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Villain Protagonist: The Comic Book
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The Black Ring was an arc in Action Comics taking place following the events of Blackest Night. While Superman and his allies (Supergirl, Superboy and the like) struggled against a revived Doomsday, alongside an army of clones of him with the same attributes as the four replacement candidates of Supes from The Death & Return of Superman, as well as the Doomslayer (a Doomsday for Doomsday) in Reign of Doomsday, archenemy Lex Luthor took Superman's place as the star of Action Comics, for an eleven issue run that included two crossovers with Secret Six and an annual.

During the events of Blackest Night, Luthor had briefly served as an Orange Lantern. Infected by the Orange Light of Avarice, Luthor finds himself unstable and unsatisfied without the power ring, and sets out on a quest, not to regain what he has lost, but to gain a greater power still, by tapping into the energies of the Black Lantern Rings. His quest takes him and his allies around the world, as they seek the energy spheres containing the rings' power, and come into conflict with foes including, but not limited to, Mister Mind, Deathstroke, Gorilla Grodd, Vandal Savage, The Joker, Larfleeze, Brainiac, and even Death herself. The arc explored Luthor's relationships with these other villains, doing its best to define the Post-Crisis, Pre-New 52 Luthor as a character, and as a major figure within the DC Universe as a whole.

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It all culminated in a massive, 92 page special in Action Comics #900, that revealed Luthor as the mastermind behind Reign of Doomsday, saw him finally attain the godlike power he had sought for so long, and contained his last, epic confrontation with Superman prior to the New 52 reboot. Written by Paul Cornell and illustrated by Pete Woods, The Black Ring served as a final sendoff to the Post-Crisis world's greatest supervillain.


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This work contains examples of:

  • A Rare Sentence: A character-only one. Larfleeze, practically the Anthropomorphic Personification of Laughably Evil Greed, admits that what Luthor is after, he doesn't want. Even he's shocked.
  • An Axe to Grind: Vandal Savage brings one for his confrontation with Luthor.
  • Artifact Title: Of a sort. The name "Superman" in the title of the arc isn't exactly accurate, as it's really about Lex Luthor's Grand Finale in the pre-Flashpoint timeline.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: Luthor and Mind engage in one early in the arc. Brainiac is also in on the act, using his mental probes to alter both Luthor and Mind's perceptions. Luthor works this out after the fact. Mind does not.
  • Berserk Button: Lex Luthor does not react well when people turn their backs on him.
  • Big Bad: From Luthor's perspective, Brainiac and the Zone Child are this, trying to use him for their own ends, and standing at the ends of two separate schemes aimed at destroying him. From everyone else's perspective, Luthor himself is filling this role.
    • Big Bad Ensemble: Luthor, Brainiac, and the Zone Child can all fill this role depending on how you look at it.
  • Blasphemous Boast: When Luthor uses Phantom Drove technology to confront and absorb the Zone Child's power, it's punctuated in in the narration captions with him claiming "I am that I am!"
  • Brain Food: Shown in disgusting detail when Grodd eats the brains of one of Luthor's henchmen.
  • Butt-Monkey: Mister Mind, who has a very bad time of things. He'd be the woobie if it weren't for the fact that we know he nuked one city and tried to devour the multiverse.
  • Calling Your Attacks: Luthor does this during his battle with Brainiac in order to psychologically trick Brainiac into doing the same. This allows Luthor to breach Brainiac's defences, since he can hear and plan around his vocal commands.
  • The Chessmaster: Mr. Mind (on behalf of the Zone Child), Brainiac, and of course, Luthor himself.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: Lex Luthor's assistant Spalding is modelled on David Tennant, complete with the Tenth Doctor's "brainy specs". Lampshade Hanging is provided by the Joker who, when taking credit for killing Spalding, claims "He reminded me so much of that actor, I wanted to see if he'd turn into someone else!"
  • Continuity Nod: The issue about Vandal Savage trying to hurry up the prophecy relating to Lex Luthor features two flashbacks to previous meetings between the two. One was from the relatively recent Salvation Run, the other was from The Flash #124, back in 1997.
  • Death Takes a Holiday: When Luthor has his Physical God moment, he banishes all death and suffering from the universe. There's a reaction panel of Death of the Endless enjoying the fact that, for the first time in millennia, she has nothing to do. Because Luthor is Luthor and the Status Quo Is God, it doesn't last long.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Of Luthor himself. He claims he wants to save humanity from Superman and other superheroes who are keeping mankind back. Some of the other villains don't seem to buy it. Through the entire arc it is shown that Luthor does not have humanity's best interests at heart despite his lofty goals; he is only after power and has an intense dislike for authority other than his own but insists, even to himself, that he is the hero of the story. Yet he allows people to get killed as pawns, shoots an employee so that he can't be used against him as a hostage and whenever anyone turns their back on him he flips out. He does not believe that Superman empathizes with humanity at all and it is possible he's projecting this trait on Superman. Darkseid says he only wants to rule others and be "the biggest fish". Brainiac outright states that he is doing it for power and mocks his lack of introspection. Even Superman is surprised that Luthor's first act as a physical god is to come after him. Only the Joker believed he had any real potential to do good and feared this as Joker needs to believe that life is pain and has no meaning. Superman and Mr Mind attempt to reason with him by appealing to his desire to do good but his need to destroy Superman destroys his chances to do any real good as he promised himself he would. All this underscores just how much of a wasted opportunity Lex Luthor's life was. Mr Mind's parting words are more than apt: "I'll leave you to your tragedy."
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Mister Mind to the Zone Child.
  • Eat Brain for Memories: Grodd devours the brains of his victims to gain their memories. Luthor uses it against him by allowing him to capture and eat a henchman who had been given a false briefing on what Luthor's plan was.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Zone Child, the living embodiment of the Phantom Zone.
  • Empowered Badass Normal: The entire arc revolves around Luthor's quest to become one (though given the presence of his armoured suit, one could contend he already is one).
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Larfleeze, more or less the incarnation of Greed itself, states in Action Comics 898 that what Luthor wants is the one thing he doesn't want, something that shocks even him.
    Larfleeze: That is what Lex Luthor wants?! No. He must be mistaken. Nobody would want that! I don't want that! I... do not want that. There is something! Hah. Hairless Lex Luthor gave something, after all.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
    • Lex, so much. He can't understand why Superman is a hero, calling him too alien to understand suffering and loss despite him truly having experienced those things. And his overall quest to gain power means he cannot understand how to wield it responsibly for the sake of others.
    • Also with Death of the Endless, to a degree (since she's more a kindly and good-natured but remote observer rather than "good", strictly speaking); she remarks at one point in their conversation that he keeps acting like she's some kind of supervillain, and he just doesn't seem able to comprehend that such a powerful entity as her, one who is almost a fundamental part of the universe, simply might not have any ulterior motives, hidden gambits or lusts.
  • Evil Is Petty: Luthor gives up omnipotence and the chance to give everyone in the universe eternal bliss — all because one of the conditions of keeping that power is that he can't do anything negative with it such as, say, destroying Superman. To Luthor, godhood is meaningless if he can't use it to crush his greatest foe. This is alluded to throughout the series, of course, and explicitly noted even before this; to the point where Superman, on learning that Luthor has finally become a Physical God, incredulously notes that the first thing Luthor could think to do with all his newfound power was to summon Superman just to destroy him.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Luthor is a bad, bad man, and The Black Ring makes no bones about it. However, he's up against a veritable buffet of the DC Universe's worst of the worst, including Mister Mind, Grodd, Vandal Savage, Larfleeze, and Brainiac, making it hard not to cheer for him.
  • Evil Will Fail: What happens to Luthor at the end. He can't hold onto godhood for longer than 5 minutes because he also can't stop himself from being evil for that long.
  • Fatal Flaw: Luthor's pride and inability to let go of the past are what ultimately bring him down.
  • Foreshadowing: Luthor's conversation with Death about various hypothetical heavenly afterlives. Lex not only demonstrates chronically unyielding behavior to do what he wants to the point he's willing to try and bribe and threaten Death, but also that he's incapable of accepting paradise without seeking some sort of catch or loophole.
  • Five Stages of Grief: When encountering Death of the Endless, Luthor invokes the stages. He's actually between Bargaining and Denial the whole time, and is faking the other stages. Death sees through it, and points out that even if she hadn't it's utterly pointless his trying to reject or manipulate his way out of the situation anyway.
  • Fusion Dance: Luthor performs one with the Zone Child in order to tap its powers for his own.
  • Gambit Pileup: The Zone Child is trying to manipulate Luthor, through Mister Mind, into setting it free. Brainiac is trying to manipulate Luthor, through the "Lois" robot, into showing him the way to ultimate power. Vandal Savage is out to force Luthor to fullfill a prophecy that he will bring Savage ultimate happiness. Grodd is looking to exploit the black energy spheres for his own gain. Larfleeze wants Luthor to give him the power of the black spheres. And of course, there's Luthor himself, who incorporates all of their respective gambits into his own as he aims for godhood.
  • Godhood Seeker: This is what Luthor is aiming for, and for a brief, spectacular moment, he achieves it, fusing with the living embodiment of the Phantom Zone, and gaining power over the space-time continuum as a whole.
  • God Test: Lex Luthor meets Death and he immediately demands proof. She softly pokes the tip of his nose, and it turns grey and begins cracking.
  • Grand Finale: Issue #900 of Action Comics was this for the arc, the series, and Post-Crisis Luthor himself, sending him off with a bang.
  • Greed: Having been an Orange Lantern, Luthor finds that his avarice has gone completely out of control, and he cannot shake his need for more. Larfleeze also shows up, though once he discovers what Luthor is really after he declares it is the one thing he does not want.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Vandal Savage bisects "Lois" down the centre. She gets better thanks to Luthor.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Luthor does it to himself, rejecting Superman and the Zone Child's entreaties, and giving up the very power he had sought in exchange for one last shot at killing Superman.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Lex cannot wield the power of a god, because to do so he must give up his vendetta against Superman and that he cannot do.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Luthor becomes one after his fusion with the Zone Child, achieving the power of a Physical God.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Luthor is constantly being confronted with reasons for why his quest is a bad idea, is not going to end the way he thinks, how he and the world would be much better off if he turned his back on it and focussed on other matters, or — if he must press on regardless — then he at least needs to change his priorities and worldview in order to truly succeed, up to and including Death of the Endless showing up to politely try and talk him out of it. He constantly dismisses and ignores them. Furthermore, he often does so in such a swift, smooth and practiced fashion, often neatly sidestepping the point onto something else, that at times it's almost like he magnetically repels any idea or suggestion that his ideas could ever be bad or that achieving what he wants is not only best for him but best for everyone in the universe without even thinking or realising it. Brainiac even calls him out on this in their confrontation, pointing out that for almost anyone else Luthor's adventures would have been a quest for self-realization and achieving a deeper understanding of themselves, but it's all just gone completely over Luthor's head because he fundamentally lacks the ability to engage in any kind of self-examination or introspection. It's not lingered on, but the smug way Luthor dismisses Brainiac's point only serves to underline it.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Toyed with. Mister Mind is portrayed this way, yet Luthor never lets himself forget that Mind nearly ended the multiverse one time, and is far more than the harmless Butt-Monkey he appears to be.
  • Irony:
    • The whole series, Luthor has been accompanied by a robotic duplicate of Lois Lane who he uses as a sounding board, lover and henchperson. The reader is naturally given to wonder how Superman might react to finding this out... except that by the time Superman appears in the series, Luthor has smashed "Lois's" face to pieces, meaning that Superman never realises who "Lois" was built to resemble.
    • And of course, the situational irony of the ending, with hints of Tragedy: Luthor, in accepting the power of the Zone Child, could use his power to ensure an endless state of bliss for the entire universe, and thus could — as he has always believed himself to be — finally be a greater hero than Superman himself. Except that in order to do so he can't use his powers to do anything negative, destroying Superman counts as "something negative", and Luthor ultimately can't overcome his petty grudge towards Superman...
  • It's All About Me: For all Luthor's claims that he is acting in the best interests of humanity, it is constantly pointed out to him that it's clear that this is just his rationalisation for his self-serving greed and lust for more power. In his final confrontation with Superman, when Superman instinctively reacts to the presence of the Phantom Zone opening to try and rescue "someone he cares about" who is trapped there (Chris Kent, his adoptive son), Luthor grabs in and furiously yells about Superman daring to turn his back on him; while he frames it as Superman arrogantly refusing to believe that a human could have ascended him in power, it's blindingly obvious that he's really just furious that Superman dared to prioritise something else over him.
  • Killer Gorilla: Grodd and his army of mindcontrolled apes.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Luthor, Mind, and Brainiac all attempt to screw with one another's emotions in order to achieve victory.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: An interesting case in that it's only meaningless to Luthor himself. He wins in that he manages to achieve godhood, but since it comes with the caveat that he can't hurt anyone, he feels it's meaningless because he can't continue his vendetta against Superman. For anyone else, it would be the real deal, but Luthor can't hold onto it for more than a few minutes.
  • The Mole: "Lois" was one for Brainiac. Luthor anticipated this and planned accordingly.
  • Never My Fault: In their confrontation, Brainiac points out to Luthor that despite all of Luthor's self-serving actions, including but not limited to the fact that he betrayed Brainiac in their last encounter, Luthor nevertheless constantly comes away from events certain that he is the real victim.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: When Lex realizes that Superman is Clark Kent, Superman tries to show him that they are more similar than Luthor thinks. Luthor being Luthor, he refuses to admit it.
    Superman: You see, Lex? We're more similar than you think.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Whenever confronted with his reprehensible traits, no matter how much insight the observer has, even an entirely objective recounting of his entire life, Lex justifies himself as doing only what was necessary, ostensibly to protect humanity from those who would subjugate it. It's very quickly transparent that Lex only ever does anything for his own personal glory and that he can't stand any genuine aid he himself hasn't provided. In the end, he gives up the chance to be a god and fix literally everything everywhere because it would mean giving up his vendetta against Superman.
  • Oathbound Power: The only condition for Luthor to keep the Zone Child's powers is that he must not do anything negative with it. Too bad for Luthor, trying to destroy Superman does qualify as something negative.
  • Physical God: The Zone Child is one. Luthor achieves the same level of power after fusing with it.
  • Powered Armour: Luthor's purple and green battlesuit is a mainstay here, first appearing during his conflict with Slade, and remaining intact until his final battle with Superman in #900.
  • Pride: Luthor's defining characteristic, alongside his greed.
  • Prophecy Twist: Vandal Savage was told that Luthor's use of the black energy spheres would bring him great happiness. At the end of their conflict, he's yet to be made happy. Then Luthor achieves near-godhood and starts broadcasting messages (at the Zone Child's insistence) of peace and tranquility across the multiverse, making Vandal, and everybody else, greatly happy.
  • A Rare Sentence: See above under Even Evil Has Standards. Larfleeze is pretty shocked, too.
  • Reasoning with God: Death asks Luthor if he would like to ask God's forgiveness, if that were an option. Luthor visibly squirms at the very idea, and somewhat feebly offers that he might like a chance to explain his motivations.
  • The Resenter: An aspect of why Luthor hates Superman so much.
  • Robosexual: Luthor regularly has sex with a robotic Lois Lane that he built to supply him with opposing opinions.
  • Running Gag: Mister Mind trying to explain that he's not the original Mind, but an offspring, psychic upload, etc, only to be unceremoniously interrupted.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: How Luthor is left at the end of the arc, trapped in the Phantom Zone.
  • Shout-Out: The story arc gives Lex Luthor a sidekick who bears a striking resemblance to David Tennant. Lampshaded when the Joker claims (falsely) to have killed him: "He reminded me so much of that actor, I wanted to see if he'd turn into someone else!"
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: When Superman tries to convince Luthor to accept the Zone Child's wishes and do some good for the world, Luthor angrily refuses and screams at Superman to be quiet.
  • Strong as They Need to Be: Luthor's battlesuit allows him to face Slade, Larfleeze, and finally Brainiac. In each case, the suit seems just strong enough to allow Luthor to battle his adversary of the moment. Of course, it's possible they are different models.
  • Unexplained Recovery: Parodied. Mister Mind keeps trying to explain how he recovered, but nobody is interested.
  • Villain Episode: The entire story arc is a Lex Luthor villain episode, with Superman only showing up for the climax.
  • Villain Protagonist: Lex Luthor, of course.
  • Villainous Breakdown: During the final confrontation between him and Superman, Luthor tries to break Superman by showing him painful moments from his life, thinking that Superman has no feelings. He shows him his death in front of many, the destruction of both Krypton and New Krypton and the sacrifice of his adopted son Chris Kent. But, when Superman shows him the most painful memory he has - the death of Jonathan Kent, who had a heart attack when Brainiac invaded awhile back - Luthor promptly loses it, not wanting to admit that they are on some level the same.
    Luthor: I was happy to be rid of what I had for a father! But you...you got them! You're not human! You don't deserve to be Clark Kent!
  • We All Die Someday: This is more or less Death's response when Luthor points out how often super-people come back to life. A few people might get an extra handful of years, but eventually they're all going to die for good. For someone who's basically as old as the universe, it doesn't make a lot of difference.

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