The dirt on Clark Kent’s casket at the end of BvS is the Ultimate Edition. It takes your attention away from the big flaws of the movie, but it doesn’t cover it up.
There is one primary reason Batman vs. Superman wasn’t a great film. The Ultimate Edition upgrades it to a more palpable pace and narrative development. Yet, the film still has major flaws.
One heaping, huge flaw is Lex Luthor, specifically Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex. The flaw isn’t just the portrayal of Lex, the acting, the mannerisms, the character development, or his significance in the plot. It isn’t about Jesse Eisenberg alone either. It is what Lex does to the film that poisons the movie's conflict and characters. Spoiler's follow as we break it down.
Eisenberg’s Lex is the single worst thing in BvS. It isn’t simply a personal preference on the actors performance or a dislike of the actor himself. The delivery of the character Lex clouds the motives of the villain. Lex confuses the plot. He creates a far more crowded feel to an already packed movie. Lex drags down the movie's pace, tone, and feel. This atmosphere suppresses the conflict with the hero, Superman, and draws out the narrative movement of the plot. Simply, Lex drags the film down from greatness to mediocrity. Here is a breakdown of how he kills the film instead of just Superman.
Good Start ---->> Poor Execution
Lex starts off with a solid creative basis and decent enough writing. Geoff Johns and the creative team for the movie got the core of the character relatively on target.
In the Special Features of the Ultimate Edition, the creative team discuss several points they conceived correctly, at least within the gray area of personal opinion. The stature of Lex vs the physicality of the heroes - excellent. The continued modernization of Lex as a corporate leader - good, good. They discuss his villainous archetype, the opposite villain and his motives - well thought out and on target. His intelligence comes to the forefront. His motives under-develop but remain near the core of the character. This is Lex’s first film in the new DCEU after all. The character's score is as excellent as it is villainous, calculating, dramatic, and poignant with a hint of madness. That's about all the positives you can take from Lex, conceptual goals and a good musical score.
Lex Luthor Without An Immeasurable Ego Is Not Lex At All
The film misses on one of the biggest core characteristics of Lex. If Lex had a super power, it would be his intelligence or his ego. Each are equally important to his character. Eisenberg’s delivery circumvents this very important characteristic. The core characterizations of Lex as calculating, intelligent, ruthless and cerebral lose focus. Instead, a zany portrayal full of twitchy, kooky movements and excessive voice pitch variance come to the forefront. These physical traits serve more to distract from characterization than service narrative development.
From the moment we met BvS's Lex, it is clear he is more BS than substance. Lex the intellectual giant, power broker, immeasurable egotist is replaced with a squirming, adolescent, twitchy victim.
As he speaks with the Senator in his father’s room, he shutters and twitches. When the Senator stops his hands from strumming on the table, he visibly cowers. Lex is a powerful, strong, and willful villain. He isn't powerful like Superman physically, but he is confident and intensely egotistical in his brilliance. He doesn't cower to physical touch. Luthor then tries to deliver, the “biggest lie in America” line to the Senator for the first time. Lex’s mouth twitches rapidly and his voice whispers. He doesn’t come off as colorful or interesting, rather as weak and odd. Lex seems to sniffle, touch his nose, or twitch his eyes in the middle of almost every line he delivers.
In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger brilliantly licked his scars as a portrayal of madness in a villain who was truly unhinged. Lex goes over the top with quirks that distract rather than enhance. These quirks and squirmy behavior undermine the core of Lex Luthor as an egotistical, brilliant villain. The character’s underlying and interesting core hides behind a "kooky Lex."
Zach Snyder says in the Special Features that "you never quite know what to do with Lex." Agreed, but not in a good plot servicing sense. The difference is physical versus cerebral. Lex’s archetype and brilliance as a villain is in being the opposite of Superman. Superman is alien, physically powerful, and just, never crossing the line. He is often called a boyscout. Lex is human, flawed. He is also brilliant, calculating, egotistical, confident, and willing to do whatever he deems necessary. Superman’s power is physical and Lex’s is mental. They both have similar motives to champion humanity, protect humanity. Eisenberg’s Lex fails to portray this dichotomy. Lex is so physically twitchy, kooky, and boisterous that we never fully experience his message. The cerebral side hides behind a veil of squeaky laughs, sniffles, and odd facial ticks. He never delivers on the poignant speech. Yet, Lex is almost always delivering a monologue. It doesn't come off as powerful, rather weak. Lex is anything but weak, a victim.
Eisenberg's Physical Portrayal Of Lex Distracts More than It Informs The Narrative
If you are going to have a character grandstand as much as this Lex (nearly every scene with Lex), maybe he should be somewhat accessible. The grand monologue suits Lex's villainous ego. Yet, they are stripped of their dramatic power by Eisenberg's twitchy portrayal.
Lex’s motives are especially authentic and relevant in today’s world of Brexit and Donald Trump. Xenophobia is very real today. Eisenberg has talked about this as part of the conflict in a BvS interview around the movie's debut. Fear of those different from yourself is a powerful issue in global culture. The chance to tap into this relevance setup by Man of Steel is missed. Behind the twitchy, odd behavior, the wide spectrum of his movements, facial nuances, and the shrill adolescence of his voice, the greater conflict and relevance is left inaccessible.
The characterization of Lex is all but lost in the performance. We start one scene with him playing basketball and end it with him feeding candy to a government official at LexCorp. Lex oddly feeding a grown man a piece of hard candy confuses the plot and the villain's motives. It’s over the top for a character that is prideful and egotistical. Lex the grand leader of humanity, the smartest man on earth would never stoop to this kind of odd behavior.
At the museum benefit, Eisenberg continues to completely confuse a well-written speech. Instead of revealing Lex’s real character motives, we get more odd, twitchy behavior as he stops, starts, goes off topic then back on. Lex even talks to himself as he loses his train of thought. Lex's ego would never allow him to show this kind of vulnerability. That works if you are showing a character that is losing himself, again like a different villain: The Joker. And so, Lex serves to blur the plot rather than bring out the conflict. He blinks his eyes so many times, so rapidly between snickering, swarmy laughs that whatever he is trying to communicate as a character is shrouded in a fog of overacting and misrepresentation.
In the case of the museum scene, this is a huge moment for characterizing Lex as the man vs a god. Lex believes he is fighting FOR humanity against Superman. Superman forces Lex to realize Lex only fights for Lex. This is where a well developed hero and villain conflict with each other like iron sharpens iron. Luthor believes he should be our champion and not this dangerous alien. He becomes a villain when his ego forces him to cross the line. It's Lex's ego that drives him to go beyond protecting humanity to desiring to rule man, a line Superman never crosses. In the speech, he is trying to tell us who Lex is as a character within a poignant metaphor. All of that great character development is lost in Eisenberg’s execution. “Hmmmm, that seems unfair!” (Raising the pitch of his voice and verbally smirking.) Wonder Woman and those in the audience roll their eyes at this show.
Lex wreaks havoc on the entire movie. When he walks up to interrupt a brilliant conversation between Bruce and Clark, his voice vacillates pitch so much he nearly shrieks. This isn't a powerful, confident, ego-driven character like Lex Luthor. This is a beaten up, scarred victim trying to stand tall next to two giant heroes. Lex is a powerful, intimidating sneer, not shrieks and facial ticks. The brilliance of Lex is that he stands toe to toe with Superman and Batman with his intellect. But Eisenberg plays him like an adolescent used car salesman on a Red Bull rush. If Lex had a superpower beyond a brilliant mind, it would be an unsurpassed ego. Yet, Bruce’s reference to clowns is almost his cue to enter the scene. Again, is he the Joker or the brilliant power broker on the marquee?
The real detriment to the film is much more widespread through the narrative. Eisenberg’s very chaotic delivery blunts and blurs Lex’s motives and thus the conflict of the movie. This forces the film to re-tread the theme dulling its delivery, extending, and convoluting the conflict. For example, Snyder follows up his speech at the museum benefit with scenes of Superman floating above a flood disasters and pulling a ship through ice as talking heads like Neil deGrasse Tyson re-explain the ‘god’ conflict to the audience. It’s almost in the same exact terms. The narrative extends. The message is diluted. Lex couldn’t stay focused enough to deliver the conflict with any coherence so now we have to find a different way to tell you the same thing again. The latter being sadly a much better delivery of the conflict than the chief villain.
Masters Of Madness
This major flaw is not only a failed opportunity to bring a great villain like Lex into the contemporary relevance, it completely gets in the way of the success of this film. Take the juxtaposition of some excellent villains from past DC movies.
First, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. He was able to very effectively deliver a nuanced, very colorful villain, yet also present the psychology of the character to the audience in an especially poignant way. Ledger had all the trappings of an eccentric character. The Joker displayed facial ticks, an odd speech pattern, a specific way of movement, but it never got in the way of itself. He kept it nuanced enough to deliver the core of the character to the audience. The villain enhanced the action and conflict of the film. Lex clouds it. The performance and character also made the primary hero more nuanced as you learned about Batman through the actions of the Joker. The framework is there for Eisenberg’s Lex. There is a compelling character conflict. There is a fresh and interesting take on the xenophobia of Superman vs. Lex. But none of that is accessible with this Lex.
Second, take the Lex before Eisenberg. Superman Returns wasn’t a great success and had its flaws as a film, but Lex wasn’t one of them. Kevin Spacey plays a maniacal and nuanced, though not highly layered Lex Luthor. It’s a much more mature portrayal and a nod to Gene Hackman’s Lex from the Donner Superman films. Yet, Spacey still manages to deliver the core conflict of the story as well as the hero vs. villain. The ego of Lex shines throughout the narrative. He rants, raves, gives speeches, but doesn’t get in the way of the character or the story. He facilitates it.
It is really just a shame. Picture a film with a Lex that delivers on the promise of the character and embodies the conflict of the story. That film is more focused. That film has a much more accessible and interesting conflict. That film is relevant. That villain teaches Superman what kind of hero the world needs him to be. That film has a more deep hero because the villain pulls out the hero's greatness by challenging him on an accessible level. That film can more adequately handle the weight of multiple character introductions and set up an entire universe of films. It has more time to spend on other characters because the core conflict is sharpened. That is a film that stands among the pantheon of great superhero movies.
Instead, we get a film that is exceptionally enjoyable in places yet cavernously flawed and convoluted in others. I hope Lex gets better in future films because he is one of the great villains of an incredibly deep and diverse DC universe.