Before they were the only type of film, superhero movies were for kids. They were swashbuckling adventures with rousing scores and broad characters. They were Richard Donner’s Superman. The first big-budget superhero feature, Superman was a sign of things to come, a box office powerhouse that charmed audiences and critics. And Superman wouldn’t be Superman without Otis, Lex Luthor’s bumbling, incompetent henchman that late actor Ned Beatty aimed straight at the children in the audience. With pitch-perfect physical comedy and warmth that radiates from the screen, Beatty turned the thankless role into something memorable.
Beatty’s Otis was broader than broad. He dressed in grey and tan suits with vivid tiny ties and a straw boater hat that makes him look like he’d pull into Metropolis on the caboose of a train to announce that he’s running for mayor. John Williams’ “March Of The Villains” encapsulates Otis perfectly, telling us everything we need to know about the character as soon as we see him. In other words, Otis was a comic book character, and Beatty played him as such. He has no sense of his surroundings, no understanding of consequence, no intelligence whatsoever, just doglike obedience to his boss, Mr. Luthor (Gene Hackman). It’s music hearing Beatty says that name—Mr. Loot-Thor.
There’s a weird aversion to humor in some superhero stories, particularly those in the DC universe. While Marvel movies are generally filled with jokes, the last two decades of DC movies have been pretty grim, particularly when it comes to Superman. We sometimes forget that superhero comics are funny not just because there are jokes but because the characters are ridiculous. There’s no logic behind some of Luthor’s schemes from the ’60s and ’70s, harebrained (pun very much intended) plans like auctioning off Superman’s organs and stealing 40 cakes. Donner’s Superman inadvertently answered one of the long unasked questions: Who would work for this guy? Otis, that’s who.
Superman makes no bones about Luthor’s penchant for bad ideas. His overall goal in the movie is to create an earthquake so destructive that it sinks California and delivers Luthor some prime real estate to control. It’s fodder for jokes today, but at the time, it was in keeping with Luthor’s brand of villainy. Still, selling audiences on this wouldn’t be easy. That’s why you need Otis. His devotion to Mr. Luthor, which Beatty earnestly conveys, gives the audience an understanding of who would be convinced by a narcissist who can’t see how foolish he actually is. You also need Otis to deliver the best joke in the movie: “Otisburg.”
Beatty isn’t afraid to lean into the buffoon. His Otis is a hot dog-munching lackey whose greatest concern is getting mustard on his shirt, which he would wipe off with his tie. But Beatty’s asides, misunderstandings, and clowning around allow Donner to speed through exposition and get to the core of Luthor’s plans. If Otis can understand it, then the 5-year-olds in the audience can, too. Not that Beatty talks down to kids, but in an age where superhero movies can be woefully complex, it’s refreshing to see a film so concerned with explaining the stakes to the youngest audience members.
The supervillain lackey fell out of favor almost as soon as Otis arrived. In the years since Superman, movies like Batman and X-Men would de-escalate the henchman role. Instead, characters like Toad and Bob the Goon were infinitely more threatening through physical, brooding menace. With Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer went a step further, casting a comedic actor Kal Penn and not giving him a single line (it’s one of the most distracting castings in memory). But Otis did something more: He gave the film character, hammering home a light-hearted, comedic tone that didn’t degrade the art on screen. He elevated everyone by committing to the character and playing it with joy.
There’s not that much room for someone as gloriously stupid as Otis today. But you can still feel some of his DNA in the superhero movies that aren’t afraid to have a little fun. Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians Of The Galaxy are filled with Otises—characters like Drax and Korg. It’s no wonder that they become audience favorites. They’re the 21st-century Otis.
With no reference other than comic books to pull from, Beatty dives into the bumbling supervillainy with aplomb. His cheap suits and booming baritone gave Superman a comedic edge that made everyone around him look better. He made Hackman look more threatening, made Superman (Christopher Reeve) look more powerful, and made the world of the film more heightened, more like the comic book that opens the film. Beatty gave dozens of great performances in his life. But to those who grew up on Superman, he’d always be Otis, and we love him for it.