WTF Hollywood!!!??? Get Lex Luthor Right Already!
Critics and fanboys had plenty (mostly negative) things to say about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice when it hit the multiplexes back in March. A large portion of that ire was directed at one actor: Jesse Eisenberg. His performance as Lex Luthor was almost universally panned, and for this intrepid writer easily the worst part of the film. As the movie progressed, I began to cringe every time Eisenberg and his stupid face made an appearance. Eisenberg’s portrayal of Luthor was off-the-wall-bugfuck-crazy-insane, and I mean that in the WORST possible way. This is not to say that unorthodox or unique representations of iconic villains aren’t OK. Heath Ledger’s Joker was so distinct that Ledger’s version ITSELF became iconic. However, if you’re going for unique, especially when it comes to a beloved hero or villain, you better succeed. Eisenberg failed. Miserably.
If you think of the name Lex Luthor, there’s probably certain images and personality traits that spring to mind. Some of these examples (direct from the DC Wiki) likely jive with your own notions. The site describes Luthor as a brilliant scientist, bald, charismatic and flattering, ruthless, efficient, supremely confident bordering on arrogant, maniacal, and a megalomaniac. Can you reconcile any of those adjectives with what’s below?
Does any of that seem like your ideal version of Lex Luthor? No? Me either. Eisenberg’s Luthor is essentially the result of an unholy coupling between Sheldon Cooper, Steve Jobs, and Dustin Hoffman from Rain Man. Only way more annoying. Suffice it to say for future films involving Superman, the Justice League, Batman, et al, the less we see of Eisenberg the better. Or go one better and just recast him. (It’s not too late to hire Bryan Cranston. Remember when that was a rumor floating around way back when? Ahhh…to think what might have been.)
When you juxtapose the inherent qualities that define Lex Luthor with the character interpretation of writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, there’s a clear dissonance there. To be fair to Eisenberg, he only showcased what the writers created. Too bad that what Goyer and Terrio wrote was the literary equivalent of the cement Swiss cheese from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. At the very least it’s a clear explanation as to why fans had to watch the world burn when it came to Lex Luthor.
It does beg the question though: Why haven’t we seen a solid version of Lex Luthor on the big screen thus far? I think to answer that we have to examine the two Luthors we’ve gotten so far, aside from Eisenberg:
GENE HACKMAN (Superman I, II, and IV)
Look Gene Hackman is amazing. He’s a two-time Oscar winner and one of our greatest living actors, even if he hasn’t made a movie since 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport (man, is THAT sad). Having said that, his portrayal of Lex Luthor is just all wrong. Yes it’s serviceable but it’s nowhere near the essence of the character. Where’s the brilliant scientist? Where’s the billionaire businessman? Where’s the criminal bent on world domination? Instead we get a guy living underneath Manhattan whose master criminal plan (at least in the first film) involved real estate. It also didn’t help that Hackman’s character surrounded himself with a bumbling oaf in Otis (Ned Beatty) and a certified bimbo in Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Doesn’t seem like the kind of henchmen a criminal mastermind would associate himself with. And though I’ll always have a soft spot for Hackman’s portrayal (he was my first introduction to Lex Luthor after all) I never thought he was fully committed to the role. The evidence? Two things. He refused to shave his head for the part and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
KEVIN SPACEY (Superman Returns)
Kevin Spacey is also one of our greatest living actors. The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Swimming With Sharks, House of Cards…the list goes on and on. And unlike Hackman he’s not retired. Unfortunately, his portrayal of Luthor suffers the same fate as Hackman’s in that it doesn’t capture the spirit of the character. Rather than a criminal mastermind, he comes off as a sleazy divorce lawyer. He’s not as goofy as Hackman’s Luthor but he’s still not maniacal. In fact Spacey’s portrayal pales in comparison to his role as Frank Underwood. Truthfully, if Spacey had played Luthor like Underwood I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. In Superman Returns Luthor’s main villainous plan is to create a new Krypton-like continent. Again with the freakin’ real estate! Say what you want about Man of Steel, at least it’s not a 2 and 1/2 hour fanboy love letter to Richard Donner, like Bryan Singer’s movie was.
So we have examples of the bad but what of the good? In order for that you’d have to turn to the small screen:
CLANCY BROWN (Superman: The Animated Series)
It’s ironic that perhaps the best representation of Lex Luthor isn’t even live action, it’s animated. Clancy Brown is a cinema icon (The Kurgan anyone?) and his portrayal of Lex Luthor in the short-lived Superman: The Animated Series was nothing less than perfect. To quote Scott Thill from Wired magazine, Brown, “brought the perfect mixture of gravitas, humor, and conscienceless evil to the role.” “Conscienceless evil.” That’s Lex Luthor to a T. I remember the bald pate, the tailored suits, the baritone timbre of Brown’s voice; all of it made for a delicious Lex Luthor stew. Hell even 2009’s Batman/Superman: Public Enemies made Clancy Brown’s character the President of the United States, something fans would kill to see on the big screen.
MICHAEL ROSENBAUM (Smallville)
I loved Smallville, IDGAF. Yes it was on the WB Network (now the CW), yes it had a bit of a Dawson’s Creek feel to it the first couple seasons, yes the romantic stuff could get tedious; but for all that it was still a fun show. And one of the things that made that show great was Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. Although the creators of the show made the dubious choice of having Clark and Lex be friends before they were enemies (a bit of a tired trope admittedly), they never shirked their duty when it came to Lex’s personality. Rosenbaum’s Luthor was still greedy, ego-driven, and power-hungry. He was also manipulative, charming, and bordered on sociopathic. All ingredients for a great Lex Luthor and it pissed me off to no end that he was almost entirely absent the last three seasons. The show lost a little something when he departed.
If you take a second to step back and look at the polar opposites these two sets of examples are, the reason for the lack of a quality Lex Luthor on the big screen becomes clear. It boils down to one word: writing. As I said in regards to Eisenberg’s performance, he only conveyed what he was given by the screenwriters. The same can be said for the other examples I’ve given, both good and bad. The writers for both Smallville and Superman: The Animated Series fundamentally understood the character of Lex Luthor. That’s why Brown and Rosenbaum’s portrayals were so solid. Conversely the writers for Superman, Superman Returns, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice did not. In regards to a villain like Lex Luthor, acting talent is secondary. After all, all three of the actors who’ve played Luthor on the big screen have been nominated for Academy Awards.
When you look at the writing pool readily available to Hollywood, particularly in the comic book world, it’s patently obvious that the talent is there. Geoff Johns could have shit out a better script than Batman and Robin.
The fact that Hollywood has failed to generate a quality Lex Luthor on the big screen is completely inexcusable.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DarthGandalf1