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.
There is no question that Eisenberg was an unexpected pick – listeners of the Screen Rant Underground heard our live reaction to the news – and given the lack of blockbuster roles, could be seen as a potentially risky one. We would add that Eisenberg’s casting suddenly makes Ben Affleck’s need to play a millionaire seem like a walk in the park.
We’ve already explained why the odds are good of seeing an insecure, isolated, but nonetheless determined and driven Luthor are good – and when faced with the hulking mass of Henry Cavill, neither substantial height nor weight would make Lex a serious threat – something a man as smart as Luthor wouldn’t need to find that out the hard way (not that he’d ever lower himself to throwing punches in the first place).
So if Eisenberg is going to be playing a somewhat unlikable, but intelligent and self-motivated millionaire, willing to go to some extreme ends to achieve his goal, then the actor has already earned accolades for doing just that.
It’s no surprise that people are immediately pointing to Eisenberg’s performance of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in director David Fincher’s The Social Network, given that it was his highest-profile role to date (which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). While the honor of being nominated for an Academy Award makes him fit in even better with the rest of Snyder’s existing Superman cast – and the brand new ‘Alfred,’ Jeremy Irons – it proves he can bring what’s needed for an updated Lex.
Let’s take a look at the aspects of Eisenberg’s performance our own Kofi Outlaw chose to highlight in his review of The Social Network:
“Eisenberg… portrays Mark Zuckerberg as something of a tragically ironic figure: an acerbic genius who is totally clueless when it comes to human interaction; a guy who earns fortune and fame off a website dedicated to social circling, but has very few “real friends” to call his own.”
“Eisenberg flat-out steals just about every scene he’s in, glaring at people around him like they are nitwits, while delivering scathing insights that could make a person feel that very way. A definite standout performance that is worthy of recognition (provided people don’t find his character too unlikable).”
No explanation is needed to show why those noteworthy facets to Eisenberg’s portrayal of an unlikeable entrepreneur would serve him well for a magnate like Luthor, but the roles aren’t quite as clear-cut as some might believe. After all, an actor with as respectable a resume as Eisenberg isn’t going to simply play the same role twice.
Where Zuckerberg was an introverted, anti-social genius more at home in his sweatpants on a computer than a board room, Lex Luthor clearly has no problems with recognition. Man of Steel was filled with references to LexCorp, dotting everything from the skyline, to shipping containers; meaning Luthor is no shrinking violet in the eyes of the public.
Still, thinking back to the scathing condescension with which the character addressed those who couldn’t understand the need for social media, or skirting the line between analytical and sociopathic, the potential is there for a Lex whose intellect and confidence are his greatest weapons – tools which make larger, stronger, and less subtle men into fools, not heroes.
It’s important to point out that while many now view Jesse Eisenberg as an indie-movie artisan, it wasn’t long ago that he was referred to in the same breath as Michael Cera, pigeon-holed into playing lovable, charmingly awkward dorks. But when David Fincher – the mind behind the likes of Fight Club, Se7en, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – selected the quirky, insecure comedic actor to play the cold, alienated star of his Social Network, the result was a performance that few had trouble accepting.
He may have moved out of the spotlight with his recent work, but starring in a broad comedy like 30 Minutes or Less or Zombieland is a feat often taken for granted by causal movie audiences. The ability to draw laughs with his mile-a-minute dialogue and nervous neuroses is clearly one of his strengths, but acting alongside the likes of Aziz Ansari, Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone without ever standing out is no coincidence.
Nor is it a knack for being ‘just good enough’ that made him seem to fit right alongside Harrelson (again), Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Now You See Me. Granted, the film had its shortcomings, but Eisenberg’s cocky street magician is rarely cited as one.
As Marvel’s own ‘godfather’ of comic book movies, Joss Whedon, has explained that he’s always inclined to hire comedic actors for serious parts since “comedy is the harder one.” It’s clear Marvel has agreed, casting the likes of Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd to play some of their biggest heroes. Screen presence is screen presence, so it’s up to the writers and director to determine whether the actor is being funny or not.
Fans are quick to imagine an actor’s most familiar role when passing judgement on their suitability for their next, but that is as flawed an approach to casting as one can imagine. At this point, Eisenberg has worked with some of the industry’s most respected and discriminating talents both in front of and behind the lens.
We’d wager that those who claim Eisenberg is a one-trick pony, playing the same role over and over are likely to also claim that Ben Affleck’s skill in acting, writing or directing is similarly suspect – something that critics, mass audiences and award committees have all disagreed with.
It’s Something New
Before rumors of Lex Luthor casting began, and fans everywhere named their picks based (consciously or not) on an actor’s baldness, the question arose: why does he have to be bald? The character has sported hair in the comics, in movies, and on television, proving that a bald head wasn’t a prerequisite for a faithful version, and surely in Snyder’s universe – occupied by an African-American Perry White, Jenny Olsen, and a red-haired Lois Lane – appearances matter much less than the, you know, acting.
If nothing else, one thing should make fans happy: Zack Snyder is looking to give audiences something they’ve never seen. Which would be more underwhelming? To hear that Snyder was casting a young, unconventional actor to play what is clearly a different approach to the role, or that he had picked yet another middle-aged, bald-headed actor used to playing villains?
Tradition is valuable, of course – but fans of the conventional portrayal of Lex Luthor in live-action already have Hackman and Spacey’s versions to elate them. Should fans of the actual groundbreaking comics that sought to make a modern Lex be completely overlooked for the sake of doing something that’s already been done?
Michael Rosenbaum’s time in the role on the WB’s Smallville started to move Luthor towards the somewhat sympathetic, misunderstood figure the comics have begun to adopt. But to see a Superman film that takes its heroes and villains seriously, giving each time to develop so they can represent a moral conflict, not just a physical threat, would surely benefit from a fresh take on the character of Lex Luthor.
There’s a chance Snyder and Goyer may decide to break with the trend seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and offer a traditional, unsurprising treatment of Superman’s most famous foe. But if nothing else, it’s just easy to ask an audience to hate an arrogant, wealthy businessman. We’re all for interesting, provided those leading the film have a clear picture of what they’re after. And they certainly seem to.
It’s still too early to tell whether Esienberg’s casting will be a stroke of genius, and a new approach to an antagonist who’s never really made an audience question Superman’s moral compass, or if his previous roles are his most successful for a reason. But as our argument shows, anyone who believes that this Oscar-nominated actor’s casting is somehow a sign of trouble may want to re-examine the facts on which they’re basing their fears.
Be sure to leave your thoughts on our case in the comments. We’ll keep you up to date when the studio begins releasing more information.
Man of Steel 2/Batman vs. Superman hits theaters May 6, 2016.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.