[2 June 2014]
Kids are often told that working hard and doing the right thing will get them ahead in life. By the time they’re teenagers, they suspect this was a big lie. By the time they become adults, they know for certain that it’s a lie and they’re often pretty bitter about it. Anyone who isn’t in the top income bracket eventually learns that getting ahead rarely involves working the hardest or being the strongest. It involves working smarter, having resources, and utilizing ruthless cunning to get things done. It’s practically a commandment for every lobbyist, politician, and business mogul. Even Steve Jobs understood that being too nice meant being left behind, but Steve Jobs was no Lex Luthor. And Lex Luthor’s ambitions are much greater than inventing a better way to listen to music.
Working smart, exploiting resources, and ruthless cunning are not defining traits of a hero. They can be, but most heroes aren’t ruthless enough. Batman won’t kill. Superman has strict morals. Wonder Woman follows a strict warrior code. There’s no question that they’re smart, but they will never be as ruthless as Lex Luthor. And in Forever Evil #7, that ruthlessness is the key to defeating the Crime Syndicate. Despite being delayed to the point where the ending was spoiled in books that came out a week earlier, it still sends the same powerful message.
The Crime Syndicate being defeated is only a secondary theme to this story. Nobody is going to be shocked that this sadistic incarnation of the Justice League didn’t win the day. However, they aren’t defeated by the heroic efforts of the Justice League and their allies. That would make too much sense and feed directly into that lie about working hard and doing the right thing that only kids believe. It’s Lex Luthor who defeats the Crime Syndicate. This man, who embodies many of the worst qualities in man, is able to defeat a team that is immensely powerful and exceedingly ruthless. On the surface, his genius doesn’t seem like an advantage. But when Lex Luthor adds it to his own ruthless cunning, it might as well be a cheat codes in a video game.
It’s a striking case of fighting fire with fire, evil with evil, and ego with ego. Unlike Superman, Lex Luthor doesn’t fight for truth, justice, and the American way. He fights for deceit, selfishness, and getting his way. These don’t seem like the kind of qualities that would directly motivate him into stopping the Crime Syndicate and saving the world. But over the course of Forever Evil, these anti-Superman qualities provide a kind of indirect motivation that helps make him the most formidable foe in the DC Universe.
The Crime Syndicate made it so that in order for Lex Luthor to get what he wanted, he had to be the hero. He also had to convince other villains who share his very unheroic values to help him and he succeeded. And a big part of that success was playing into the egos of his fellow villains. He understood that letting the Crime Syndicate win would be like Donald Trump letting a competitor drive a nicer car than him. The thought alone disgusts them so much that they’re willing to be heroes so that they can protect their precious ego.
This is what gives Forever Evil its devious theme. The heroes couldn’t save the world from the Crime Syndicate. It took the ruthless cunning of someone like Lex Luthor to defeat them. It’s a narrative that has unfolded before. A villain will play the part of a hero, but only so they can keep being villains. They’ll do it begrudgingly, but immediately go back to their sinister ways as soon as the dust settles. That isn’t the case with Forever Evil. Lex Luthor is willing to go even further, even if his fellow villains are not. He sees in the aftermath of defeating the Crime Syndicate how he can serve his own selfish ends by continuing to play hero. He’s like a ruthless CEO or Walls Street banker who creates charities not because they believe in the cause, but because appearing charitable increases their influence and bumps up their stock price.
As the title itself suggests, Lex Luthor will never be a hero. In the aftermath of the Crime Syndicate’s defeat, he may carry himself as such. He may even genuinely desire being labeled a hero, but he doesn’t do it because it’s the right thing to do. He does it because it serves his own selfish interests. He takes Ayan Rand’s philosophy to the extreme and by being good, he can be more evil than ever. He by no means fits the criteria for an anti-hero. Even anti-heroes have a certain code of conduct that keeps them tied to their humanity. Lex Luthor gladly casts that aside like an old pair of socks because trivial things like codes and humanity only hold him back.
So much of Forever Evil #7 is dominated by Lex Luthor serving his ego that a number of smaller details get glossed over. He goes from defeating the Crime Syndicate to being the world’s greatest hero in the eyes of the public. The rest of the Justice League, now free, don’t really get a chance to react or even confront Luthor. The only one who really acknowledges what he did is Batman, but he did so in the least begrudging way possible. There were plenty of loose ends, but some were left unresolved on purpose, if only to make way for the next story. But by lacking some of the smaller details, the conclusion of Forever Evil feels incomplete.
Even without these details, the core of the story is strong. From the beginning, Lex Luthor set out to further his agenda by whatever means possible. In Forever Evil #7, he succeeded. The way in which he achieved this success and the way he exploited it to the utmost is what gives the story its strength. Nobody is going to be rooting for Lex Luthor or think he’s a genuine hero. Yet in the same way hippies will begrudgingly shop at Wal-Mart, readers cannot deny what Lex Luthor has achieved. It’s a disturbing thought, yet it affords plenty of intrigue for everyone not named Clark Kent.