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In Defense of Jesse Eisenberg: Why We Think the Lex Luthor Casting is Brilliant

Jesse Eisenberg Lex Luthor
Sony Pictures

Today, two major characters were cast in Zack Snyder’s upcoming ‘Batman vs. Superman‘ (or whatever it’s going to be called). The news of the great Jeremy Irons being cast as Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred received a lot of satisfied head-nodding. The news of Jesse Eisenberg being cast as iconic Superman villain Lex Luthor received … Well, it received the exact kind of reaction you’d expect from Jesse Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luthor. It was a left-field casting decision for a character who has always been portrayed in a very specific way for three quarters of a century.

Those who aren’t bemused are baffled. Those who aren’t baffled are just plain annoyed (or even angry). How can that scrawny wiseass from ‘The Social Network’ be playing the sinister CEO of LexCorp? Won’t it be weird to see such a baby-faced youngster face down the square-jawed duo of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill? And — gasp! — he’s not even bald!

Yeah, it’s jarring casting. It’s out of nowhere. Jesse Eisenberg is very possibly the last person anyone expected to be cast as Lex Luthor. And, in an odd way, that’s why it may be completely brilliant.

There are things that are more important to the character of Lex Luthor than his age, physical stature and bald dome. Luthor is driven by a complex combination of ego and fear. Ego, because he’s a genius whose admittedly brilliant schemes are frequently thwarted by that blue-suited boy scout known as Superman. Fear, because in many incarnations of the character, Luthor genuinely sees Superman as a threat to Earth and believes that he is completely and totally justified in trying to take him out of the picture.

The Mark Zuckerberg/Lex Luthor jokes have already begun flying, but there’s a only a thin line between the DC’s universe’s Big Bad and Eisenberg’s Oscar-nominated take on Facebook’s CEO. Eisenberg may not fit the tough, wizened Luthor we were expecting (Mark Strong! Bryan Cranston!), but he can play egotistical in his sleep. More importantly, his work in ‘The Social Network’ showed that he can play a egotist whose sarcasm and biting remarks mask not only total genius, but a deep fear and self-loathing. Eisenberg’s Luthor probably won’t need any of that self-loathing, but it’s easy to see him finding the terror and anger that really drives Superman’s nemesis.

And, that’s before you get to the fact that watching the tiny Eisenberg battle two ripped superheroes could be just plain awesome. Unless the movie puts him in a powerful robot suit of some kind (and that’s the kind of thing that happens quite often in the DC universe), Luthor’s main weapon has always been his mind. When the noble, powerful Superman comes face-to-face with this skinny, fast-talking human, we’ll actually get to see a battle of wits, not a battle of people-throwing-people-through-buildings. If this take on Luthor sticks to current comic canon, his beef with Superman now takes on a powerful literalness — can one, small human really take down the Man of Steel? Luthor doesn’t know if he can defeat Superman, but he thinks that he has to.

Sure, there will be other necessary changes. Eisenberg is too young and ill-equipped to play the confident, self-made man of the comics. His Luthor will most likely be a wunderkind, the young genius made good (Ed. note: or, perhaps, the inheritor of LexCorp, which adds another “Daddy issue” wrinkle to the character). But, that stuff — the surface level stuff that geeks will obsess over for the next two years — is the least important. What’s important is that Eisenberg can capture the real Luthor, and we think he can. Few actors wield words as weapons quite like him. Few actors can inflate themselves with such sudden and powerful self-importance on screen. He’s a wolf masquerading as a sheep.

It’s surprising casting. It’s unexpected casting. Most importantly, it’s way too early to label it as bad casting.  The truth is that no one really knows anything about what ‘Batman vs. Superman’ is. The film doesn’t even have a proper title and the current fanboy reaction to Eisenberg is strictly a case of, “He doesn’t look like that in my comics!” Any deviation from comic book canon will stir up initial outrage, even if the final results win everyone over like Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight.’

So, let’s see what happens. We aren’t allowed to demand fresh storytelling and originality from DC and Warner Bros. and then freak out when a filmmaker tries something radically different (especially in the world of increasingly tired superhero movies). Jesse Eisenberg is Lex Luthor and that’s okay.

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