WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead for 'Batman V Superman.'
Every hero needs a nemesis, and Lex Luthor is a staple of the Superman story. A calculating and immoral businessman, Luthor stands as the complete opposite to Clark Kent's altruism. Obviously, expectations were high for Jesse Eisenberg's interpretation of the classic character, and fans were intrigued by the casting.
As he is first and foremost a businessman, the Lex Luthors of the past have been predominantly played by imposing, middle-aged men (with the exception of Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville). While their personalities have differed, they all have the same basic characteristics: charm, ruthlessness and a calm facade.
Eisenberg clearly draws from this in his portrayal of Luthor and yet he brings something fresh to the role, which makes his millennial Lex the most original, and perhaps the best yet.
Eisenberg's Lex is clearly riffing off his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in the critically acclaimed The Social Network, and this is a very smart move on the part of the filmmakers.
The future of the business world is dominated by the startup market, a thriving shark tank full of young entrepreneurs making full use of social media and youth culture to boost their budding enterprises. It's fitting then, that the newest Luthor is Lex Junior; early marketing for the film revealed that this Lex's father is another Lex, not Lionel as in all previous incarnations of the character.
This makes the Lex Luthor of Batman V Superman a totally new character in the DC canon, allowing Eisenberg to reinvent the villain. And he really runs with this. Eisenberg upstages almost everyone he shares screen time with. He's erratic, oddly charming, masterfully manipulative and undeniably psychotic.
Instead of the control that other Lex Luthors before him assert, this Lex has a chaotic energy about him, making a very compelling character and the perfect foil to Henry Cavill's somewhat rigid Superman. Lex's angry outbursts belay a fury lurking just beneath the surface, barely contained and reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's version of Lex Luthor in Superman Returns.
And yet, Lex Luthor's characterization is the most interesting thing about him in Batman V Superman, as there is one thing in which he is sorely lacking: motivation.
The Grand Plan
What drives Lex Luthor to commit atrocities has been an important plot point of many Superman films and TV shows. Usually, Lex's chief motivation is money, and the ruthlessness to achieve wealth through the destruction of anything that stands in his way. This is crucial to Lex's villainy, as it reflects the real lengths people will go to for greed and power.
In both Superman (1978) and Superman Returns, what Lex wanted was real estate. In the TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, Lex had his hands in multiple criminal enterprises to bolster his own business interests (this is mirrored in Lex's connections to Gotham criminals in Batman V Superman). And Smallville spent years on Lex's origin story, revealing how he and Clark went from friends to enemies.
So what is Lex's motivation in Dawn Of Justice? I can tell you right now without spoiling anything: He doesn't seem to have one.
Lex's mission to defeat Superman is really fun to watch, as he moves all the pieces of his plan into place. His smear campaign against Superman is fantastically well thought out, his sizzling chemistry with Senator Finch is downright disturbing as he tries to influence her, and he even goes so far as to kill his assistant Mercy Graves (his longtime associate in the comics) to achieve his aims. It turns out that not only is Lex destroying Superman's public image, he's also slowly turning Batman against him so that the two will battle.
And then Lex makes his demand to Superman: Kill the Batman, or your mother will die. So, I guess he was really trying to kill Batman all along? Whether Lex is obsessed with killing Superman or Batman isn't made clear, and neither is his reasoning for this. You could chock it up to business rivalry turned sour — maybe Lex actually wants Bruce Wayne out of the picture — but there's no indication that Lex knows Batman's secret identity.
This lack of clear motivation is a real shame, because it not only undermines Lex's gravitas as a villain, it also means that Batman V Superman lacks a potentially interesting subplot. It wouldn't have been too difficult to inject this into the story (what if, in his fight with Zod, Superman had destroyed something Lex had been working on for years? Or maybe Lex has another grand plan he's concerned the heroes will foil) and yet it's just not there. Lex's obsession with metahumans, another potentially interesting plot point, also isn't explained.
Oh well. To criticize anymore would be to delve into nitpicking. Suffice to say that what Lex Luthor lacks in motivation he more than makes up for in characterization and a fantastically dramatic theme in Hans Zimmer's soundtrack.
With Lex safely locked away in prison at Dawn Of Justice's conclusion, and his sanity showing signs of deterioration, it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of this iconic villain yet. Which is for the greater good, as he's one of the best parts of Batman V Superman.