justice League, in fact, when he became a hero. And I think what it made me realize, looking back at all these Lex stories, was that the core flaw and strength to him is that he’s sympathetic in his ego.
If he would just be a hero! And he wants to be a hero. He wants to be the most important hero in the history of humanity. The only reason that he can’t be that is because he can’t let go and just let the contributions speak for themselves. He sees other people like Superman and he can’t let go of beating that person. That’s what makes him a villain.
I think that’s so deeply relatable. All of us have that impulse. I have it all the time where I’m like, Oh, I’m so proud of what I’m doing. And then you see somebody and you’re like, I gotta be better than that person! And luckily I don’t feel that very often and it doesn’t propel me as a writer, but we’d all be lying if we didn’t say we had that at different times in our lives.
Lex is the embodiment of that feeling. He’s his own Achilles heel. He’s literally the person that can’t get out of his way to just be this great person and this great inventor and this great contributor to humanity.
I’ve been waiting for the right story to use him. I loved writing him when I wrote Superman, for the same reason. I knew I had a version of him that really mattered to me, and I just needed the story to plug him into.
I’ve been waiting to tell this story for a long time because I feel as though it is a culmination of everything that I’ve tried to write about at DC. You see echoes of it in all the stuff I’m doing, it’s in Last Knight right now with Greg Capullo and FCO [Plascencia] and Jonathan [Glapion], it’s in Batman Who Laughs. It’s what I worry about for my children, it’s the example we set. Are we saying to them, “Be an influencer, be your best self, live your best life in terms of yourself, take the sort of degree to which you have agency and we didn’t as kids to build something that’s totally insulated and self absorbed?”
Or do we say, “No, you have to be selfless and think bigger than who you are.” I think we’re at a time right now almost societally that that is a crescendo of that conflict. I think the fact that we’re so subjective that you can — there’s no centrality. And, you know, not that — sorry, I’m going down a rabbit hole.
I was just going to say that, it’s not that some centrality to what your news is, your music is, is good. I’m not saying that’s good at all, because who gets to make that up? But all I’m saying is that right now my kids can pick everything they want from whatever they decide is good or popular, and that’s a wonderful, powerful thing. But they can also do that with information and news, and they can start to insulate themselves in their political opinions and all of that.
And there’s something deeply scary about that, that you have the ability to create an entirely subjective experience in your life with no outside influence whatsoever. And, to me, that’s Lex Luthor saying to you That’s what you should do. He’s saying “Live the life that only speaks to the things you want, that you care about. Nothing outside of yourself matters.”
And J’onn J’onn’z is the opposite. He’s saying “The only way we reached beyond our biology, our capabilities, and our lifespan is to band together, and to be small and think of something larger than ourselves.”