Jesse Eisenberg has been cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, and he’s joining quite a legacy. Within that legacy, though, comes a unique responsibility: even though we’ve seen a bald man oppose Superman in previous live-action productions, in many ways it’s up to Eisenberg to teach people about the real Lex Luthor. Chances are if you don’t read comics or have never seen 2000’s Justice League animated series, you’ve never met him.
Just who is the real Lex Luthor? Let’s take a look.
A New Luthor for a New Era
The modern conception of Lex Luthor, which was first unleashed upon comic book readers in 1986’s Superman revamp miniseries The Man of Steel, is one of the most fascinating characters in comics. He's a self-made corporate mogul, a brilliant scientist, and an entrepreneur who was the public face of the city of Metropolis (since in many incarnations he built a great portion of the city and also employed many of its citizens). Over the course of the character’s modern existence of the last 25 years, Luthor, in his most private moments, is very clearly one of the most dangerous men inhabiting the DC Universe.
While the public largely believes that it was his singular brilliance and business savvy that gave birth to the conglomerate LexCorp, over the course of some very celebrated stories we learn that his intelligence is only part of the reason he would rise to such great power. His intelligence also fuels his sadism, his overriding narcissism, and his complete and final belief that he is the single most exceptional human being alive. Some stories depict his investment capital in starting his company and his inventions as coming from a life insurance settlement from his dead father, a mean-spirited drunk whose brakes mysteriously went out one night while he was driving under the influence.
No one would think to suggest that the “grief-stricken” young man had actually cut his father’s brake line so that he could escape and carve a new niche for himself.
Now, the character whose beginnings I’ve just described should be of no surprise to comic book fans. This is the Lex Luthor that many of us have spent years reading about, and it should sound very familiar. If you’re not a comic book fan, though, this likely clashes with the perception that Luthor is little more than a gleeful madman who likes to invest in real estate and spit out quips and one-liners like they’re going out of style.
The Live-Action Lex Luthors
The first actor to portray Lex Luthor in live action was a character actor named Lyle Talbot in the 1950 theatrical serial Atom Man vs. Superman. Keeping in line with the predominant characterization of most villains of the era, Luthor was a mad scientist and little else. It was Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor in Richard Donner’s original Superman film that is the most well-known iteration of the character. Hackman, Donner and screenwriter Tom Manckiewicz conceived of a Luthor that had an irreverent but sometimes brutal sense of humor, and who lived his life primarily as a career criminal with plans of making money off of some high-value “beachfront property.”
This iteration of Luthor also appeared in Superman II and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, with little regard for pathos or any true motivational understanding beyond the fact that he seemed to like being evil (a word he used to describe himself often).
Although he appeared in the 1988 Superboy TV series, it wasn’t until 1993’s Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on ABC that Luthor’s characterization changed. As the first major live-action Superman production since the 1986 revamp DC Comics series, actor John Shea’s performance as Lex Luthor was the first to be informed by the characterization as a respected businessman instead of being a career criminal. While it was a step in the right direction, the second season of the show saw Luthor apparently die, and when he inevitably resurfaced he was right back to the career-criminal schtick. He just added vengeance against Superman into the mix.
Likely the most important and narratively progressive Luthor came in the form of Michael Rosenbaum’s consistently excellent and nuanced performance as the character during the first seven seasons of Smallville. While the show took a slightly different approach in exploring Lex’s origins, Rosenbaum’s Luthor wasn’t a quip-giving camp factory or a career criminal, and may actually have been a good man. Unlike previous live-action portrayals of Luthor, the journey the character takes on Smallville is a tragic one, showing that even the most formidable forms of evil aren’t created overnight. Luthor started the series as an eccentric but good-natured person, and it was the journey of his life that led him to his rightful place as the true “villain of the story.”
Then… we got to Superman Returns. While Bryan Singer’s effort in reintroducing the characters and their world may be a little unfairly maligned, part of the reason for its bland reputation is because it very much picked up the pieces left by the 1978 film and expanded upon them. Both Superman and Lex Luthor reverted back to 30-year-old characterizations, undoing decades of creative evolution while creating false perceptions in people’s minds about who the true characters were. While Kevin Spacey delivered a terrific performance that injected a bit more sinister nuance into the 1978 version of the character, Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris relied far too heavily on an out-of-date conception of what Superman stories should attempt to accomplish today.
Modern Luthor’s Time Has Come
So, now we arrive at the responsibility that has been placed on the shoulders of David Goyer, Zack Snyder, screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo), and Jesse Eisenberg. In many ways, Lex Luthor is supposed to be terrifying. While Eisenberg doesn’t exactly strike anyone as bring physically formidable, his casting can breathe automatic confidence in one thing: the juxtaposition between Eisenberg’s Luthor and Henry Cavill’s Superman.
While the character likely will not (and should not) get into a direct physical confrontation with Superman, the mind is total fair game. If some of Eisenberg’s previous performances have any ability to shine light on the new Luthor, then it’s this: he’s a man that can likely outthink everyone. We know, from Man of Steel, that LexCorp has an undeniable presence in the world of the film. Eisenberg, particularly his youth, seems to be carving a new niche for the character in the film as a prodigy, perhaps. That’s new territory, and if it couples with some of the more celebrated facets of the modern Lex, then it should be a welcome addition among fans.
Jesse Eisenberg is Lex Luthor. I hope he’s a Luthor that I and so many other comics fans have been waiting to see for so long, but either way his casting means that this could be a movie that’s chock-full of a lot of surprises. Here’s hoping, anyway.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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