The DCEU may have ventured into the world of the New Gods and be spinning off into countless villain spinoffs, but through all this it needs to keep its primo villain: Lex Luthor. Earlier this year, it was announced that the scenes involving Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex were cut from Justice League. Regardless, a post-credits featuring the character dispelled the rumors that Luthor would be recast or otherwise discarded as part of the DCEU’s evolving future vision - and that needs to be followed up on.
Eisenberg’s Luthor was a major point of contention in Batman v Superman. Luthor's traditional understated megalomania replaced with Eisenberg's stammering, digressing Zuckerbergian camp that was at odds with both the film’s aesthetic and the established history of the character. For many fans, the failure was enough to warrant Luthor’s dismissal from the DC Extended Universe, but we disagree.
Complexity is what’s largely excised from the DCEU’s Lex. There are shades of Luthorian folly - he’s certainly a paranoid egomaniac - but his failure in Batman v Superman has less to do with brains than it does brawn. The heroes merely weather the storm rather than overcome it. While Lex can hang his hat on killing Superman, the moment, like their enmity, is not earned in the film itself. Lex came across as too ridiculous and neurotic to be considered a threat. He felt too small, like a kid wearing his daddy’s shoes.
And it seemed, if only for a moment, that Warner Bros. was aware of its gamble. It’s mentioned more than once in Dawn of Justice that Eisenberg is playing Alexander Luthor, Jr. In the comics, this is Luthor’s son from an alternate universe. There, it seemed to exist as an escape hatch. However, this now seems like little more than a misdirect; when we see Lex at the end of Justice League, it's Eisenberg taking a step closer to the comic version. And that's very important.
The tease of Darkseid and the New Gods along with the Injustice League and the upcoming debuts of Black Adam, Ocean Master, Doctor Sivana (not to mention the numerous Joker-related properties), shows the intention for a great surge in villains filtering in over the next few years. What's interesting is that they’re all brutal, intelligent masterminds with the potential to be exactly what Lex could have and should have been in Batman v Superman. But that potential is why he must remain; the DCEU needs Lex because he is the most human of all of DC’s villains.
Luthor embodies the reason Jor-El sent his son to Earth. Superman, with his powers, morality, and empathy, is a symbol of possibility and promise. He’s a beacon of the potential we all have inside us to create a better future. And, in Lex Luthor, he has the perfect foil, a representation of humanity at its best and worst simultaneously. Lex has all the intelligence anyone could ever want, but lacks the necessary component of compassion to be the non-powered version of Supes that we would all aspire to be. To modify the theme of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, when it comes to Lex Luthor being considered a “whole person”, the mind cannot exist without the heart.
Luthor’s intellectual curiosity and capability, along with his ability to overcome and thrive against his difficult upbringing, makes him a man that be admired on a level akin to Superman. It makes their arcs run parallel and as is the case of all great arch-enemies, has both men become a mirror image of the other. Clark had to deal with feelings of isolation due to his alienness; Lex felt that same isolation due to his intelligence and found no respite at home thanks to his abusive father. And they really do form each other: without Superman, the story of Lex Luthor is the story of a man overcoming adversity; upon Superman’s arrival, jealousy kicks in. People aren’t as impressed by sleek buildings and fancy suits when there’s a man who can fly. Across interpretations, this is one of the reasons Lex hates Superman: he resents the transference of admiration.
Eisenberg's take is most certainly an update with certain adjustments (his origins are of privilege instead of destitution, yet the abuse remains) but it hinges on the same ethos; by defeating Superman, Lex would save humanity from giving up and allow us the opportunity to become heroes ourselves. So, really, Lex represents the parts of humanity that we need to moderate. We have to both overcome and embrace his different traits to move forward. In the incredibly cosmic world of comics, his story grounds us in the familiar and reminds us of the human metaphor that these stories trade in, and he has the potential to do the same in the DCEU.
Steps seemed to have been taken to more clearly realign the comics and film versions of Lex Luthor. In Justice League, he appears calm, and dapper in an expensive suit. It harkens to the classic Lex - one full of flaws and subtext - although Eisenberg's villainy still feels overly self-aware; it is put-upon and arch in a way that feels like a version of Lex Luthor that was translated into another language and back again. Still, while the Alexander Luthor, Jr. escape hatch still exists, and the rumors of a soft reboot via the Flashpoint movie may signal another option, the underlying message remains: the DCEU needs Lex Luthor.
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