Comics on Film: Reexamining Lex Luthor in the DCEU

Comics on Film: Reexamining Lex Luthor in the DCEU

Oct 20, 2017

As many longtime comics fans can likely attest, Lex Luthor has been one of the most fascinating supervillains for the majority of the last thirty years. Originally conceived as a mad scientist out to destroy the original superhero, a reinvention in 1986 by writer/artist John Byrne in the pages of The Man of Steel repositoned Luthor as a villain of our time: a man scrambling to accumulate power in as many ways as possible, in order to directly challenge a man who doesn't accumulate power, but has it: Superman.
The mere fact that Luthor, a non-powered (albeit brilliant) human being stands as the arch-nemesis of one of fiction's most raw powerful icons should say a lot about him: even with all of his physical limitations in the context of being compared with the Man of Steel, he's still the equal and opposite force of villainy that always needs to be combatted by our hero in both of his alter-egos. Where Luthor hatches plots of villainy that can upset the balance of power in Metropolis and elsewhere, Superman responds physically. Where LexCorp's unscrupulous business practices start to hurt people in a community, you can bet that intrepid reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane will do their best to uncover it.
Last year, though, we were given a different look at Luthor as shown in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In an effort to make Lex more representative of our world, he was embodied by actor Jesse Eisenberg, and fashioned with some of the classic villainous qualities in a decidedly different guise: as an amoral millennial prodigy with a thick layer of eccentricity. Immediate reaction to Eisenberg's and Snyder's shared vision for the character was mixed, but now that we have some distance from his first appearance, let's take another look at the Alexander Luthor, Jr. of the DC Extended Universe.
Where Lex is Familiar
For all of the eccentricity and the apparent obsession with myths involving the triumph of men over gods, Luthor as depicted in Dawn of Justice is notably familiar to the Lex Luthor of the comics of the last 30 years in a couple of specific ways. The first and most prominent way is likely in his own kind of dual identity: Lex in the DCEU portrays an image as a philanthropist and even a humanitarian, exemplified by his apparent efforts to rebuild Metropolis in the wake of the attack the city suffered in Man of Steel, on top of high-profile galas to fund libraries that we saw him hold at his house with prominent members of the business world (like Bruce Wayne) and the press (like the Daily Planet).
It doesn't take us long to see, though, that Luthor's public face serves only to conceal his true nature as an opportunistic power-seeker, whose true intentions beyond "empowering humanity" against extraterrestrial threats is to give himself leverage over the world's most powerful being, Superman. When his scheme to try and intimidate U.S. lawmakers into giving him an import license for a giant recovered kryptonite rock fails, Luthor doesn't hesitate to bring the element into the country by using less-than-legal means. It was only last-minute intervention that ultimately stopped Batman from foiling that plot.
Really, though, probably the most familiar part of Lex Luthor as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg was his status in that film as the mastermind, playing our heroes against each other like pawns. It felt very true to who Luthor has been for a very long time when his full plans were laid bare, detailing how he orchestrated the battle between the World's Finest heroes in order to try and use one of them to get the other out of his way. So, in a lot of respects, aspects of the conception of Lex Luthor in the film's writing ring a bit true.
Of course, though, that's far from the whole story when it comes to this version of the character.
Where Lex is Unrecognizable
If you talk to a sect of comic book fans who adore Superman and his supporting cast, chances are they'll tell you that every live-action iteration of the character's nemesis has been disappointing when compared with his comic book counterpart. For whatever reason, since the days of Gene Hackman, actors and filmmakers have felt that Lex Luthor need not be portrayed as cold and calculating as much as he should be shown as wild and eccentric.
While each portrayal of Lex on film is not without some degree of merit, every actor to play him in an official Warner Bros. film feels that there's something about Lex that gives them license to go more in the direction of a character out of the '60s Batman TV series, as opposed to something truer to the darker, colder and more calculating Lex made famous by comics creators like John Byrne, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison and others.
Hackman deserves leniency in this respect since the Luthor of the 70's had more in common with being a career mad scientist, but director Bryan Singer chose not to apply any of the primarily modern sensibilities to Superman Returns' version of Lex in 2006, though Kevin Spacey does come a bit closer in places to the standard we've seen from the brilliant, calculating businessman of the comics. Eisenberg, however, is a totally other story.
It's strange: we definitely see more elements of the prevailing version of Lex in his portrayal, but Eisenberg and Zack Snyder also decided to envision Lex as an over-eccentric, tactless genius. While his intellect is very clearly on display, he seems to lack any conception whatsoever of accumen in the social space. In the comics, Luthor was a man whose political prowess and command of public image earned him the presidency of the United States, but the Luthor we meet in Dawn of Justice seems like he'd have a hard time convincing people to follow him much of anywhere, especially by the time he becomes...unhinged at the end of the film.
A Prescription
There are probably some people reading this who're thinking, "Nothing can satisfy you! What do you want, fanboy?!" Well, basically, I and other Superman fans want a Lex Luthor who is to be admired for his intellect, and feared for his ability to both manipulate the public and be ruthless in private. While no other performance as Lex should simply be carbon-copied, there are two great other media exploitations that would likely be most beneficial to informing how Lex would be best adapted in new films: Clancy Brown's vocal work in the DC Animated Universe, and Michael Rosenbaum's definitive portrayal of Lex throughout the first seven seasons of Smallville.
Smallville had a fair amount of shortcomings as a Superman adaptation, but Rosenbaum helped to infuse Lex with a sense of dread and tragedy rarely seen from the character outside of the comics. He brought a gravitas and an understanding of the place the character should occupy in the world, especially when he depicted the slide of a more virtuous vision of the character into the irredeemably villainous.
Lex Luthor is a character who earns his place, in his best appearances, as the chief foe of the most powerful being in the world. While Eisenberg is indeed...inventive in his depiction, it would definitely be served by more familiarity with modern works of merit in the comics, as well as the most lauded portrayals in television and animation. Make us believe he really stands a chance against a raw symbol of power like Superman, because that will just further enrich the depiction of one of pop culture's greatest, most timeless rivalries.

Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek PodcastGeekPulse Radio and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Comics, Features, Geek, Editorials
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