Nicholas Hoult has finally landed a role in a major DC Comics superhero franchise… only it is not as the hero. After famously (and narrowly) missing out on the chance to star as Matt Reeves’ Batman and James Gunn’s Superman, the actor whose work is as varied as Nux in Mad Max: Fury Road and Tsar Peter III in The Great has been cast in the part of Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind of the DC Universe.
On a certain level, this seems overly familiar. Nearly every Superman film to date has featured Lex Luthor as a major character, and certainly every big screen Superman has sooner or later had their Lex. The role has invited big swings from a curious list of performers that include Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, and Jesse Eisenberg (and that’s only counting the live-action movies). Yet there is added expectation on the fact that Gunn, as per THR, has selected Hoult to play his Luthor in the movie the filmmaker is clearly hoping will raise the tide for all future DC Studios endeavors. For all intents and purposes, Superman: Legacy is the real kickoff of Gunn and DC Studios co-head Peter Safran’s version of the DC Universe, and the first, best chance to prove they’re doing something fundamentally different with these characters than the now defunct DC Extended Universe.
In this context, Lex Luthor is a good place to start.
Arguably one of the most famous villains in comic book history, Lex Luthor has also become one of the richest. Originally conceived as something of a mad scientist foil for Superman who in his first appearance (via Action Comics #23 in 1940) lived in a flying city where he intended to start a world war, the character has transfigured and transformed over the years with various interpretations and many motives.
Yet since the 1980s, Luthor has been something else altogether more sinister: an American corporate CEO. The devil made flesh. Redesigned in the comics from the ground up by John Byrne in 1986’s limited run comic series, The Man of Steel, Luthor became the amorphous and untouchable center of criminality and wickedness in Metropolis and the greater DC Comics universe. Nakedly modeled after Donald Trump at the height of his ‘80s greed and excess, but given the smoothness and softer touch of Lucifer, Lex became the guy who never had to pay the consequences for his actions and who could impede, muddy, and even attempt to corrupt Superman’s quest to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
If that setup doesn’t sound eerily prescient already, wait until you find out that DC Comics had Luthor successfully run for president in 2000, which allowed him to manipulate the levers of power to go after his greatest political enemy, the Last Son of Krypton.
It’s worth considering this published history of Luthor, because we’ve never really seen anything approaching that level of cold, calculated depravity on the big screen. The best Lex Luthor of cinema is still probably Gene Hackman, who played the character in three of the four Superman films starring Christopher Reeve between 1978 and 1987. And at least in his first two appearances, Hackman brought an amusing snarl to his campy rendition of the golden age, evil mad genius version of the character. All scenery-chewing and smirks, Hackman’s performance leans more into comedy than menace—save for one scene involving a Kryptonite necklace—but it is memorably entertaining.
Less amusing was when Spacey basically did a nastier, more sadistic riff on Hackman’s interpretation of the character in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). That film had many issues, but a major one was being afraid to bring anything substantially new to the material that differed from what Richard Donner did about 30 years earlier—never mind the fact that the comic book Lex had evolved into something genuinely reflective of modern American evil.
Technically director Zack Snyder and star Esienberg attempted to directly channel the modern comic book version of Lex Luthor and even update it for the 21st century by replacing the Trumpian influence on John Byrne’s reimagining for a thinly veiled riff on modern tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg—after all, Eisenberg already played Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
However, while Eisenberg’s Lex was definitely presented as a malevolent billionaire of untouchable power and influence, the performance was oddly more camp and untethered from reality than Hackman’s. Also realizing that they wanted to move away from a purely sinister connotation of American capitalism in a film that was released in 2016 is doubly ironic. In any event, the Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was more cloying and irritating than menacing or provocative, and his apparent philosophical motives of envying Superman’s godlike power felt malformed and underwritten.
In other words, it failed to do justice to what has made Lex such a compelling antagonist in comics for the last 40 or so years.
Hoult has the opportunity to right that ship in Superman: Legacy. Some comic book fans may only know Hoult for playing a young and more diminutive Beast in the 2010s X-Men movies, but the actor has shown incredible range, beginning with a disarming childhood performance in About a Boy (2002). He also has seemingly accepted his career is leading him increasingly toward the parts of heavies and baddies. While arguably the best work of his career was too complex to be purely coded as a villain in Hulu’s The Great, there is no doubting his Tsar Peter III was an ugly piece of work who deserved the end he got. And he was far more sympathetic than the selfish foodie Hoult played in The Menu or the misguided attempt to turn Renfield into an off-putting superhero in this year’s Renfield.
Hoult has range and shows panache for finding layers in what are otherwise egomaniacal bastards. That sounds like a proper Lex Luthor to us. So as Gunn has indicated he’s returning to the comics—most especially Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman—for inspiration, we suspect audiences might just finally see the modern Lex done (in)justice on the big screen.