Lex Luthor leaves many confused. What follows is an explanation of Lex’s motives and machinations, then exploded and examined with in-story support. Inspired by episode 42 of MOSAIC.
We’ll largely stick to in-story sources, although everything discussed is supported by second-tier continuity like the Forbes feature, Wired interview, World of Batman v. Superman promotional comics, TimeOut travel guides, etc. For example, it’s fun trivia that Clark and Lex share the middle-name Joseph, but not vital for any deduction or conclusion.
First we’ll outline everything in the affirmative, Lex’s motive, machinations, and moves:
- Expose “power can be innocent” as a lie.
That’s it. Everything essentially comes from this multi-layered motive. Lex means to enact this motive through several big-picture plans.
- Demonize Superman
- Manipulate Batman to Beat Superman
- Gain Exclusive Entrance to Ship
- Develop Doomsday
The first plan is the main plan. The second plan arises after it is clear Senator Finch won’t publicly legitimize his position. The third plan ties everything together and creates the fourth plan. The first three big-picture plans encompass the Lex’s moves until he learns from the ship, when he calls the fourth as an audible. The final plan covers his moves in the second half of the film.
- Preparation & Planning
- Import License
- Entering Ship
- Develop Doomsday
- Distract Superman
These big events encompass the main moves Lex makes in order to accomplish his machinations for his motive. Let’s break it down as a sequence of events expressed in the affirmative for Lex.
- Forms philosophy that “power can be innocent” is a lie to be exposed due to abuse
- Has an existential crisis in response to Superman
- Researches Superman and uncovers his secret identity, Batman’s secret identity, and other metahumas
- Steals surveillance footage
- Runs facial recognition software over footage
- Creates ties within intelligence community
- Develops ability to smuggle
- Discovers a sliver of Kryptonite and seeks more
- Begins public ties with government (AMRIID)
- Wants to demonize the symbol of Superman before killing him
- To expose the lie
- To force the world to make sense
- To send a message to other metahumans to stay in shadows
- Enacts his plans once enough Kryptonite is found
- Sets up Superman in Africa as enacting an international incident
- Creates narrative for Lex to leverage with Congress
- Calls public to question Superman
- Tests Superman’s abilities
- Messes with Superman
- Proposes Silver Bullet deterrent
- Requests import license
- Granted ship access
- Granted Zod’s body
- Takes Zod’s fingerprints but does not enter the ship
- Doesn’t want to be stopped by Senators who granted access to begin with
- Doesn’t want to share the knowledge within with the world without
- Denied import license by Senator Finch
- Understands Senator Finch supports the “oldest lie”
- Decides to kill Senator Finch (bomb plot)
- Prepares to smuggle Kryptonite (White Portuguese plot)
- Prepares to provoke Batman further (files, notes, and bombing)
- Invites Bruce to fundraiser
- Allows pre-selected files to be stolen by Bruce
- Offers Bruce an opportunity to see same files legitimately
- Allows Clark access to Bruce to know what he thinks
- Allows Lex to perpetuate the myth of his father and his public face
- Bombs the Senate hearing
- Revenge against Senator Finch
- Removes Mercy as the only witness tying him to Keefe
- Stops Superman from speaking and swaying public and committee
- Stops subcommittee oversight over ship entrance
- Stops subcommittee from pulling or ending ship access
- Sullies Superman as powerless and collateral causing
- Shakes Superman to the core
- Provokes Batman to anger
- Enters ship
- Asks: How to defeat Superman? Learns about Doomsday
- Asks: Any others like Superman? Learns about Darkseid
- Decides to develop Doomsday
- Sees Doomsday as the perfect devil
- Doomsday becomes endgame
- Puts clock on the endgame
- Distracts Superman so Doomsday can cook
- Kidnaps Martha
- Kidnaps Lois
- Distracts Superman with Batman
- Unleashes Doomsday
Motive: Expose “power can be innocent” as a lie
The most concise statement of Lex’s psychological origins, motives, and intentions come these lines:
Lex: No man in the sky intervened, when I was a boy, to deliver me from Daddy’s fists and abominations. I’ve figured it out way back. If god is all powerful, he cannot be all good. And if he’s all good, then he cannot be all powerful. And neither can you be. They need to see the fraud that you are. With their eyes.
So because of childhood trauma (the same basis for Batman’s origins), Lex arrives at a world-view which is imposed upon Superman and which Lex feels the world must see. This is Lex likely at his most truthful and transparent because he’s already shown his hand by kidnapping and taking credit for Batman’s challenge, “Ripe fruit his hate. Two years growing. But it did not take much to push him over actually: little red notes, big bang, you let your family die!” As we’ll see, Lex already knows Doomsday (and likely Darkseid) is coming, so Superman is “good as dead” and this is one of his last opportunities to express himself to the source of so much of his own existential turmoil.
Overall, Lex limits his lies. He obscures his meaning and intent with double meanings, wordplay, sarcasm, irony, etc. but most of the time he’s either telling the truth or his intentions can be uncovered in what he’s saying. Which is to say, his lines support his psychology but can’t always be taken at face value.
Lex wants to change the public perception of Superman to align with his own views and deter any other would-be “gods among men.”
It’s clear that Lex appreciates Superman’s public image. He states, “The problem of absolute virtue. The problem of you on top of everything. You above all. Ah – ’cause that’s what god is.”
While Lex understands that is the public perspective, he believes that to be a lie and a fraud. Superman is a monster during his silver bullet pitch. Superman is a devil when his import license is denied. Superman is a demon when calling Martha a witch.
It’s critical to understand that Lex does not just want Superman dead. “They need to see the fraud that you are.” Simply killing Superman might call into question whether Superman was a “power” but it wouldn’t expose “power can be innocent” as a lie. Just killing Superman while he was publicly perceived as innocent, only removes him as an example of power. Worse, it invites him to be martyred and replaced by other metahumans who perpetuate the same lie. This is, in fact, how the film actually ends!
Lex is completely aware of and wishes to deter other metahumans through Superman. This exchange occurs in his silver bullet pitch:
Lex: Now Rocky is radioactive, but what he needs from you is an import license.
Finch: And why would we want to weaponize this material?
Lex: As a deterrent. A silver bullet to use in reserve against the Kryptonians, so the day does not come Madam when your children are waiving daisies at a reviewing stand.
Barrows: Last I looked the only one of those flying around up here was Superman.
Lex: Hah, yes, Superman… yeah… but there are more of them.
Finch: The metahuman thesis.
Lex: Yes, the metahuman thesis. More likely than not, these exceptional beings live among us. The basis of our myths. Gods among men. Upon our little blue planet here. Now you don’t have to use a silver bullet, but if you forge one, well then, we don’t have to depend upon the kindness of monsters!
In other words, this isn’t merely speculation. Lex explicitly states it! He wants to deter the other metahumans with a Superman-specific weapon.
To Lex, Superman is a symbol to and for all these other metahumans. Note how he interchanges “gods” and “monsters” as equivalent. Lex categorizes the toleration of Superman for protection as “depending on the kindness of monsters.” Lex’s reliance on the quote is intentional and multilayered. The original quote is, of course, “depending on the kindness of strangers” which relates to Superman’s moniker, “Strange visitor from another planet; who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” In substitution, Lex could be reinforcing Superman’s deity “beyond mortal men”, strangeness “strange visitor”, and casting it all as “monster.” Of course, in-story, we don’t know that the “strange visitor” association exists.
Nonetheless, the underlying work by Tennessee Williams is entirely on point. Blanche DuBois says the line as a fanciful self-deception, to cope with the traumatic reality. She calls abuse “kindness” and Lex is accusing Superman’s supporters of the same.
Lex believes humanity has deluded itself into accepting Superman as a kind stranger, when he’s actually the first public monster among others who could arise following his example.
With the above motive, Lex begins to accrue the only kind of power he can accumulate to compete: knowledge.
Lex: Knowledge is power.
Lex learns that metahumans exist, that Bruce Wayne is Batman, that Clark Kent is Superman, that Kryptonite exists, and more. While a mechanical explanation for how he learns all these things beyond money isn’t necessary, we have plenty of hints and clues into how he does. We know Lex has ears inside the Central Intelligence Agency because Knyazev knew the CIA was going to be in Africa and Lex knew Lois had been digging into the experimental rounds. We know that Lex has acquired footage and files from STAR Labs, banks, convenience stores, and more. We know that Lex is running facial recognition software over it because we see Diana’s face get matched. So, in short, a mountain of data mined by a premiere tech company is able to uncover insights not available to general public.
Not really a radical concept considering the 1980s Man of Steel comic had a computer do exactly the same thing! Only the Lex in the comics ignored the answer as impossible; due to his own hubris and projections of who Superman would be. This film merely extends the logical conclusion of that concept with a Lex willing to accept the analysis. All of this knowledge proceeds the main action of the film and is generally not acted upon until the discovery of Kryptonite in the Indian Ocean, since Superman is the only public symbol or example Lex can use.
With the discovery of Kryptonite, Lex can strike back at Superman. Without it, Superman survives any slings and arrows or slander and libel Lex can spew… and there is always opportunity for redemption. Lex needs Kryptonite to kill Superman while he’s sullied so the symbol is slain too. Africa is the first step to that. It is intended to accomplish three main things: 1) Test Superman; 2) Provoke government oversight into Superman; and 3) Cause public questioning of Superman.
All three goals are accomplished. Lex is able to measure and rely upon Superman being drawn to Lois in jeopardy. The incident causes a Congressional Committee to inquire into Superman. Superman’s halo comes off and people begin to question the collateral consequences of Superman acting unilaterally. The plan was never to frame Superman for the murder of the General’s men, discussed in more detail in the podcast, instead it was to cause people and the government to question Superman.
Note how logical and procedural the plan is. If this plan fails, no problem. Lex simply enacts another one after it. So long as he isn’t caught he can keep trying. Insofar as this plan is going to go, he isn’t going to be caught because the evidence is suppressed by the nature of the terrorist movements, by the Nairomi government’s own atrocities, and by the CIA’s involvement inciting the incident. On top of all of that, Lex has one more fail safe- like marked bills or a dye pack even after defeating all of a bank’s measures- traceable rounds.
Lois isn’t exactly right in her brief to Perry. It’s not that the rounds aren’t traceable. It’s that they aren’t traceable by her. They’re preeminently traceable by Lex.
In fact, Lex confronts Lois about that on the helicopter pad. Indicating he knows what she’s been up to. When she says she’s proven his involvement, his retort? “Unfortunately, that will blow away like dust in the desert.” He’s not above a cover-up. The rounds are evidence he can use to track any escaping evidence or subsequent investigation, because the ammunition is only known to and understood by his people. The ammunition immediately throws up red flags for Lex. This puts any investigation on his radar first and allow Lex to keep tabs on or clean-up if necessary. If he used rounds without intrigue there would be nothing to trace or track and an investigation could happen under his radar. Even if the Nairomi incident is airtight, the rounds allow any snoops to be sniffed out and “blown away like dust.”
The plan works and Senator Finch begins hearings to call Superman in to account for his actions. Again, if Africa failed, logically Lex just tries again.
Due to Lex’s Africa move, there’s now an official government-sanctioned narrative of accountability. Lex can pitch his silver bullet deterrence plan (and ask for ship access as a part of that).
If his import license is granted, that means Senator Finch is on his wavelength. She sees the need to keep the monsters in check. She supports his public deterrence of Superman which puts him in his place and sends a message to all the hidden metahumans to stay in theirs. Lex is okay with this outcome. It satisfies his motive.
If the United States Government is above Superman, holds him accountable, and finds having a weapon of assassination against him as acceptable, then he’s won. People see Superman as the threat that he is, Superman is subjugated and not “you above all” and there is no more existential crisis. Lex can simply stop, his plans and machinations and moves can stop here. On the off-chance Superman starts to win back the people and the sentiment shifts, well, Lex can always steal the Kryptonite from himself and use it to kill Superman first. Of course, that’s not what happens, Senator Finch blocks the import license later on.
In the meantime, under the narrative Lex created, it’s reasonable to ask for access to Kryptonian artifacts- the ship and Zod- to research and develop alternatives to Rocky.
Granted access, Lex wants to move faster than the government has been willing to do. Two years and they’ve cautiously and carefully not entered the ship. Lex wants the secrets within, but he knows that the Senators are still gatekeepers to his access. Lex has to play “Mother May I?” to get his import license, to access the ship, or to test Zod’s body. Entering the ship is another step he’d have to run by their oversight and obtain permission to do.
If he asks to enter, they will either stop him- in accord with the caution of the last two years- or they will demand that he share what he learns inside. Either way, he loses if he tries to enter now.
Lex secures Zod’s fingerprints for future use.
Machination: Manipulate Batman to Beat Superman
Everything changes once Senator Finch denies Lex’s import license. It removes the legitimacy from his deterrence plan so Lex has to look to a vigilante that the public has deemed quasi-legitimate. Aside from personal reasons for wanting Senator Finch dead, described in detail in the podcast, Lex has several practical reasons all based in this understanding: Senator Finch supports the “oldest lie.”
The one thing Lex is motivated by, fighting for, and trying to expose? Senator Finch believes. Senator Finch is not going to act as Luthor’s McCarthy to condemn Superman and hold a deterrent over him. To Lex, Senator Finch is deceived and believes, ultimately, in Superman’s innocence. That a deterrent is unnecessary and that simply opening clear lines of communication will resolve the issues and uncertainty around Superman. Senator Finch is an optimist who recognizes that Superman’s power to make state-level interventions and “that kind of power is very dangerous” (a line from the trailers that didn’t make the theatrical cut)… yet believes that a conversation will solve the issue.
Senator Finch’s Position
This is a reasonable and legitimate position. The advent of democratic world powers and diplomacy has greatly reduced the incidence of war through clear national boundaries and rules of engagement. It makes it easier to understand when or if something can or should constitute an act of war, require retaliation or reparation, etc. Open lines of dialogue and diplomacy between clearly defined states and entities allow war to be avoided. However, the advent of globalized entities and institutions like the internet, multinational corporations, and banks can confuse the issue when with, a cyber-attack for example, you can’t be certain whether something is state-sponsored or not and whether it is an attack or not and whether it is worthy of a response, escalation, or what not.
Superman represents a similar question mark.
Does he act with the consent and will of the people? And therefore are his actions to be interpreted as American? Or does he act by his own will? What are his boundaries? What rules will he maintain or break? It is entirely justified to call in Superman to account, question him, but still be optimistic that the conversation will resolve the situation without need for condemnation. Senator Finch wanted Superman to count the cost of his actions, to consider them carefully, and give the country clarity on his intentions. And ultimately, she believed she’d be satisfied with the answers.
If she didn’t believe that and if she genuinely thought that Superman would either be a threat or that his answers would make him a threat, she would have recognized the need for Kryptonite. In blocking the import license, she was revealing her position to Lex. Although Lex doesn’t like her position, he knows that she’s right in a sense. Lex has seen how Superman has enthralled the people. Lex knows Superman is just a farm boy from Kansas. Lex expects that Superman will eventually speak, the Senator will support the “oldest lie”, and his efforts in Africa will be undone. The questions raised will be answered, the people will again trust and believe in Superman, and Lex will find himself back on the other side of that sentiment.
The only lone crazy one calling for a Superman deterrent. Once everyone loves Superman again, consider Senator Barrows’ satisfaction in pulling Lex’s ship access for his humiliating Jolly Rancher stunt. Lex sees all this and so he switches gears.
Batman As Backup
Senator Finch wasn’t going to create a McCarthy-like public spectacle to publicly shame, condemn, and subjugate Superman. She had blocked Lex’s legitimate access to Kryptonite.
So Lex decides to use Batman to create a public spectacle which will allow him to shame, condemn, and maybe kill Superman. Senator Finch’s block of the import license sets into motion Lex’s plot to kill her, his intention to smuggle the Kryptonite into the country, and to provoke Batman into fighting Superman.
Although Batman is a vigilante, he’s embraced by the people as quasi-legitimate. Lex knows that people will accept quasi-legitimate sources. He sends Wallace Keefe, another law-breaker, a vandal, to Senator Finch who accepts his message as a means to get Superman to count the cost. So Lex knows that he can send his message with Batman and it will be heard.
Lex knows Bruce is Batman and invites him to the fundraiser to align him with his plan. Lex invites Bruce, comments about bringing people together and about Bruce and Clark fighting, and he offers Bruce a look at his Research & Development. Mercy was on the red-carpet waiting for Bruce, kept an eye out for him during the evening, and kept track of him throughout. When Bruce ultimately unlocks the file, you can see Lex’s thinking and planning based on what is in the file and what isn’t.
Despite knowing everything about Superman and being obsessed with Superman, there is nothing directly about Superman in the file. There are specifications for Kryptonite (which Batman calls up and uses while forging his weapons) and there are files which resolve the mystery of the White Portuguese (which allows Batman to plan the theft of the Kryptonite). There is nothing in the files about Batman, despite confirmation at the end that Lex knows the secret identity. There are, however, files about other metahumans who might follow in Superman’s footsteps if he isn’t stopped. The file package primes Batman to take down Superman just as Lex intends.
If Batman fails to steal the files, Lex had offered a legitimate opportunity to access them if their corporations should team-up and share information as a fall-back contingency.
By now, it should be clear that the bombing is not meant to kill Superman or frame Superman, despite these getting raised as objections. If Superman was killed here, his last act would be as one willing to humble himself to talk with the people. He’d be martyred and replaced by another metahuman down the road. Nor was the plan to frame Superman for killing the victims. A bomb would never create that effect, so it’s irrelevant how or how soon after that Superman is cleared of involvement. It was never the intent to act like Superman was a bomber given his track record and with witnesses around the world watching the live television broadcast.
Instead, the bombing accomplishes so many things for Lex Luthor:
- Revenge against Senator Finch
- Removes Mercy as the only witness tying him to Keefe
- Stops Superman from speaking and swaying public sentiment or the committee
- Stops subcommittee oversight into entering the ship
- Stops subcommittee from revoking access to the ship
- Sullies Superman as powerless, naive, and collateral causing
- Shakes Superman to the core
- Provokes Batman to anger
Senator Finch, who stopped him and who promotes the “oldest lie” is killed. Mercy can no longer to tie Lex to Keefe and the bombing. Keefe can’t testify and tie Lex to the bombing. Superman doesn’t get to speak and restore his good name. The subcommittee who granted Lex’s access to the ship and who acted as gatekeepers to further advancement and oversight to any discoveries made were wiped out, giving Lex full and free access to do what he wanted with the ship. Whereas Senator Finch saw through Lex’s “weapon of assassination” and was optimistic about talks with Superman, interim oversight- if any- might grant Lex even more access under the deterrence narrative after the bombing since: who knows what Superman would do, how Superman would respond, and what they must do to prepare without Kryptonite?
The bombing shakes the public’s faith in Superman’s ability to save and shows that he’s naive, or powerless, or callous, or worse. It shows that even with the best of intentions, death follows after him and innocents become collateral, caught in the crosshairs of those who hate Superman to that degree. Superman is shaken to the core, skeptical about the symbol of Superman, and retreats. Meanwhile, with a single message, “You let your family die!”, Batman is provoked to anger beyond belief.
Batman breaks into Research Park and steals the Kryptonite… all according to plan.
Move: Enters Ship
Lex doesn’t know what he will find or learn inside the ship but he is rewarded with command and the opportunity to learn from the knowledge of 100,000 worlds. Lex wants to learn all he can but he naturally asks two questions tied to his underlying motivation.
- How can he defeat Superman?
- Any others out there like Superman?
Batman has the Kryptonite and if he fails, fine, Lex moves on to his next plan to strike at Superman. So it’s reasonable that the first line of questions relate to defeating Superman should Batman fail. In response, the ship teaches Lex about Doomsday. Of course, all of these machinations are meaningless if the cosmos is filled with similarly-powered paragons just waiting in the wings to replace Superman should he die. So a natural second line of questions asks, “What is the most powerful thing in the cosmos which might come to our little blue planet?” In response, the ship teaches Lex about Darkseid. Lex learns Darkseid is coming and so a ticking clock appears.
Move: Decides to Develop Doomsday
In learning about Doomsday, Lex now knows there is a better example of and for his motivation. Doomsday is inherently destructive, despised, deformed, and demonic while far more powerful than Superman. Lex no longer has to try to demonize Superman in order to get out his message that “power can be innocent” is a lie, when he can directly prove it with Doomsday. At this point, ensuring that the world experiences Doomsday is the endgame. Prior to the ticking clock presented by Darkseid, if Batman failed to kill Superman, Lex simply bides his time and moves on to his next scheme. He doesn’t need to reveal his hand to Superman or make Superman fight under duress, he can leave those details to Batman.
However, once Doomsday becomes the endgame, it puts a shorter clock on all of Lex’s endeavors and he has to keep Batman and Superman occupied to give Doomsday time to develop. Otherwise, one or both of the heroes respond to the activity at the crash site and blackouts and stop Lex from completing Doomsday. Lex kidnaps Martha and Lois to compel Superman to fight and to distract the heroes from his endgame: unleashing Doomsday.
Once Doomsday is released, Lex’s mission is essentially accomplished and he doesn’t really care what happens afterwards. Whether Doomsday kills him, whether he gets caught, whether he gets caged, etc. Once he initiated Doomsday he knew he was caught. The crash site would be surrounded, his helicopters wouldn’t be allowed into its airspace, and all he could do is commune and wait for the authorities to arrive and arrest him. Whatever Lex learned gave him the conviction that was fine with him. Until we learn more, Doomsday is a satisfactory expression of his motivation because it exposes what the ultimate power on the planet would be like.
- Due to an existential crisis, Lex seeks to demonize Superman and suppress metahumans
- Lex knows nearly everything before the Kryptonite in the Indian Ocean is discovered
- Lex doesn’t know what knowledge and power is in the ship and he wants it exclusively
- He accomplishes these by creating an international incident which creates a conversation about deterring Superman
- That gives him access to a State forum and access to the ship, but not entrance to the ship or exclusivity to its secrets
- The State’s forum moderator isn’t on board, so the plan switches to using the Batman to send a message
- Lex provides Batman with the tools and information to fight Superman
- Lex’s bombing removes his oversight to enter the ship, stops Superman from changing public sentiment, and provokes Batman
- If Lex learns nothing inside the ship and Batman fails, Lex would just start another plan another time
- Instead, Lex learns of Doomsday, a better and more pure example of a devil than demonizing Superman will ever be
- Lex also learns everyone is on borrowed time, so Doomsday becomes his endgame
- With Doomsday as the goal, Lex has to distract Superman with Batman; otherwise, Superman stops him upon crash site activity
- Lex uses Martha and Lois to force Superman to fight under duress, less concerned about secrecy or sullying Superman now
- Once Doomsday arrives, Lex’s mission is complete and he doesn’t care what happens
As long as you accept the underlying motivation and existential crisis (something that tech billionaires are strangely prone to), you can follow the logic and reasons behind Lex’s actions and see the careful planning and execution required. You can see how he had fall backs, contingencies, and ways out. You can see how he course corrects and keeps to his ultimate motive even as circumstances change. He isn’t a random force of chaos, except to the extent that he accepts Doomsday as the final say on power on Earth (and that’s only an internal interpretation; add what he learns about Darkseid and beyond and his reasons likely come into focus even more).