If you thought the Internet had strong feelings about Ben Affleck playing Batman, just wait until you hear the latest news about Batman Vs. Superman. Warner Bros. announced on Friday that Jeremy Irons is set to step into the impeccably shined shoes of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, and that Jesse Eisenberg will take on the role of Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor. The news comes as a surprise, since the studio was recently rumored to be considering older actors like Bryan Cranston and Joaquin Phoenix for the role, but according to director Zach Snyder, casting Eisenberg allows them to explore the “interesting dynamic” between Lex and Superman as well as allowing them to “take the character in some new and unexpected directions.”
Rather than relying on strength or superhuman powers, Lex Luthor has always used his superior intellect, vast amounts of wealth and high social standing to challenge Superman, and has been his most significant adversary since the 1940s. The character is often portrayed as a mad scientist type, and spends a great deal of time inventing and developing weapons to take down his rival, as well has playing a major part in the creation of several other Superman villains. He is considered to be one of, if not the smartest character in the DC universe, which has helped him in the various career changes that he had undertaken of the years, from scientist to multinationalist to President. In the press release, Snyder described Luthor as “a complicated and sophisticated character,” who “exists beyond the confines of the stereotypical nefarious villain,” making him one of the most interesting super villains in comic book history.
All of which brings us to the obvious question: Can Eisenberg pull this off? We decided to look at both sides of the debate, in order to see where this casting will go right, and where it might go horribly wrong.
WHY WE’RE IN FAVOR
The actor is best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network, where he played Mark Zuckerberg, who was characterized in the film as an incredibly smart, incredibly rich, arrogant jerk — all of which are traits that can be applied to Lex Luthor. Eisenberg has a great deal of experience playing harsh, unlikeable characters, and has proven that he can keep unlikable people from becoming unwatchable, as well as showcasing the different perspectives and experiences that made them they way they are. The best super villains have those shades of grey, and allow the audience to sympathize with them, even when they are doing despicable things. Casting Eisenberg as Luthor proves that Snyder is looking to create a villain whose motivations the audience can understand, and who can exist outside of the black and white world of good and evil.
Eisenberg can also play menacing, and play it well. The courtroom scenes in The Social Network are a perfect example of his ability to be both threatening and dismissive, able to stand up for himself and to ignore the people and things that he doesn’t deem worth his time. Luthor famously believes everyone else in the universe to be less intelligent, and therefore less important, than himself, and those are character beats which Eisenberg has experience playing. Even in the film Now You See Me, he is able to convey a sense of menace towards the police officers who are interrogating him. His character is by turns bored, annoyed and threatening, culminating in the moment where he provokes the officer just so he can outwit him and handcuff him to the table. Luthor needs to always seem like he’s thinking several steps ahead of everyone else, and Eisenberg gives off the impression that he is constantly out thinking everyone around him.
Eisenberg has mastered the unblinking stare, which he uses often whenever his characters are attempting to intimidate or outsmart the people around him. In those moments, he is excellent at conveying both challenge and threat. He wants you to make the first move, just so that he can make you regret it, and that’s a quality that he will be able to bring to Luthor’s showdowns with Superman. The two characters are perpetually engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse, with Luthor using intellect to make up for what he lacks in brawn. Superman needs an opponent who seems like he is genuinely scary, and who has a contingency plan for every move that he makes in order to heighten the suspense of their fights. If Luthor can’t physically fight Superman, he needs to use the skills he does have to become a genuine threat, and Eisenberg can pull that off.
Plus, he seems like the kind of kid who would become a mad scientist. Eisenberg gives off the impression that he was the nerd who everyone picked on in school, until he decided to take over the world and make them regret it. He seems like the kind of person who would remember every slight, every insult and every backhanded compliment that anyone ever paid him, and used it a fuel to become the most powerful man in the world. Snyder hasn’t revealed how much of Luthor’s backstory will be featured in the film, but there’s likely going to be some reference to the incidents that cause him to turn evil. Eisenberg will be able to portray both the pain and the rage that make up who Luthor is, and he’ll be able to sell it in a big speech.
If you actually take a moment to think about Eisenberg and the characters he’s chosen in the past, the decision to cast him makes a lot more sense. Sure, he doesn’t look anything like the Luthor in the comics, but there are very few actors who are able to play the “surprisingly menacing nerd” better than he can. If Snyder wants a grittier, darker superhero film, he’s going to need a villain who feels realistically terrifying, and Eisenberg is just the guy to pull that off.
WHY WE’RE WARY
There’s no doubt that Eisenberg will be able to pull off the “menacingly smart” aspects of Lex Luthor, but the character was more than just an evil scientist. He ran a major multi-national company, he ran for and held public office, and he was a power player in high society, and all of those things require a great deal of charisma to pull off. The only way that Luthor would be able to convince so many people to vote for him or help him carry out is plans is by being charming enough to balance out the arrogance that comes with his brains. Eisenberg doesn’t exude that kind of charisma, which makes it hard to picture him being able to balance both his career as a super villain and his responsibilities as a member of society. Can you picture Eisenberg running for public office? Not really. Can you picture him charming his way through business meetings? Still no. Intellect and confidence can only take the character so far, and unless Snyder is planning to drop these aspects of Luthor’s life, then it might be difficult for Eisenberg to capture him properly.
That’s not to say that Eisenberg doesn’t give of any charm whatsoever; in fact, his more comedic roles have it in spades. But his charm is less the confident, engaging charisma that we would associate with a politician or a CEO, and more the kind of bumbling awkwardness that makes his characters so endearing and hilarious. That kind of charm simply won’t work for Luthor, as it will undermine the authority and gravitas that a proper super villain requires, but since we haven’t seen anything else form him yet, it’s hard to picture Eisenberg effortlessly winning people over with a well-timed joke.
Then, there’s the issue of his physical appearance. Let’s start with the obvious: Lex Luthor is bald, Eisenberg is the opposite. In fact, his hair has become something of a trademark for him, and as a result, it is incredibly difficult to envision him without any hair. However, it’s an important and iconic trait of the character, serving as both an easy way to identify him and as a reminder of the backstory that spawned his lifelong hatred of Superman. Whether they shave his head or give him a bald cap, Eisenberg is going to have to go bald one way or another, and it doesn’t seem like it will work for either the actor or the character. It’s hard to imagine Eisenberg bald as anything other than a goofy visual gag, but Luthor needs to exude confidence and gravitas despite his lack of hair. It’s the character’s signature, the thing that defines him and makes him stand out, and there’s no way that will work if the actor portraying him looks goofy and weird without any hair.
Luthor is also meant to be physically imposing, which, coupled with his intelligence, allows him to intimidate everyone around him. He’s usually tall and broad, and despite not possessing any sort of superhuman strength, he usually looks like he would win in a fight. Eisenberg is not particularly intimidating. Sure, he would likely best you when it comes to witty comebacks, and he could easily destroy someone’s psyche in a few sentences, but there’s no way that anyone would watch him fight Henry Cavill and feel any kind of suspense as to the outcome. He also tends to give of the impression that he’s slouching, which makes him seem smaller and more nervous that he might actually be. Despite actually being a confident person, Eisenberg doesn’t often let that come across, and so the impression that people get from him is one of awkwardness and anxiety, and neither of those things will help him hold his own onscreen with Cavill and Affleck.
Let’s face it: if the villain isn’t imposing or intimidating in some way, then it becomes clear that the hero will win, and there’s no point to following the story. Eisenberg definitely doesn’t look like he could take anyone in a fight, which makes it hard to imagine him in a showdown against Superman. It seems as if Snyder is interested in exploring all of the aspects of Luthor’s character, not just the super intelligence, but it’s hard to picture Eisenberg being able to portray anything else.