Casting Lex Luthor
In an effort to kick-start my site presence, I’m going to take random things that interest me and talk about them…but where it usually turns into a thousand-word browbeating that nobody wants to read and only crops up two or three times a year, I’m hoping it will be a bit more representative of me on a personal level and actually be somewhat entertaining while also prompting more creative output in the form of more frequent activity on my part and the continued development of my all-but Faulknerian sentence structure.
It was just announced at the end of this week that casting for the up-coming Batman/Superman movie had listed Lex Luthor as being played by Jesse Eisenberg. Normally I wouldn’t care about a movie I will be catching on TBS in a few years, but, man, has it set the nerd community aflame with complaints. Being totally unfamiliar with this guy, other than that he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, I have no idea about his acting chops, though just looking at him I can tell why people are crying about it. Basically, he looks like a dork…Lex Luthor has always been the greatest of Superman’s Rogue’s Gallery, and it takes some manliness to go toe-to-toe with a guy with the powers of a demigod. But, to me, the casting makes perfect sense. And after running it by my own nerd circle, I think it does to them, now, too. So I will attempt to impart this insight, but it will require a short bit of set-up.
Lex Luthor started out as a mad scientist villain-type from the thirties and forties. This was a common trope of the time, as theoretical science was likely seen as a godless and dangerous thing in the eyes of regular people. And, of course, superheroes fit somewhere between pulp and science fiction. This particularly became true as comics developed in the fifties as more hard sci-fi, and the proliferation of the old Saturday-morning Superman cartoons and Super Friends play into public perception. To this day, most people will remember Luthor as the green-and-purple wearing bald guy with crossed suspenders and a popped collar who told other bad guys what to do.
Those who do not see him that way more than likely think of Gene Hackman, whose portrayal in the Richard Donner Superman movie colored most of the rest of mainstream audiences’ concept of the character, not as a hard scifi villain but a rather well-connected and scientifically astute yet crack-pot crook with a dream for world domination. Hackman is a fine actor, but this was a new take on the old Luthor. He’s still more-or-less a mad scientist, but he’s played for camp and more of a run-0f-the-mill bad guy who’s bad for badness’ sake. I didn’t care for this one, but it sort of paved the way for a revised version of Lex Luthor that has taken root over the past thirty years.
In the mid-eighties, DC Comics reinvented itself in order to appeal to new readers, which mean most of its lineup got completely new stories and origins and stuff. One of those was Lex Luthor: no more was he the mad-scientist who hated Superman for making his hair fall out (yes, really). Now, he was the epitome of eighties evil: the cruel conglomerate CEO! And, because it was the eighties, guess who he was based on?
John Byrne’s reworking of the very nature of Lex Luthor hit a nerve that has twinged across media:
Ignore the Michael Rosenbaum version in Smallville for a minute…the evil businessman angle got a lot of traction. But: enter the 21st century. You’re Zach Snyder, an avowed comic fan. You are building a new Superman movie to appeal to the modern movie-going masses. You can’t use the evil mad scientist. The evil corporation chief is getting stale, so how best would one embody that for today? How about an evil Mark Zuckerberg, a model of modern savvy business with power over hearts and minds through his technological constructs with tons of money and enemies to show for it? And who better to play such a role than one who already has?
There you go.