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In Defence Of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, Who’s Already The Best Part Of Batman V Superman

If you’re a DC Comics fan, then the latest trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice probably had the same effect on you as kryptonite does on Kryptonians. Seriously, it had everything: Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne talking thinly veiled smack about one another’s secret identities! Capes swooshing all over the place! Doomsday wrecking all the stuff! (And maybe even Darkseid’s parademons in there for a hot second, if you’re a hardcore nerd with a keen eye) And don’t even start in on the amazing BAMF-itude of Wonder Woman. It was all a lot to take in.

But through all the high-octane punching, bullet-stopping and super-frowning, there’s one singular aspect of the film that already completely stands out: Jesse Eisenberg’s spirited performance as Lex Luthor, AKA the only person who appears to be having any sort of fun in this movie so far. “Psychotic” fun, as Lois Lane would put it, but still. Fun nonetheless.

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So in a movie about Batman and Superman finally facing off, how is it the villain who’s the most interesting past? At least a bit of that has to do with how, in a movie that’s full of icons, this version of Lex is not one.

Even though we haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman that we’ve seen in all the Dawn of Justice trailers, they’re already immediately recognizable icons in American pop culture history. We know their origin stories, their powers, and exactly what their costumes are supposed to look like, and that’s what makes it satisfying to watch them go head to head. Basically, at the end of the day they’re all known quantities.

But Eisenberg’s Lex isn’t. In fact, upon first glance he seems like the complete opposite of the iconic version of Lex Luthor we’re all familiar with from earlier movies and TV series. Rather than the smooth talking, traditionally masculine captain of industry that we all grew up with, this LexCorp CEO is instead a t-shirt wearing, fidgety tech wunderkind whose fortune and legacy has been handed down to him on a silver platter—remember, he’s Lex Luthor Jr. 

We don’t know what to expect or how he’ll react to the superheroes he’s trying to thwart (other than gleefully, if the trailer is any indication), and that alone makes him a way, way more interesting character than everyone else in the movie so far, because he’s basically a wild card that we’ll only be able to decipher by actually seeing the movie.

Will he ultimately annoy you? Be hilarious? Maybe even end up being Wilson Fisk levels of fascinating? Nobody knows yet, but I guess we’re going to figure it out together, huh?

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But wait! There’s another wrinkle to this version of Luthor, and it’s the prevailing theory that Eisenberg has a very, very particular source of inspiration for the character: Max Landis, who wrote the stoner-action comedy American Ultra with Eisenberg in mind. One commenter reported that they’d once seen the screenwriter use that same “bringing people together” line in the exact same way, beat for beat, Luthor does. Heck, even Landis himself believes the connection after seeing the footage.

Like Eisenberg’s Luthor, Landis is the son of a notable father, director John Landis, and is trying to forge his own way forward while working in the same industry, most famously with the dark superpower thriller Chronicle. He’s also a lifelong comic book fan himself, particularly of Superman; three years ago he released a hilarious star-studded fan film inspired by the Death and Return of Superman storyline, once spoke out about the problems he found in Man of Steel, and started writing a new comic for DC called Superman: American Alien. And, just like this Lex already, he’s a surprisingly divisive figure in the film nerd community for some reason. Which kind of isn’t fair, because at least he’s never created a real Kryptonian Doomsday monster, right?

Of course, beyond the cosmetic changes, Luthor ultimately still represents the same societal fears as all business-minded super villains do—that powerful people with money are doing nefarious things behind closed doors for their own selfish gain. And at the very least, Dawn of Justice is certainly still hanging on to one of the most important Lex Luthor tropes, which is that his evil plans are always completely ridiculous and actually very financially unsound. (Creating a Doosmday is a very weird business model, but is it any weirder than trying to sink California into the ocean to sell more beachfront property like Gene Hackman did in the 1978 film?)

But if Eisenberg did base his performance on his screenwriting friend, that adds an entirely new and utterly compelling meta-texual narrative to this movie. After all, the corrupt corporate tycoon shtick has been done a million times already, several times with Lex Luthor. But basing a mastermind who manipulates heroes on a guy who—well, does exactly that with his fictional characters? That’s very new and a very interesting commentary on how superhero movies are supposed to work, in and of itself.

So like him or hate him already, you’ve got to admit: this version of Lex Luthor is going to know how to put on a show, and that should keep you hooked even if you’ve got costumed fighting fatigue. Will it be a show worth seeing? That question can’t be answered until March, but believe that our butts will definitely be in those seats as we wait to find out.

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