Well, comic book movies fans who feared that the business of blockbuster shared universes meant the loss of surprises or unexpected twists can rest east: the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman vs. Superman proves that all bets are off.
Now that fans have had time to do what they always do when a casting announcement is made – react loudly, vehemently, and passionately, like any good fan would – we thought we’d weigh in on the issue. That begins with asking a simple question: Even if Eisenberg is younger, smaller, and hairier than the most famous depictions of Superman’s nemesis, could the casting work?
We’ve already made our arguments explaining why there may be far more than meets the eye with the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and feel that the tone of some naysayers dismissing Eisenberg entirely must be addressed. The proof is in the final film, but it’s hard to make the case that this casting already amounts to “disaster.”
This Isn’t The Same Old Lex
The first issue that has to be addressed is the image that comes to mind when a casual comic book fan hears the name Lex Luthor. On film, there is little debate that Gene Hackman provided the most memorable turn as the villainous billionaire, due partly to the success of the overall film with critics and fans alike (although we’d also point out that Hackman refused to shave his head for the part, so criticizing Eisenberg’s non-bald scalp is somewhat misinformed).
For many, Hackman’s portrayal of the villain in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a perfect encapsulation of the Luthor they had known from the earlier comic books: a billionaire genius with an evil lust for more wealth, and a hatred for the goodness and social justice Superman stood for.
The problem with that characterization is that it is about as ‘comic book’ a villain as can be imagined. It may have worked with audiences at the time, but comic book movie storytelling has come a long way since then – and it has been comic book storytelling that has led the way.
Comic book writers have given Lex Luthor a variety of motivations and relatable personality traits over the past few decades, all in an effort to make the figure not one of pure evil, but a man whose goals could be understood by actual human beings. Several writers have explored the idea, but few better (or more potentially relevant for Snyder’s upcoming sequel) than Mark Waid’s “Superman: Birthright.”
The 2004 graphic novel offered a new origin story for Superman, informed by modern sensibilities, and with significant changes meant to make Superman (and every other character in the story) a more realistic and recognizable one. It was “Birthright” which argued that Superman’s ‘S’ meant ‘hope’ in Kryptonian, that his role as Earth’s protector would come after years of journeying, and that people would be all-too-ready to fear an outsider, even a well-intentioned one.
Those who saw Snyder’s Man of Steel can attest to the fact that Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer followed Waid’s lead in many respects, so there’s serious reason to suspect that they would do the same in developing their idea of Lex Luthor, billionaire industrialist.
“Birthright” introduced a Luthor who was the child of an unhappy home. But Lex Luthor was nothing if not a true genius, in every sense of the word. The children around him loathed his ability to memorize a library’s entire contents, grasp theoretical physics and improve upon them, and the people of Smallville looked with suspicion at a boy devoid of the social skills that loving parents would have taught.
Lex Luthor was an outsider among his own people, embodying all of the intellectual aspirations of humanity’s brightest figures, but lacking the moral compass of a Kansas farm boy. The result was a best friend to Clark Kent that made sense: both were incapable of fitting in, both lacked a connection to society, and both were forced to find a way to give their lives meaning.
The difference was that Clark had the Kents; Lex had no one. So while Clark found meaning in family, and the sense of giving and charity they instilled, Lex chose to embrace the fear of lesser minds and drag humanity kicking and screaming into the future; he would be a modern Da Vinci – even if it was only history that would appreciate him.
Besides making Lex Luthor something of a tragic figure for both readers and Superman himself, the twist on the one-note villain made him a better fit among history’s most influential, most well-regarded, but often most unkind and uncompromising leaders. And other writers took note.
In Brian Azzarello’s limited “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel” series, he took the next step: positioning Lex as Metropolis’ real hero, not Superman. In Luthor’s eyes, he was the pinnacle of human intellect, authority, and leadership while the alien from another world that had people bowing and cheering was mankind’s greatest enemy, not its hero.To Lex, the questions were clear: how would mankind ever progress if someone was there to help them?
If Superman could be relied upon to solve their greatest problems, how could they advance to the point of solving them for themselves? Superman was a demigod trying to ‘help’ humanity because it was weak, and while people would be sad to see him fall, it was better in the long run.
Azzarello’s case was a hard one to disagree with, making the relationship between the two all the more fascinating, since both believed they were doing what was best for the world. Waid’s origin story for Lex made him a tragic figure who better reflected why Superman ended up as good a person as he did, and the mythology benefited as a result.
It was director Bryan Singer who chose not to take their lead when he made Superman Returns (2006), casting Kevin Spacey as the new villain, but keeping all elements of Hackman’s portrayal intact. Luthor was, once again, out for nothing more than money and power, and willing to kill billions of innocent people in the process. In other words, an uninteresting bad guy.
Even now, Singer admits that if he had the chance to do it all over again, he might choose to do a reboot as opposed to a spiritual sequel to an outdated story. Spacey’s performance may have been strong enough to rise above criticism, but there’s no question his simple evil makes him a better fit among Marvel’s murderous villains who valued money or power over all else – Red Skull, Malekith, Iron Monger, the Mandarin – than those Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder seem to be after.
It’s foolish to assume that DC and Warner Bros. will suddenly decide to break the trend of villains – Rha’s al Ghul, the Joker, General Zod – who aren’t simply evil and present strong philosophical outlooks. Like it or not, they’re all committed – something Man of Steel proved. Having the classic, power-hungry, spiteful, megalomaniac billionaire Lex Luthor walk into this movie universe simply wouldn’t fit.
The bottom line is that fans looking to previous film appearances of Luthor are likely seeing versions of the character that Snyder and Goyer aren’t too interested in copying. And if they’re pointing to the source material that those versions of the character drew from, Snyder and Goyer have shown they’re not doing the same.
Will Jesse Eisenberg’s ‘Lex Luthor’ be bald? He doesn’t have to be, since Hackman’s wasn’t. Will he be getting into a giant suit of armor to pummel Supes into submission? Probably not, since fans already complained that the same type of fight in Man of Steel dragged on far too long. The only certainty is that Lex will be more believable a figure this time around, meaning he’ll need to be different from previous versions.