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Nicholas Hoult Offers Superman: Legacy a Chance to Finally Get the Modern Lex Luthor Right

Yet since the 1980s, Luthor has been something else altogether more sinister: an American corporate CEO. The devil made flesh. Redesigned in the comics from the ground up by John Byrne in 1986’s limited run comic series, The Man of Steel, Luthor became the amorphous and untouchable center of criminality and wickedness in Metropolis and the greater DC Comics universe. Nakedly modeled after Donald Trump at the height of his ‘80s greed and excess, but given the smoothness and softer touch of Lucifer, Lex became the guy who never had to pay the consequences for his actions and who could impede, muddy, and even attempt to corrupt Superman’s quest to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

If that setup doesn’t sound eerily prescient already, wait until you find out that DC Comics had Luthor successfully run for president in 2000, which allowed him to manipulate the levers of power to go after his greatest political enemy, the Last Son of Krypton.

It’s worth considering this published history of Luthor, because we’ve never really seen anything approaching that level of cold, calculated depravity on the big screen. The best Lex Luthor of cinema is still probably Gene Hackman, who played the character in three of the four Superman films starring Christopher Reeve between 1978 and 1987. And at least in his first two appearances, Hackman brought an amusing snarl to his campy rendition of the golden age, evil mad genius version of the character. All scenery-chewing and smirks, Hackman’s performance leans more into comedy than menace—save for one scene involving a Kryptonite necklace—but it is memorably entertaining.

Less amusing was when Spacey basically did a nastier, more sadistic riff on Hackman’s interpretation of the character in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). That film had many issues, but a major one was being afraid to bring anything substantially new to the material that differed from what Richard Donner did about 30 years earlier—never mind the fact that the comic book Lex had evolved into something genuinely reflective of modern American evil.

Technically director Zack Snyder and star Esienberg attempted to directly channel the modern comic book version of Lex Luthor and even update it for the 21st century by replacing the Trumpian influence on John Byrne’s reimagining for a thinly veiled riff on modern tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg—after all, Eisenberg already played Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

However, while Eisenberg’s Lex was definitely presented as a malevolent billionaire of untouchable power and influence, the performance was oddly more camp and untethered from reality than Hackman’s. Also realizing that they wanted to move away from a purely sinister connotation of American capitalism in a film that was released in 2016 is doubly ironic. In any event, the Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was more cloying and irritating than menacing or provocative, and his apparent philosophical motives of envying Superman’s godlike power felt malformed and underwritten.

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