Publicity Stunt Casting: The Eisenberg-Luthor Issue

68th Annual Golden Globe Awards Arrivals Kk13rC1WKOulLoading up Bleeding Cool one afternoon last month, I glimpsed the headline, “Jesse Eisenberg cast as Lex Luthor in Batman/Superman movie.” Chuckling, I checked my calendar. Nope, April Fool’s was still months away. Odd. Good joke, though. Wonder how many sites will start circulating the obviously fake story as legitimate. Later, ComingSoon.net did just that, it’s headline reading the same. Then Deadline’s, featuring a press release from director Zack Snyder himself. Journalists, straining to remain as objective as possible, opted for a collective, “Well…didn’t see that one coming.”

Huh, I thought. Well that’s dumb. So…why, exactly, Eisenberg?

You may consider this a rant on the matter if you wish, but these days I don’t take these things nearly as seriously. To think it was a mere four years ago when I was pacing the floor agitatedly upon learning Snyder would direct Man of Steel. I have to think that angry college freshman would’ve flown through the roof upon reading this news. Regardless, such a bizarre announcement practically demands I toss my two cents in.

Since the casting announcement, I’ve largely steering clear of much of the internet’s, say, less informed discussion on the matter. Even so, I’m keenly aware it’s gotten fans riled up like Ben Affleck never could, with most people just curious as to what the flying fuck these filmmakers are thinking. Then you’ve got those anti-haters, the tools of the group discussion who post, “It totally makes sense guys. Eisenberg played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he’s a modern-day Luthor, a tech-savvy, self-made businessman. And he’s so mousy, so you’d never expect him to be a threat to the world’s greatest champion.” It’s a lot of flimsy, long-winded, run-around garbage, people trying to justify how these filmmakers couldn’t go wrong. They can’t go wrong. Zack Snyder is a fucking visionary.

Then you’ve got those people who complain about people who complain about the complainers, evidently Monty Python fans.

My opinion, boiled down to its most basic, obvious truth: this casting blows.

But let’s backtrack. After Ben Affleck was announced to be playing Batman in the new film, the actor says heben-affleck-23 was able to take his criticism on the chin, but that it “seems odd” to judge a film’s cast before even seeing the movie. To an extent I agree, and certainly I’m saving my final judgment of the film for 2016. As with the case of seemingly every major tentpole movie these days, a certain degree of secrecy is required to keep fans from dissecting every element, every frame, every detail before the movie’s even out. So naturally, it makes sense to adopt a “wait and see” attitude without knowing much about what the final film will look like. Fair enough.

But dropping a huge bomb like the Eisenberg announcement, and expecting fans NOT to judge? Expecting fans not to start questioning the difference between Snyder entering a room of casting executives and saying, “Hey guys, let’s be bold and unexpected. Let’s take a chance on this actor and see what he does with the role,” and entering a room saying, “Guys, fuck everything, let’s hit so far into left field, that dude sitting in the nosebleed section will see his car getting hit by the ball in the parking lot.”?

That’s expecting a lot.

Here’s the difference: Ben Affleck is a bold and daring choice. Affleck fits perfectly with the prospect of an older, wiser, yet still handsome and physically fit Bruce Wayne. Performance unseen, his casting defies nothing of the typical, expected image of Bruce Wayne we’ve all come to know and love, nor does it impede any possibilities for Affleck to portray the character accurately and true to the source material. He is sensible left-field. Though there remains the unanswered question, does the actor overshadow the character? Will Affleck’s celebrity status purport not Batman, but Ben Affleck in a cape and cowl? I’m inclined to vote for the former, simply because, as evidenced by Val Kilmer’s charisma-less Dark Knight in Batman Forever, you can pretty much cast most traditional Hollywood leading men in the role and they’ll probably do a solid job at the very least.

Another in the sensible left-field category: Jeremy Irons as Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. Irons will no doubt put a fresh new spin on the character, and yet the actor still has the acting chops to play the traditional, fatherly Alfred of the comics we all know and love. That’s being faithful to the mythology while still doing something different and exciting that will get people talking.

Let’s say Snyder wants exactly that. Let’s say Eisenberg is exactly who the casting guys are looking for in an antagonist. In the furthest reaches of my logic, the best explanation I can come up with is this: after the (spoilers) neck-breaking climax of Man of Steel, Superman is left to grapple with his moral decision-making and overall code of ethics, to eventually and obviously settle upon a traditional “no-kill” policy. Then here comes “Luthor,” whom screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio have written to be mousy and meek, as a way of better challenging Supes to stay true to his new edict. Here is this absolute weakling, whom Supes knows he could snap in half with a flick of his finger, who nonetheless has power over him. Supes, in all his power, in all his strength, can do nothing when threatened by Luthor. It’s a continuation of the themes of Man of Steel, dealing with Superman’s everyday choice to let loose or exercise restraint.

Maybe this Luthor is designed to play up the contrasts between he and Superman. Maybe Luthor desires Superman’s strength and can’t have it, forced to compensate with his knowledge and technology. Maybe, where Clark earned his powers, Luthor had to work for his own abilities, leading him to hate Superman for his entitlement. All interesting contrasts to potentially be played up.

This all, of course, ignores the reality that Eisenberg’s casting completely flies in the face of who and what Lex Luthor is and always has been as a character. And Eisenberg cannot possibly hope to portray Luthor as written in any other medium, not now or ever.

To illustrate, this is Lex Luthor:

lexluthor

Note the physical stance in each of these images. Luthor is constantly in command, caught up in his own twisted vision of what society should be. He exudes one crucial element that sets him above not just Superman, but most of humanity – power. Luthor is a commanding presence, ruling LexCorp, Metropolis, and even the free world with an iron fist. He stands toe-to-toe with Superman both mentally, and in his power suit, physically. Luthor is power that can’t be found in a gym, or near a yellow sun, or even in a lifetime of experience. The guy is practically power personified, and suffice to say, power is not something that can be found from the shy, awkward kid from Adventureland.

I asked earlier if Affleck’s Batman will prove more Affleck than Batman. I pose the same question about Eisenberg: does the actor overshadow the character? In this case, absolutely. I could never see past Eisenberg to see Lex Luthor. He is senseless left-field, and unlike Affleck and Irons, could never hope to portray the Luthor of the source material. Eisenberg has no power. He has very little screen presence. He has no way to be taken seriously in any scenario involving power. He’s a fine actor, but his range is limited to arrested-development teenager roles and smug brats. He is everything that Luthor is not, to the point where suggesting him to play Superman’s greatest nemesis would have you laughed out of any respectable casting agency. Eisenberg is the internet troll’s ironic pick for Luthor in a fantasy casting discussion. And it’s ridiculous that this even has to be said, quite honestly.

I argue not only this, but that Eisenberg’s casting is a thoughtless maneuver designed merely to get people talking about the lore’s huge change in status quo. These days, comic book movies practically demand left-field casting, as anything less would almost surely be met with an indifferent yawn from audiences. But when you’re casting someone so blatantly unfitting for the role, now you’re no longer bringing the world of the comics to life. You’re no longer trying to faithfully adapt a beloved American mythology. You’re defying expectations for the sake of defying them, and spitting in the face of your predecessors’ legacy.

“But wait!” whine certain fans. “Remember how everyone hated the idea of Heath Ledger as Joker? Look how that turned out!” I regret I was among those who championed other actors above Ledger at the time of The Dark Knight, but these fans are missing the point. Nolan cast the left-field Ledger because he had a vision. Even in Man of Steel, Snyder’s cast is filled with big names for its own sake, the director merely aping Nolan’s casting methods on the Dark Knight films (and really, Richard Donner’s on Superman: the Movie). I argue that Snyder is casting Eisenberg not because he has a vision, but because he simply wants to defy expectations.

The casting also illustrates how Hollywood seems more concerned with casting names than complete unknowns. Why not branch out and search for a more fitting Lex Luthor, an actor who has a chance to embody the role? What happened to casting the best actor for the job, not simply going with the most unexpected choice for its own sake?

Imagine this. Back in 1976, both Christopher Reeve and Sylvester Stallone walk into Richard Donner’s office. Both have auditioned for the role of Superman in Richard Donner’s eponymous film. Donner turns to Reeve and says, “Kid, you’ve got all the right stuff, you’re a great actor, but we’ve decided to go with Sly here.”

“What?” says Reeve. “Why?”

“Well kid, he’s got some experience under his belt, that much is certain. And he’s Italian, which we hope will challenge a lot of the expectations that fans have for the character. After all, Superman isn’t just American, he’s a child of the world, right? Who says we can’t cast Sly just because he’s completely ill-fitting to portray the Superman people know and love?”

You get the picture. And because of it, a little bit of excitement for the ultimate DC Comics team-up movie dies inside me. All the same, best of luck to Eisenberg, no doubt the ultimate victim in all this, and destined to receive the tongue-lashing of a lifetime right up until the film’s release and possibly even after.

Still, good joke. Looking forward also to Florence Henderson as Doomsday.

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