In defense of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor

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The following article contains spoilers for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Read at your own risk. 

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the most fascinating cinematic atom bombs to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. It has the box office bulk of The Avengers, but the critical reviews of Battlefield Earth. Nearly every plot point of DC’s white whale has created a heated debate that has raged across the internet since the film’s release last Friday. However, the one element that has managed to unite the majority of Dawn of Justice’s audience is the vitriol towards Jesse Eisenberg’s wildly subversive take on Superman’s iconic arch nemesis, Lex Luthor. It’s a turn that’s been widely labeled as a disastrous case of both poor screenwriting by Chris Terrio and serious over acting on the part of the Social Network star. However, I found that among the film’s many strange, disjointed and often flat out wacky decisions, this take on Luthor proved to be the heart of the film that many claimed was missing.

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By design, this Lex Luthor seems like an walking contradiction intended to deliver the exact opposite of what is expected of this character. The Luthor of the comics was a middle aged, bald headed and deeply sophisticated man who could crack the indestructible Man of Steel with the razor sharp words rolling off his tongue. Eisenberg on the other hand, is a rather young man, with the flowing hair of the lead singer in a jewish Nirvana cover band and the vocal fortitude of King George VI. However, the Superman who fought the original Luthor was something of a perfect angel. His moral code was unbreakable, even the face of the worst circumstances, so it’s only natural that his opponent be just as stable. This Superman, as established in Man Of Steel is anything but that. He’s a fairly blank slate in fact, deeply unsure of what his place in the world is or arguably how to save the people he’s fallen in love with. He’s a man who wants to live up to the godly image that the people of Metropolis have bestowed onto him, but isn’t sure. As such, what we get here is a Luthor, or should I say, Luthor Jr., who reflects that instability. When we meet this Lex, we discover that he also is desperately trying to live up to an image, that of Lex Luthor Sr., the man that both Metropolis, and the audience expects him to be.

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While the audience is never explicitly shown Lex Luthor Sr., it’s very easy to surmise what kind of man he was from Jr’s behavior. Terrio’s dialogue for Lex seems wordy and clunky on paper, almost as if it were out of a different time period, because that’s exactly what it is. This is a kid who lived his whole life in an industrial bubble, being told exactly what to read, believe and think from a man whose worldview was clearly forged through mega successful capitalism. Lex Luthor Sr. was so intelligent in fact, that he felt like a God himself, and treated his son as such. “Daddy’s fist,” is directly mentioned at one point, making it very clear that this dictator-like behavior was not strictly verbal either. This is the root of Luthor Jr.’s more unhinged tendencies, and why Eisenberg’s manic delivery of his dialogue is so perfectly measured. The greatest example comes fairly early in the film, when Lex attempts to deliver a speech at a party he throws. He starts to talk about how “books are knowledge and knowledge is power,” only to get caught up in the paradoxical nature of that sentence. That’s because that isn’t a sentence he wrote, but something that his abusive father would drill into his mind as objectively correct. This is an intelligent kid, but that intellect is now constantly correcting the script that’s been so heavily embedded in him since he was a kid. He’s not a bibliophile by choice, but as a reaction to the trauma he went through.

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This disjointed intelligence then bleeds into his evil plans, which many have criticized for not making sense. Well, those people are right. They’re not supposed to make sense. This is a deeply disturbed abuse victim whose primary motivation is to achieve a level of dominance that will somehow make his father proud. He’s bitterly angry at anybody who seems to be “all powerful” because he believes that it is impossible for that power to also be benevolent. As such, he goes as far as to find a Kryptonian ship and bestow upon himself the knowledge of two separate worlds. With the knowledge that he’s collected from the closet thing to a Kryptonian book, he intends to create a monster even more powerful than Superman in Doomsday, so that at the very least he can be in control of the most formidable entity in the world. It’s utter nonsense, a complete no win scenario for him and a paradox.

Sounds like daddy…

Dawn of Justice may not contain any origin stories for its many heroes, but it is in many ways exactly that for this iteration of Luthor. By the end of the film, when that lovely mop is shaved and he’s thrown in jail, he knows exactly how deeply his actions have endangered the world. However, just like his father before him, he’s too arrogant to admit it. He’s an anarchist, who is along for the ride of the destruJesse-Eisenberg-Lex-Luthor-Hate-coverction of the world as long as his name can be recorded in the history books as the one who started it. That, to me, is exactly what Lex Luthor is supposed to be. Sure, we’ve swapped out a seasoned, confident force of nature for an unhinged, terrified one, but the primary motivation is exactly the same. There is a whole lot that does not make sense about this film, and ultimately, there are a lot of areas where it could have improved. However, as far as I’m concerned, this take on Lex Luthor is perhaps the most fascinating piece of this DC Universe so far, and has me very much looking forward to what happens next.

Ding Ding Ding, Ding Ding Ding

For my full review of Dawn of Justice head over to:

https://fairbanksonfilm.wordpress.com/2016/03/25/batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-review/

When Michael Fairbanks first saw Sam Rami's Spider-Man film back in 2002, everything changed. The experience began a lifelong passion for cinema that has gone undeterred since. In 2009 he began reviewing movies on Youtube, which ultimately sprang into a lifelong passion for film criticism and entertainment reporting. He is currently studying screenwriting at Chapman University. Aside from seeing movies, Michael enjoys making bad puns while playing video games, going on long late night drives, and socializing over large plates of food. For more of Fairbanks' movie reviews check out: https://fairbanksonfilm.wordpress.com
  • Corvo

    Wow, such a lowsy defense for such an awful character. And then you gave a bad review to Civil War??? Your partiality is pretty obvious.

  • stahl macintyre

    Yes and he has put far more thought into the mythos, pathos and inner struggle of Eisenberg’s take on Luthor than both Goyer, Terrio or Eisenberg…

  • DarkoCool

    You seem to be one of the few reviewers who actually “gets” the character. Bravo!