What kind of Lex Luthor will Jesse Eisenberg be?
What clues to the direction of Batman Vs Superman does the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor offer us?
It didn't take long for the jokes to start: so ingrained was Bryan Cranston as the fan's choice choice to play Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder's upcoming Man Of Steel sequel, that the only possible assumption following Friday's announcement was that someone at Warner Bros had misheard Snyder's request to get "that Heisenberg guy" in. That's quite a good gag, in fairness.
That was among the more common reactions – the others being "Huh?", "What?" and "Well, at least this cuts Affleck a break for a bit" – to the news that The Social Network and Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg, a fresh-faced, mop-haired thirty-year-old, had been cast as one of comicdom's most charismatic and enduring villains.
That the casting immediately struck the majority of onlookers as so incongruous says a lot about exactly which version of Lex Luthor is the one that's generally resident in the shared consciousness. In truth, over the last 70-odd years, there have been almost as many different takes and interpretations of the character as there have been of Batman. He's been a mad scientist with world domination plans, he's been an ostentatious 'criminal mastermind' with a worrying obsession with real estate, he's been a beloved captain of industry with a secretly evil agenda, and he's been his own self-cloned son with an Australian accent (it was the 90s, best not to ask).
Up until the 1980s, the bald mad scientist persona was pretty much the only take that there had been, although the Gene Hackman movie version had somewhat stripped out the scientist element and made him more of a straight underground villain. But with the mid-80s post-Crisis On Infinite Earths reboot, Luthor became the version that tends to be the first that jumps to most people's minds: that is, the billionaire inventor and tycoon, admired by almost everyone but with a ruthless and murderous hidden streak and an intense dedication to wiping Superman off the face of the planet.
A combination of two different TV series established this version in the wider consciousness: firstly, John Shea's portrayal in the cheesy but better-than-you-probably-think Lois And Clark, and then Michael Rosenbaum as a younger version in Smallville. Shea in particular gave the character an effortless, suave charm – mixed with an underlying psychopathy – and this Luthor seems to be the one that most people (this writer included) think offers the best character and storytelling possibilities when set against Superman.
It's no surprise, then, that Cranston – who could do that dual-facing role standing on his head – was such a popular potential choice, but by contrast it's really not the kind of role that anyone would have associated with Eisenberg. Some have been quick to zero in on his previous role as an unlikeable billionaire, of course – but Luthor would seem to work best when he has the outward-facing charm to win over (or, rather, hoodwink) the general public and keep his less savoury side quiet – and as good as Eisenberg was in The Social Network, he was never really required to give Mark Zuckerberg a charismatic or sympathetic side.
That said, a version of Lex who is rich and successful while still having a slightly sinister and unlikeable air to his public face isn't without precedent – such a take was a major part of Mark Waid and Leinil Yu's 2004 comics miniseries Superman: Birthright, a book that's already had some measure of influence on the Snyder/David Goyer films so far. In that series, even with all his success there's something perpetually awkward about Lex – who we also meet, in a nod to Smallville, as a brief childhood friend of Clark's. He spends his entire life as a lonely, embittered outsider, and seems to want nothing more than to meet some otherworldly race who he feels might be more on his intellectual level than the people who populate his own planet. Indeed, that the first alien he meets turns out to be someone so opposed to his own ethos as Superman is something that fuels his particular hate for the Man of Steel.
It's certainly a take that could be made to work, and if Goyer and Snyder were going in that direction for Lex, then the casting of Eisenberg would suddenly make a lot more sense (although given his public distaste for the first film in the series, it would be interesting to see Mark Waid's reaction to having his works plundered yet further). Casting an actor so young, meanwhile, would perhaps be less of a problem if Warner Bros/DC are setting Lex up as a longer-term antagonist for the film series that they're evidently so keen to make happen. Indeed, it may yet turn out to be the case that Luthor isn't even the main villain of the Batman/Superman film, instead playing a role behind the scenes that will set him up to be more significant further down the line.
It has to be said, too, that while Man Of Steel had extensive problems, none of them really related to the cast, who were uniformly strong whatever you might think of the material they were working with. So we can reasonably expect similar of its sequel. Eisenberg might not be the obvious choice for this character – even less so than Affleck was for Batman in some people's eyes – but he's undeniably a terrific actor, so for all the eyebrows his casting has raised, the biggest question is really whether he'll be given a script and a character that will make the best use of him…
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