In 2016, Batman v Superman hit theaters, and it was a smash hit financially. Critically, the movie wasn’t as well-loved, and currently holds a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics felt the story was confusing and the characterization was off, especially when it came to Lex Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Luthor was mostly panned by critics and longtime comic readers, and while many people who saw Batman v Superman singled out Lex Luthor as an example of where the movie went wrong, not everyone felt that way. Some of us here at CBR didn’t just tolerate BvS‘s Lex, we loved him.
Up until Eisenberg, we had only seen Lex Luthor portrayed in live-action by Gene Hackman in the Superman films of the 1980s and Kevin Spacey in 2006’s Superman Returns. While they were both great in their own right, they didn’t even come close to Eisenberg’s reinvention. He was awkward and confident, maniacal and manipulative, and a master of a huge corporation that he dedicated towards the destruction of Superman. Read on as we try to convince you that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was the best movie portrayal of Luthor ever.
16. LEX WAS A SCIENTIST
Let’s start with the fact that BvS’s Lex Luthor was a mad scientist. That might seem like stating the obvious, but we need to unpack it. In the 1978 Superman movie, Luthor was a criminal genius, but not much of a scientist. For example, he stole a nuclear missile instead of building one. Lex didn’t do anything really scientific until Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when he cloned Superman. Kevin Spacey was even less so in Superman Returns, hiring other people to build his technology and even stealing Superman’s own tech.
In Batman v Superman, Luthor was an actual scientist. He was a genius who was able to figure out alien technology and use it to clone General Zod’s body to create Doomsday. As for “mad,” let’s talk about that, too.
15. LEX WAS CRAZY
Luthor is supposed to be insane, but the movies haven’t really shown that side often. With Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey, Lex Luthor was more arrogant than crazy. You could argue that the idea of wanting to kill people just to get rich showed Lex was insane, but that was more internal. They came across more like sociopaths who didn’t care whether people were hurt.
Eisenberg’s portrayal of Luthor has gotten a lot of flack for being annoying, but that was the point. Anyone looking at Lex could see he had problems, especially when he tried to give a speech and dissolved into stuttering and mumbling. BvS‘s Lex is visibly insane with deep emotional problems, putting the “mad” in “mad scientist.” It’s a more realistic portrayal, fitting into the graying Batman and distant Superman.
14. LEX WAS SCARY
Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman was also scarier than any other Luthor we’d seen in the movies so far. Hackman and Spacey were more cheerful while carrying out horrible crimes, but Luthor’s moments of randomness made him harder to predict, which made every moment he was on the screen more intense.
When he put a piece of hard candy into the mouth of Senator Barrows, there was a moment where you might have wondered if the candy was poisoned or if he really just wanted to give the senator candy. When Lex told Senator Finch she was going to be in “the hot seat,” you weren’t sure if it was a threat or a joke. It turned out to be a threat. It felt like, at any moment, Lex could fly off into a rage or kill someone, and he often did.
13. LEX WAS A BILLIONAIRE
Since John Byrne’s reinvention of Lex Luthor in his acclaimed Man of Steel miniseries in 1986, Lex Luthor has been almost exclusively shown in the comics and TV shows as a billionaire whose international corporation funds and builds the equipment for his evil schemes, yet that’s never been a part of the movies. In the Superman films of the ’80s, Luthor was still the master criminal he’d been in the comics. Even Kevin Spacey was just an extension of that.
BvS‘s Lex Luthor was the first time we had seen the new billionaire version on the big screen, and that was huge. He wielded the power of a worldwide conglomerate and used those resources to carry out his master plan of stopping Superman. Even if you didn’t like the “mad scientist” part, there’s no denying Eisenberg has been more faithful to the comics than Hackman or Spacey.
12. JESSE EISENBERG
Another thing that took Batman v Superman‘s Lex Luthor over the top was the actor who portrayed him. Gene Hackman was a brilliant actor, and so was Kevin Spacey. They both brought a strength and humor to their roles that made them unforgettable, but Jesse Eisenberg took his performance to a whole new level.
No matter what you thought of his Lex Luthor, there wasn’t a moment when you could take your eyes off of him. His every word and gesture was calculated to make a maximum impact. He made Luthor into more than just a ruthless criminal, but a wounded soul who had charisma and mania in equal portion. He chewed up every scene he was in. That’s a huge achievement, considering Eisenberg was on the screen with Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and other great actors, and he nailed it every time.
11. LEX WAS WOUNDED
In all the movies before Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor was pretty one-dimensional. Hackman and Spacey’s Lex Luthor was evil with a capital E. They wanted to kill millions of people, and suffered no guilt or confusion over it. They were also wildly egotistical. They carried themselves with confidence and swagger that never wavered or broke. They believed themselves to be the smartest men in the world, and set out to prove it.
Jesse Eisenberg made Lex Luthor much more complex than that. He could be confident as well, but at times, his facade fell and we could see the wounded child he really was. He also had fits of anger like when he described his metahuman theory or gave Superman his orders to kill Batman, showing the depths of rage burning inside him.
10. LEX HAD HISTORY
Once again, we’ll go back to the earlier portrayals of Lex Luthor to see why BvS improved on them. Hackman and Spacey’s Lex had no backstory at all, except for the occasional wisecrack about their fathers. We didn’t know how they were warped into the flamboyant sociopaths they were. Yet in the comics, Lex has a deep and complex history that led him to become the ruthless billionaire he is.
In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor was given a real history for the first time in any movie. We heard him talk about his father building the company and naming it after him. He ranted and raved about the abuses and abominations he suffered at the hands of his father. It was almost enough to make us feel sorry for him. Almost.
9. LEX HAD MOTIVATION
In the movies of the ’80s, Lex Luthor was motivated by money and egotism. He wanted to be recognized as the greatest criminal mind in history, and he wanted to make a crap-ton of money. He wanted revenge in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and in Superman Returns, Luthor was driven for money and revenge against Superman.
In Batman v Superman, Lex was motivated by altruism, not money or power. He already had money, and he already had power. He thought Superman was a threat, a god or devil who needed to be brought down to size. It’s been said that all great villains are the hero of their own story, and Luthor truly believed he was doing the world a favor by getting rid of Superman.
8. LEX WAS RIGHT
Another thing that set Lex Luthor apart was his hatred of Superman. In the older movies, Lex Luthor hated Superman because the superhero kept foiling his plans and getting him thrown in jail. In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor hated Superman because he was too powerful and he didn’t believe that Superman’s power could be handled in an innocent way.
The thing is, Lex was sort of right. One of the first things Superman did after revealing himself was destroy half of Metropolis in a fight with General Zod. He has almost unlimited strength, flight, speed and lasers shooting from his eyes. Even the military acknowledged that Superman needed to be brought under control. In a dream sequence, Batman seemed to see a world where Superman had taken control. Lex didn’t seem so crazy after that.
7. LEX WAS UPDATED
As we said before, Lex Luthor in the older movies was nothing but a criminal. The first time we saw Hackman’s Luthor was with his hand pushing a lever to throw a government agent into the path of an oncoming train. The first we saw Spacey’s Luthor, he was forging an old woman’s signature to steal her fortune.
Like all the other characters, Lex Luthor is different in Batman v Superman. Instead of the older and ruthless Lex Luthor committing some awful crime, we first see Eisenberg’s Luthor playing on a basketball court. He’s a young man, thin and full of energy. He dabbles in all sorts of technology, and is obviously in the media a lot. There’s a reason he reminded so many people of his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, because that’s who Lex Luthor is. He’s been updated for the 21st Century.
6. SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT
Many viewers complained that Lex Luthor in BvS wasn’t faithful to the comics, which is absolutely wrong. If they looked at 2003’s Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, they would see someone very familiar.
In that story, we saw Lex Luthor as an older, balder, more evil man, but flashbacks also showed him when he was younger. There, Lex was thin with a full crop of red hair. He had emotional problems from his parents’ constant pressure to make him a genius, and felt alienated from everyone because of his genius. That sounds a lot like the Lex we saw in Batman v Superman. If that’s not close enough, BvS Lex even wore the same trenchcoat that Lex wears in Birthright.
5. LEX IS OPPOSITE
It was in 2000’s Unbreakable that the character of Mr. Glass said it best: the best archvillain is the exact opposite of the hero. That’s why Lex Luthor works so well as the enemy in Batman v Superman. He’s a genius, using his mind instead of his body, which leaves him with a very thin frame as opposed to Superman’s muscular body. Superman cares about helping others through heroism and kindness, while Lex wants to help others through cruelty. Superman in the DC Extended Universe is very calm and stoic, which means his opposite would be very excited and frantic. Superman is very logical, whereas Lex in the DCEU is chaotic. That all combines to make it a powerful moment when we saw the two of them on screen together.
4. LEX IS EVIL
The Luthor of the earlier movies was evil, but in more of a cartoonish way. The ’80s Lex pushed a man in front of a train, and tried to kill millions, but it was still on the level of a kids’ movie. Kevin Spacey did awful things, too, like trying to create a new continent that threatened billions, and destroying a city, but those plans never actually went through. Lex attempted far worse and succeeded.
It wasn’t just the fact that he allowed or caused people to die (which he did). Take the bombing of the US Capitol. Lex could have just planted a bomb in the building where they held a hearing, but he used a disabled man in a wheelchair to smuggle in the bomb. In the process, he killed his faithful assistant Mercy, and showed no regrets about it, either proving how evil he is.
3. LEX HAD A PLAN
In the comics, Lex Luthor has always been a master strategist. That wasn’t the case with the movies, where Luthor’s plans have been pretty straightforward. In Superman, he wanted to drop a bomb on California to build a beachfront property. What was his backup plan if he failed? There was none. The same applied to Superman Returns, where he dropped a crystal in the ocean to make a new continent with no real backup plan.
In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor had a brilliant plan. He plotted and organized for years to bring two of the greatest and most noble heroes up against each other in a fight to the death. When that failed, Lex had a backup plan in the form of Doomsday. When that failed, it’s implied that he had another plan waiting in the wings with what could turn out to be Darkseid. He was a true genius.
2. LEX IS CONNECTED
One critique of Marvel’s movies (as awesome as they are) is that the enemies tend to be rather disposable. When you consider enemies like Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron or Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, the enemies are more of a plot point than real antagonists. They also don’t tend to come up again in later movies, except as references.
Batman v Superman made it quite clear that Lex Luthor wasn’t just going to be a random villain. Even at the end, locked in a prison cell, Lex screamed how “he’s coming.” Many fans assume he meant Darkseid, who DC has acknowledged is going to be the main villain for the DCEU. Darkseid’s plan hasn’t been revealed, but we know Lex is connected to it.
1. LEX WAS DIFFERENT
More than anything else, Lex Luthor was a very different villain than we’d seen before. The ’80s Lex was a stylish genius, something we’d seen in movies before. The Superman Returns Lex was really just an extension of the same. Only BvS gave us a very unique Lex Luthor, one we’d never really seen on the big screen before, and it was refreshing.
BvS‘s Lex wasn’t in control all the time. He was more damaged than confident. Many people have compared his portrayal (in a negative way) to Heath Ledger’s The Joker in The Dark Knight, but The Joker only shared an unpredictable nature with Lex and nothing else. The Joker was interested only in chaos, not trying to save the world. He also had limited resources, unlike Lex who had power and wealth. The two couldn’t be more different, except for the odd jokes.
What did you think of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman? Let us know in the comments!
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