‘Batman v Superman’: Why Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor Works

For better or worse, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has been let loose on the world, and fans are far more divided than critics on whether the film lived up to expectations. One of the most hotly debated elements of the film, however, has nothing to do with the two icons of the film’s title. Rather, Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor has been a big discussion point, considering how much of a departure this incarnation of the character is from those by Oscar winners Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. However, perhaps Eisenberg’s role in Batman v Superman isn’t as much of a travesty as some may say.

The film establishes early on that this Lex isn’t the self-made billionaire with the stone-faced professional demeanor that hides a sinister side. Instead, director Zack Snyder’s Lex is quickly identified as a spoiled rich kid with a superiority complex and a more-than-complicated relationship with his father. Think of Eisenberg’s Luthor as a heightened mash-up of the actor’s Oscar-nominated role as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Michael Rosenbaum’s fan-favorite portrayal of Lex Luthor on Smallville. As such, Eisenberg’s Lex is given a bit more leeway to stray from Luthor convention, and Snyder theoretically gets to deliver his own spin on the classic DC villain.

Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | Source: Warner Bros.

However, this is not to say that the Lex of Batman v Superman isn’t a sociopathic maniac that calls to mind far more over-the-top performances (most often, Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman Forever) that directly contrasts with the gritty, scowling versions of Batman and Superman that headline the film. But that’s precisely the point. Eisenberg’s Lex is a wound-up character who steadily unravels as the film progresses, culminating in the film’s climactic scene with Superman. True, the film does a disservice to the actor by never clarifying his character’s true motivation other than some vague allusions to his thirst for power, but the fault for this lies more on the shoulders of screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio than on Eisenberg’s performance.

In fact, Eisenberg’s quirk-laden performance is more in line with the dark but fun tone that those who have criticized Henry Cavill’s dreary portrayal of Superman may have preferred to the humorless approach Snyder has implemented since day one. In an instance, the character alternates from hilariously bizarre to genuinely creepy, and as it stands, Batman v Superman‘s Lex Luthor serves as a welcome respite to the convoluted muddled plot and delivers some of the strongest (and strangest) character moments in what is arguably the most committed performance in the entire film.

Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | Source: Warner Bros.

Sure, his performance has its fair share of moments that may have benefited from being taken down a notch (OK, perhaps more than a fair share). Nevertheless, Eisenberg stands out from the rest of the film’s at-odds-with-itself narrative, oftentimes wringing more on a pure entertainment level than the CGI-heavy effects and contrived plot points (ahem, “Martha,” anyone?). Plus, the way that Snyder and his team have set up the character allows for plenty of room for growth.

By casting a much younger, more modern version of the character, Snyder instantly sets his Lex apart from previous versions, leaving the door open for Eisenberg’s character to evolve over time into the archetypal villain fans may have been hoping for or — as some have already theorized — allowing for the possibility that the elder Luthor could emerge in future films.

Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable

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