Warner Bros. announced this morning that Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons have been cast to play Lex Luthor and Alfred respectively in the Man of Steel sequel we’re all calling Batman Vs. Superman until they give us an official title. Both actors have Academy Award credentials, Eisenberg nominated for Best Actor for The Social Network, and Irons winning Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune in 1990. Bryan Cranston and Joaquin Phoenix had been rumored for the role of Luthor while the casting of Alfred had mostly flown under the radar.
Here’s the PR spin from director Zack Snyder (via The Hollywood Reporter):
Jesse Eisenberg/Lex Luthor –
“Lex Luthor is often considered the most notorious of Superman’s rivals, his unsavory reputation preceding him since 1940. What’s great about Lex is that he exists beyond the confines of the stereotypical nefarious villain. He’s a complicated and sophisticated character whose intellect, wealth and prominence position him as one of the few mortals able to challenge the incredible might of Superman. Having Jesse in the role allows us to explore that interesting dynamic, and also take the character in some new and unexpected directions.”
Jeremy Irons/Alfred –
Alfred is “an absolutely critical element in the intricate infrastructure that allows Bruce Wayne to transform himself into Batman. It is an honor to have such an amazingly seasoned and gifted actor as Jeremy taking on the important role of the man who mentors and guides the guarded and nearly impervious façade that encapsulates Bruce Wayne.”
WHY EISENBERG IS AT LEAST AN INTERESTING CHOICE
If I’m honest, my initial reaction to this casting choice was one of instant anger. Not just because Eisenberg doesn’t match my vision of the character but also because I’ve kind of unintentionally conflated him with his dickish characters in Social Network and Now You See Me meaning my reaction to him now is always of instant dislike. That’s not fair.
In the comics, Lex Luthor has been your standard mad scientist type as well as your more 1980s Gordon Gecko gazillionaire. In film, the gold starndard remains Gene Hackman’s funny, wealthy madman from Superman, Superman 2, and Superman 4, and in TV Michael Rosenbaum’s emotionally conflicted, daddy issue-suffering young rich man from Smallville stands out. Arguably to their own detriment, Bryan Singer and company had Kevin Spacey play a more menacing version of the Hackman Luthor in Superman Returns. As such, it’s probably for the better that they go a different direction with this new version of Luthor.
Listen, we all most likely have an instant film/cartoon/comic image that comes to mind when we think of Lex Luthor, and Jesse Eisenberg sure as hell ain’t it other than his hair maybe, kind of, sort of resembling the pre-bald Luthor’s red hair from the comics. In fact, in every possible conceivable way Bryan Cranston is a more logical choice for a more traditional version of Lex Luthor. We know he looks good bald, and through Walter White on Breaking Bad we know his Lex Luthor would be a genuinely menacing presense opposite Superman.
However, while the truth of the old, rich white man being a force for evil will remain true in the real world for the forseeable future that version of Luthor does not feel as immediate anymore. A guiding principle of the Christopher Nolan approach to superhero movie-making has been to re-contextualize well-known comic book characters to better reflect the realities and anxieties of the modern day. Therefore, the Joker becomes a post-9/11 allegory for the failure of American foreign policy, and now apparently Lex Luthor becomes a Mark Zuckerberg type to better reflect the modern version of a scary wealthy man with considerable influence. Luthor is cold, calculating, brilliant, singularly driven to dominate all opposition, etc. Eisenberg did all of that in Social Network.
If they have this version of Luthor wearing hoodies instead of suits I may have to totally re-think this thing.
We don’t actually know for sure that they cast Eisenberg to play a Zuckberg version of Luthor. However, this is such an extreme departure that it feels 100% like they sat around a room, decided their version of Luthor needs to be more like Zuckerberg than Donald Trump, and then realized there was only one choice for the role: Eisenberg. Luckily, it’s been reported for quite some time that Luthor will be but one of the villains in the film. As horrible a reference point as it is, I imagine something akin to Superman IV where Luthor will be the conniving big bad behind a more physically imposing secondary big bad.
Superman is and will always be a challenging character to transition from the comics because he is too powerful and his villains too weak. Lex Luthor is a big part of that problem, always trying to destroy something big but being thwarted by Superman despite the ever-helpful utilization of stray kryptonite. The casting of Eisenberg and alterations to the character of Luthor will not change any of the inherent problems with adapting these characters to film, even if this promises to be an even more cerebral brains vs. brawn Luthor/Superman pairing than ever before. However, it is definitely an interesting choice.
WHY JEREMY IRONS MAY BE THE KISS OF DEATH
Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, is a fantastic actor who will make a great Alfred. Nearly 2 years ago, comicbookmovie.com argued he’d be the perfect Alfred for the new cast of a rebooted Batman film franchise. Granted, they also wanted Leonardo DiCaprio as Batman (he’d be a great Bruce Wayne, horrible Batman), but the case they made for Irons was convincing enough:
Jeremy Irons is one of the finest thespians of cinema. His work as an actor is as wide ranged as it is fantastic. He gives heart love and humor to his performances which is why he is absolutely perfect to play Alfred. He has a sense of saracasm that really fits well with Alfred and that lends to the characters monotone voice. Many actors could definitely play Alfred and those actors can do a damn good job but it would be tough for me to find anyone who I’d like to see play Alfred in a Batman Film more than Jeremy Irons.
With Batman Vs. Superman still slowly taking shape as Chris Terrio (Argo) re-writes David S. Goyer’s script it’s impossible to know how much Alfred will even feature in the story. Will he be like the Alfred (Michael Gough) who was grandfatherly, told a couple jokes, but wasn’t around all that often in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films? Or like the Alfred (Michael Caine) in the Dark Knight trilogy who was a sometimes funny exposition machine but ultimately a genuinely touching, even heartbreaking paternal presence? Irons is capable of doing either things or, more likely, something in-between.
The downside of Jeremy Irons has nothing to do with his appearance, ability to play the role, or figuring how important Alfred will even be in the movie. No, the downside is simply that as talented as he is whenever Jeremy Irons steps up to big budget movie he sure picks some downright awful projects (The Pink Panther 2, Eragon, The Time Machine, Dungeons & Dragons) or ones that are better than you think but likely struggled financially (Beautiful Creatures, Kingdom of Heaven, Appaloosa, Man in the Iron Mask).
His most notable big film success stories are playing the villain in Die Hard with a Vengeance and voicing the villain Scar in The Lion King, meaning this version of Alfred is guaranteed to have an amazing-sounding voice. However, the mere fact that Jeremy Irons clearly wants to be in Batman Vs. Superman could be seen as damning it with faint praise because he has been a rather poor judge in this area in the past.
This is an incredibly flimsy argument, to be sure. After all, Jesse Eisenberg clearly wants to be in the movie, too, and his career hasn’t been marred by a series of poor choices (except for maybe 30 Minutes or Less). However, Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons both know more about this movie than us, and as the guys who made Eragon, Dungeons & Dragons, Gigli, Jersey Girl, Paycheck, Daredevil, Reindeer Games, and Surviving Christmas they thought Batman Vs. Superman looked promising. Why trust their judgement?
Regardless of that admittedly specious logic (Affleck’s judgement has certainly improved lately), Superman is a tough character to adapt, and they largely failed with that in Man of Steel. An optimist would argue their casting choices for the sequel thus far have been interesting while a cynic looks at one head-scratching choice after another and sees impending failure. Sadly, Zack Snyder is still the driving force behind this, and all of the baggage connected to him remains. It is great they have Chris Terrio re-writing the script because David S. Goyer seriously dropped the ball on Man of Steel. However, a deep love for the characters of Superman and especially Batman might blind us to the high likelihood that this film will not be any great improvement over Man of Steel, for better or worse depending on your opinion of Man of Steel.
Batman Vs. Superman is currently scheduled to come out May 6, 2016. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishbourne are all returning, joined by Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. It will be filmed predominantly in Detroit, Michigan, with an in-state budget of $130 million though its total budget incorporating out-of-state shooting and post-production is unknown.
What do you think of the casting choices? Are you mad, mad, mad about Eisenberg? Think I assume too much in arguing Irons will surely be good as Alfred? Let us know in the comments.