Lex Luthor trying on the hero’s mantle in ‘Justice League’

(CBR) It’s no secret that Geoff Johns is a Lex Luthor fan. When talking with CBR News a few months ago, the writer described Superman’s perpetual archenemy as “the ultimate bad guy.” Yet, come April , the character will be in a position traditionally reserved for only the good-est of good guys: Leader of the Justice League.

In the aftermath of “Forever Evil,” DC Comics’ first line-wide event since the dawn of The New 52 in Sept. 2011, Luthor will find himself in the considerably unexpected position of leading the DC Universe’s premier superhero team. April’s “Justice League” #30 marks the start of the “Injustice League” arc, seeing Luthor fronting a squad also including marquee heroes Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and Shazam, plus long-time Flash rogue Captain Cold. Exactly how Luthor gets to this position — and why Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest would put up with it — will be revealed in the final issues of “Forever Evil,” a story that’s seen Lex take a starring (and protagonistic) role.

We spoke with Johns about Luthor’s new gig, the unnamed threat that’s targeted him, brainstorming with the book’s art team Ivan Reis and Joe Prado and the addition of an “out of place” Captain Cold — plus some insight on DC’s bustling TV development slate, from the perspective of Johns’ position as DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer.

CBR News: Geoff, without spilling the details of how “Justice League” gets to this point, can you put this move into context a little bit? This version of the Justice League hasn’t existed for long, a little more than a couple of years in real-world time. Why is now, in the aftermath of “Forever Evil,” the right time to shake things up to this degree?

Geoff Johns: It really comes down to looking at the Justice League as a team. One of the things in the first two-and-a-half-years that I really wanted to challenge the team with is why they exist, and what they’re going to do moving forward, and what is their role in the world? So far, they’ve been this collection of the world’s greatest superheroes protecting the planet from any threats that come up, but I wanted a character to come on the team that would have the presence and the power to challenge who they were, why they were doing this, and what the role of the Justice League is in the world. Is it just protecting the world? Is it serving as a point of leadership to the world? Is it serving as a point of inspiration? Is it serving as a point of example? I wanted a character that could come in and ask these really, really hard questions about the team and want to tear the team up, and that would have a presence that would feel legitimate.

As I started thinking about what character I could bring on the team that would completely disrupt it and completely challenge everyone on it — it was just Lex Luthor. His ambition is laced with ego and manipulation, but his level of ambition is something you can insert and spread across that team, and it really starts to alter what the Justice League is. It was quite a while ago, but the idea was, “How do I get Lex Luthor on this team? How does that ever happen?” “Forever Evil,” if you look at it as a whole — and I know there’s three more issues to come out — it’s really a Lex Luthor story. As we carry on further, it becomes more and more about Lex. I don’t want to spoil what happens at the end, but there’s one big component that happens that connects Luthor with the League. I don’t want to get into that because that’s the end of “Forever Evil,” but the inspiration behind it is just, “Who’s going to challenge the team in a way they’ve never been challenged before internally?” For me, that was Lex Luthor, because we’ve never seen him on the team. Immediately, every scene with Lex and a member of the League was fun. Whether it was Lex and Batman with Wonder Woman caught in the middle, or Lex and Aquaman, or Lex and Shazam, suddenly, the dynamics of the team were really, really interesting, because the tension’s going to be very high, and everyone has a different opinion on what the Justice League should be doing, and why they’re there. You’ll see there are a few heroes absent, obviously, and we’ll find out why in issue #30.

Since this is Luthor in the Justice League side-by-side with some of DC’s biggest heroes, are we seeing Luthor in something more of a proper heroic role in this story arc?

He comes out and tells them, “You’re the world’s greatest superheroes. Well, that includes me, now. I’m here.” There are arguments about whether or not he should even be there. Luthor’s going to start to learn what it really is to be a superhero. To be a superhero, you have to sacrifice things — and have archenemies. And, wow, it’s kind of a bummer he doesn’t have a secret identity! He’ll start to learn all the tropes of what really being in that role is, because he never considered it. In his mind, he’s neither. He’s not a guy who puts on a costume and has a codename. He’s not a supervillain, he never had been a supervillain — in his head. So this is a new role for him.

There’s even going to be a scene where one of the members is brainstorming codenames with him. That’s pretty fun. It doesn’t only add weight and drama. I think it’s going to be really exciting to see Luthor on the Justice League, especially with what the Justice League’s about to face, but it also has a lot of fun and humor.

You touched on this a little bit earlier, but with Luthor on the team and in a position of leadership, does it fundamentally changes what the Justice league does and the way they operate?

It does, because the whole point of having Luthor on the team is disruption. I wanted to challenge the league internally in a way they have never been challenged before. They’ve had a lot of members over the years, and there’s been a lot of internal struggles over the years, but Lex Luthor’s never been there, and his perspective’s very unique in the DC Universe. It’s all about the team. It’s all about the Justice League, and Luthor’s a nice catalyst as we enter the third year, where the team’s going to face very different threats than they’ve faced before, and they’re going to be held to higher standard than they were before because of everything that’s happened to them, and everything that’s happened in the world.

From the world’s perspective, the Justice League just screwed up big time. A.R.G.U.S. formed its own Justice League of America to be watchdogs for the Justice League. They had conflict, they were infiltrated by a criminal from another universe and that criminal manipulated them, and led the Crime Syndicate here. Ultimately, it’s all their fault, in a lot of ways. That’s something they’re going to have to deal with.

But really, it’s all about moving forward, which is why Lex is there. Lex is the one saying, “What’s the Justice League of tomorrow? Where’s the team going to go? Are we just going to sit here and punch alien invaders in the face? Because I think we need to do more than that. And don’t you think we need to do more than that?”

You’re having fun writing some of the interpersonal dynamics with Luthor and the other members, but even without knowing what happens between now and April, one would imagine that someone like Batman would be, at the very least, highly skeptical about a move like this.

Oh, yeah! I think all of them are. You’ll see the context of how it happens — some of the “why” is towards the end of “Forever Evil,” and then the “how” is really in “Justice League” #30. “Justice League” #30 kicks off this arc, and it’s really about the ever-changing purpose and dynamics of the team itself, but also there’s a threat that rises up, and it’s in the form of someone who’s really set their sights on Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor’s life is under threat, and what happens when Luthor suddenly finds himself under the protection of the Justice League? Which he of course can’t stand. So there’s a bit of a mystery about who’s targeting Luthor and why, as the Justice League is dealing with the aftermath of “Forever Evil.” There’s something specific that they’re dealing with, but I don’t want to get too far into it yet because it’s going to spoil “Forever Evil.” But there is a big threat that they’re taking on all while this is happening, and the new team is trying to find itself.

There’s another villain on the team, as shown on the cover to #30, a character very close to your heart — Captain Cold.

Yeah, he’s along for the ride!

What can you share about his role and what he’s bringing to the team at this point?

He’s certainly out of place. He feels out of place, and is in way over his head. There’s a reason he’s there. He brings a very grounded, blue-collar look at how the team works, and what they’re doing; just as Shazam brings his own perspective. Shazam calls them out on all their stuff, and Captain Cold’s always seen the League as, “They’re in their satellite, and they all get along, and they’re all on the same page. They’re always having fun. They’re superheroes, what problems do they have?” He quickly finds out that it’s a lot more complicated, and the members of the team are not exactly all shoulder-to-shoulder as he thought. Which he kind of enjoys.

Captain Cold’s going to be a lot of fun. He’s also kind of the wildcard character. I obviously clearly love the character. His role in “Forever Evil” continues to grow, and it leads to the circumstances behind him being here.

When readers see a big shakeup like this, especially a villain acting in something of a more heroic role, people commonly assume it’s going to be a very short-term prospect. Not asking you to give away your plan, but it sounds like you have a lot of ideas for this — it seems like it’s at least potentially something you could be sticking with for a while on this book?

I went to Brazil to a convention back in the fall. Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, the artists on the book, they’re amazing. We spent a week together, and I pitched them all these ideas, and what we’re doing with the book. We have a huge arc. There are a lot of threads from issue #1 to the end of “Forever Evil” that get tied up, then issue #30 really starts the next leg of “Justice League.” A lot of things that are happening now continue to organically evolve as the book moves forward. I’m a long-term planner, so I really like doing long-form storytelling. I tend to do pretty long runs on books, because I feel like you can take great, big arcs and create a lot of mythology, and expand it. That’s what we’re going to do with this. There are a lot of things that happen in “Forever Evil” #7 that help kick off this next stage of “Justice League.”

How meaningful should readers interpret it that Superman is not on the cover of “Justice League” #30, and his archnemesis is front and center? Can we assume he’s not happy with this?

You’ll see an event in “Forever Evil” #7 that changes the dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor quite a bit.

Digressing from “Justice League,” you’re also DC Entertainment chief creative officer — how busy is right now for you with five DC shows in current, active development, especially one, “The Flash,” that you’re heavily involved in?

It’s a lot of fun. I’m really excited about everything that DC and Warner’s doing this year. We’re shooting a lot of pilots — obviously “Flash,” which I’m writing with Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti; and we’re shooting “Constantine” and “Gotham” so far. We’ve got “Arrow” rolling. It’s really exciting. This is a super-busy time for us, for television, and it’s the most we’ve done, I think, ever. I don’t want to get into it too much, because I’ll get shot. [Laughs] But it’s really good.

Working on “The Flash” pilot alone — it’s my favorite character since I was a kid, so to be able to do that — and Andrew and Greg are such huge Flash fans. It’s awesome to work with people who love the lore. It’s very much the world of The Flash, so I can’t wait for people to see it.