Op-ed: Thoughts On Jesse Eisenberg Cast As Lex Luthor


More Batman vs. Superman vs. The World Shenanigans

By Lawrence Napoli



I’d like to formally introduce you all to the Hollywood “Wait and Guess” game.  It’s a game that entertainment journalism is most familiar with, but since the ‘90s has been intricately woven into the fabric of Western pop culture for the average John and Jane Doe.  The global demand for entertainment is insatiable.  So even before any production gets even the slightest hint of green-lit glory, every media entity dives head first into every rumor and infuses the commentary with as much speculation as possible to fill time slots and web pages.  We all want to experience something new and fantastic from the Hollywood Machine so desperately that we want to consume it before it is even produced.  Thus, we “Wait and Guess” before the next mega-budget blockbuster gets released to satisfy our appetites in the meantime with dialogue, debate and (more often than not) fanboy grudge matches. 

So now I’m going to “Wait and Guess” (or “Obsess and Criticize”) the latest curiosity released by Warner Bros. regarding the fluctuating state of what seems to be a very ambitious movement to breath cinematic life into the Justice League.  Jesse Eisenberg has been cast as Lex Luthor.  Comments?  Questions?  Concerns?  I’ll bet there are plenty of all of the above, but I’ll also bet that this actor wasn’t on anyone’s theoretical top 10 or even 20 casting call lists for this particular role.  When I first heard his name I instantly thought, “Is it really big news for who’s been cast as Jimmy Olsen?  Oh Wait.  He’s going to be Lex?” 


Eisenberg is an A-lister that has done well in both the studio and indie scene with roles that have regularly seen him tip toe between the lines of comedy and drama.  He has shown an ever increasing range of acting ability in his expanding filmography, but still manages to hover around a certain character type.  Do you need an awkward and atypical yet sympathetic hero to root for?  He did a great job for that role in Adventureland and Zombieland (both in 2009).  Do you need an awkward and sniveling yet sympathetic antagonist to root against?  I give another solid checkmark for him in The Social Network (2010).  He’s a solid actor that can give you more than you expected for roles that fit him visually, and he’s to be congratulated for an excellent career that will only get more visibility (and roles offered him) by hooking up with a big budget, comic book adaptation.

However, I simply do not see him as Lex Luthor outside of one of these scenarios: 1) a spoof, 2) a decoy (perhaps used as a younger Lex in flashbacks or a red herring like Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin), or 3) a complete reinvention of the character, written from the ground up and tailor-made for Eisenberg taking full advantage of his every idiosyncrasy.  Chances are that option number three is the closest to what the production team is going for, although I wouldn’t count on that level of intricate character writing for everyone in the cast.  But, then it seems the concept of “different” is defining this production more and more.  Batman’s costume is getting all kinds of recognition for being different.  The casting of a rail thin actress in Gal Gadot is very different for a character always depicted as a curvy, sometimes very muscular, but a certainly fuller bodied woman in Diana Prince/Wonder Woman.  The DC and Warner Bros. strategy for introducing their superheroes into this cinematic reality is very different (almost the exact opposite) from Marvel’s.  Superman kills people … that’s pretty different.


The casting situation for what seems to be the Justice League Light movie is unconventional to say the least, so much so, that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Jonah Hill cast as the Flash who’s obese Barry Allen will be struck by the lightning of the Speed Force and will have the most dramatic body transformation this side of “The Biggest Loser.”  It could happen.  Anything could, and maybe that’s what Warner Bros. wants us all to think?  The only problem is that in an effort to out-think or over-think the conceptually simple (yet unprecedented) task of making the Justice League a live action reality, the end result is so far removed from any previous depiction of those characters and those kind of stories that you lose your fan base entirely as well as your most vigorous source of word of mouth advertising – the gateway to attracting audiences outside the target demographic which yields Avengers and Avatar levels of cash – which is what this is all about.

So we are left with the fact that Jesse Eisenberg will be Lex Luthor, and it could very well be that he delivers a transformative performance that would eclipse Heath Ledger’s Joker with a dedication to discover Lex as a character beyond the level of obsession.  He could also deliver a completely unexpected and charismatic Lex that the audience finds charming in his ability to insert foot-into-mouth regularly while still being a force to be reckoned with.  Yes, it could very well be that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavil stand next to Eisenberg on screen and sell Luthor as an actual threat to audiences around the world.  Maybe none of this happens.  


I can appreciate Gene Hackman’s and Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Luthor as much as the next person, but I always felt that the no-nonsense, intellectual hubris and unwavering confidence of the Lex from the Superman Animated series or the one that runs for President in the comics or the one that organizes the “Mankind Liberation Front” in Ross and Waid’s Kingdom Come is the kind of Luthor that could actually go toe-to-toe with both Batman and Superman in a live action adaptation.  Eisenberg has never been tasked with portraying this kind of character (as in this particular level of “Lex Luthor”), and it remains to be seen if this kind of character is anyone’s goal in the first place.  If it is, no amount of extreme fashion makeover for Eisenberg can generate the kind of screen presence that this kind of Luthor requires.  Sure, great performances can transcend a lot of things, but an actor’s body and voice are essential tools in the formation of character, and neither in Eisenberg’s possession equate to the hyper-alpha-male of the Lex Luthor I’m thinking about.  A director doesn’t cast an actor that doesn’t have the things you want in a character.  One could, but this would be subscribing to the aforementioned “over-thinking” of this character in the first place.  Suffice it to say that Eisenberg’s Luthor will neither pay homage to the past nor embody a realization of the ideal, but he will be … “different.”


The point is that the pressure is on (and has always been to match Marvel’s Avengers) once the decision was made to turn the Man of Steel sequel into whatever it’s ultimately going to be titled and whatever kind of superhero movie it’s trying to be.  The big names representing the big characters are still there, but their revelation has split fans into pro’s, con’s and apologists (“so and so wouldn’t be my pick, but let’s give them a chance … yada, yada, yada”).  Polarizing a potential audience that could very well be every man, woman and child on this planet could not have been something desired by casting director, Kristy Carlson, but it continues to do exactly that.  I realize she helped Zack Snyder construct such legendary casts as those seen in Watchmen (2009) and Sucker Punch (2011), but it will be interesting to find out after this movie is finally made and released to the public how many of these decisions were actually hers and how many were Snyder’s or DC’s or (most importantly) Warner Bros.’s.  Maybe we’ll never know, but she is still credited as the casting director, so I presume she has some say in the matter. 

It seems the success of this next installment of the Justice League movement depends entirely on whether the audience likes “different” or not.  That is until Verne Troyer is cast as Darkseid.  Then, the franchise will officially be a flaming wreck of Hollywood mismanagement and utter cluelessness.