An exploration of the philosophy and motivations of this largely reviled iteration of the iconic Superman antagonist
lexophile (plural lexophiles). Noun
A lover of words, especially in word games, puzzles, anagrams, palindromes, etc.
One of the main points of contention with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice across the greater fandom was Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. Gone was the strapping, bald, calculating business mogul familiar to most; and most were taken by surprise at the socially awkward, click-laden and fidgety, Silicon valley, tech-billionaire version of the character – not so dissimilar in background to the Zuckerbergs and Jobs of the world. As in all dramatized fan outcry, most viewers asserted that this iteration of the character was an insult to the traditional versions of the character, and that Jesse Eisenberg was just playing himself, or some distorted version of the Riddler or the Joker, due to his surface level mannerisms.
But, allow me a few minutes to convince you otherwise. Luthor has not always been the confident, strapping, well-built, calculating businessman archetype that was soldified by John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. The Luthor of the Golden and Silver Age of comic books was a mad-scientist first and foremost in terms of the former, and an obsessive genius in the latter era, tying into the strings of the Golden Age. Our Luthor in Batman v Superman too is a mad scientist, what with his kryptonite exploration and genetic engineering of Doomsday, among other things. We see shades of his ability to be a political maverick of sorts too, attempting to manipulate the Senators in the movie to allow authorization to engineer kryptonite as a planetary defense system – we don’t have to use a silver bullet, but if we forge one, we don’t have to depend on the kindness of monsters either.
But let’s pause for a moment and just look at him. No, really, just look at him. The cockiness, the surety, the neurotic gaze, those heavy brows and cheekbones and slimy gate – all emanate this almost exaggerated sense of villainy that was so perfectly in contrast to the hulking yet heroic presences of Henry Cavill (Superman) and Ben Affleck (Batman). Eisenberg is the most interesting character in the movie if one sees beyond the quirks – but that in itself is the point. One thing, to note, however, is that the character is bald (pictured) only at the end of the movie during the time of his incarceration. The majority of the movie sees someone more in line with the iteration seen in the flashbacks of Lex in the book Superman: Birthright (by Mark Waid) or Superman: Secret Origin (by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank).
Similar? Kind of, at least? In particular, I as a viewer loved the idea that this was someone who had an abusive childhood and yet, due to being from a privileged background concurrently, he also developed this heightened sense of entitlement and a resentment bubbling under the surface, all too reflective of some of us millennials.
Luthor is essentially a resentful atheist, which is why the idea of Superman in itself is abhorrent to his very world-view and an existential disruption tying into his emotional trauma. Especially, because there was no Superman or God to save him from the abusive nature of his father – in line with the running theme in the movie of living up to one’s fabled and romanticized paternal legacy.
I seek to explore the philosophical motivations, references and allusions that forge Lex Luthor from BvS as, in my opinion, one of the most compelling and interesting villains, that has been unfairly maligned for not being a clean-and-cut copy of the archetypal Luthor that was introduced in the mid-1980s. Instead, he is more of an amalagam of the various iterations across the ages, and of course, very much his own character all the same.
Luthor stands out in the sea of generic comic-book villains because he is one of the few, who, in the context of this film, actually wins. Luthor’s entire plan hinges on ensuring not only the meticulous political character assassination of Superman and not allowing him to voice his side of the story (Capitol Bombing), but also ensures a distinct lack of interaction between our two protagonists to heighten the ideological tension between the two. This is genius, as more interaction between Supes and the Bat would in turn would lead to increasing common ground, but we wouldn’t want that would we?
Yes he’s quirky, awkward, slimy and obnoxious. But as I’ve mentioned, that isthe point, and all part of the manipulative act. So, without further ado, let’s get into an in-depth analysis on this Lexophile (see what I did there?) of a character below:
Lex Luthor: The Lexophile
- The story of Icarus is referenced both in the Metropolis Library fundraiser and as he mixes his blood with Zod’s corpse (“You flew too close to the sun”) while genetically engineering Doomsday. Also interesting to note that Lex is subject to the Icarus paradox – he is too smart for his own good. The very intelligence and intellectual prowess that aided him in elevating LexCorp in becoming the industry stalwart it is, also led to his downfall and subsequent incarceration.
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is referenced during the Lois Lane confrontation on the helipad: “Plane Lo in the morning. Lola in slacks.” Also, this somewhat fits well with the sleazy nature of Luthor viz. the pedophilic undertones of the novel.
- French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of le savoir-pouvoir or power-knowledge i.e power is based on knowledge and makes use of knowledge; on the other hand, power reproduces knowledge by shaping it in accordance with its anonymous intentions. Power (re-) creates its own fields of exercise through knowledge. A direct parallel to his dialogue “The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge with no power, because that is paradoxical“.
- “Late late says the White rabbit” based on Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(and its various adaptations across media).
Luthor’s Epicurean paradox —
- Lactantius’s De Ira Dei (On the Anger of God), attributed to Epicurus, parralels Lex’s The problem of evil and his problem with the aspirationally omniscient nature of Superman — “If He wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?“
- Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) by Scottish philosopher David Hume in the context of Epicurus — “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?“
- “I don’t hate the sinner. I hate the sin. And yours, my friend, is existing.” American scholar Victor Brombert’s commentary (Flaubert’s Saint Julien: The Sin of Existing) on Gustav Flaubert’s La Légende de Saint-Julien l’Hospitalier (The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller) parallels this notion – one’s pre-destiny to sin, thus being a sin in oneself. In the original legend, pagan witches secretly jinx Julian into predestining killing both his parents at birth. The enemy tricks him into believing that his wife is cheating on him, and mistakes his parents laying on his bed as his wife and another man, and mistakenly murders them.
A lot of these questions are also addressed in the Must there be a Superman? montage in the movie itself.
Lex’s wordplay and wit —
- Batman-Belle Reve jail scene: “This is how it all caves in. Civilization on the wane (Wayne), manners (Manor) out the window*” – an obvious reference to the Bruce Wayne alter ego.
- American Revolutionary figure Paul Revere, referencing his trip from Boston to Lexington warning everyone along the way of British troops (“redcoats”) approaching by sea – “The redcoats are coming! The redcoats are coming!”, an obvious parallel to “The red capes are coming!”.
- Minor/obvious wordplay and wit: Upon seeing the Bat signal — “The knight/night is here”; “Mother of God; would you look at the time?”; obviously a play on Martha Kent, Superman’s adoptive human mother. “Now God is as good as dead.”; a reference to the classic Friedrich Nietzsche quote. “Now the world will see the holes in the holy.”, foreshadowing Superman’s impalement at the hands of Doomsday.
Full credits and praise to the philosophers, original comicbook artists and authors as credited and featured in the article; including but not limited to Mark Waid, Scott Snyder, Jim Lee, Brian Azzarello, Geoff Johns, Lee Bermejo and Gary Frank.