Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My old nemesis

There was another casting announcement in the last week or so about the inevitable Man of Steel sequel (which I KNOW, I promised to stop talking about that franchise, but in the geeky spheres I move in it’s kind of unavoidable and I’m a little thin on other Wednesday-oriented things to focus on right now), this time revealing that Jesse Eisenberg would portray Lex Luthor. The announcement did not set off the same firestorm of nerd rage as the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, which I think has more to do with Affleck than Eisenberg, irrespective of either one’s suitability for the respective iconic roles. Ben Affleck has simply been around longer and done more things to earn various levels of opprobrium (some rightfully so, others less), not least starring in a Daredevil movie that was more or less a misfire. Jesse Eisenberg’s highest-profile role to date was as The Social Network’s semi-fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg, which means the knee-jerk reaction has been less “he’s going to ruin everything” and more “let’s come up with Zucker-zingers comparing the founder of Facebook to Lex Luthor”.

I’m really not planning on seeing the movie no matter who gets cast as whom, since at this point any sequel in that series strikes me as throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that was Man of Steel. But I still feel entitled to my opinions about Goyer and Snyder’s (mis)handling of the Superman mythos all the same, and in this case I think it’s another solid piece of evidence that they just don’t really get what Supes is supposed to be all about.

It comes down to Eisenberg’s youthfulness, not just his chronological age but the fact that he has a certain physical presence that lends itself to playing younger characters. He’s 30 years old right now; he’s about six months older than Mark Zuckerberg, in fact, and he was able to convincingly portray Zuckerberg as a college student. The year before The Social Network, Eisenberg played a high school student in Zombieland (a movie of which I’m certainly a fan). He may be starting to grow out of his boyishness, possibly, but it seems unlikely.

And I’m not disparaging Eisenberg’s acting ability, or his ability to convey gravitas enough to bring to life one of the Greatest Of All Time supervillains in the history of comics. In a vacuum, at any rate. But that’s not how movies work, and it’s not as if the movie is going to be a self-contained secret origin of Lex Luthor (which could be pretty cool). It’s a Superman movie, and Lex Luthor is always going to be defined in opposition to Superman, in certain specific ways.

Guess who else is 30 years old? Henry Cavill. And as I’ve recently alluded to, 30 is a perfectly acceptable age for Superman to be, in fact it’s within a few years of ideal. 30 is much less optimal an age for Lex Luthor to be in any given story, although under the right circumstances it could work. But those circumstances come down to how old Luthor is compared to Superman.

Assume for a moment that the Richard Donner Superman movie from 1978 is the gold standard for stories about Supes (outside the comics medium he was created for, obviously). Christopher Reeve was 26 when that movie came out; Gene Hackman was 48. That is a good Superman/Luthor age gap.

Or go to a very different take on the mythos and look at Smallville. Tom Welling was about 24 when he started portraying young Clark Kent who was technically supposed to be a (farm-fed and robustly healthy) 14 or 15 years old. Michael Rosenbaum was/is five years Welling’s senior, and his Lex in season one was written as approximately 23 or 24 years old. Considering the necessary age compressions for a teenage soap opera, that is also a pretty good Clark/Lex age gap.

But even more important than the age gap, although it arises from that, is the implied difference in Superman and Lex Luthor’s social positions. Superman is younger and Lex Luthor is older because Superman is the striver, the idealist, the one who is going to change the world and make it a better place. Luthor, on the other hand, is entrenched in the system, embittered by the fact that the world has not come crawling to his door. He’s the pragmatist putting the ends above the means. Superman is the liberal progressive and Luthor is the arch-conservative, which is not a coincidence! That’s the way most people tend to live their lives; they’re as left-leaning as their gonna get when they’re young and optimistic and don’t have anything to lose by shaking up the status quo, and they become more and more right-leaning as they age into responsibilities and possessions as status symbols &c. So Superman is the future, while Luthor is the past.

Spoiler: the future always wins out over the past. Some people feel there’s no dramatic tension in superhero comic books because they’re just amped-up morality plays where the Good Guys always defeat the Bad Guys in the end. Setting aside whether it’s dramatic tension or simple wish fulfillment that’s the whole point of the comics, there’s something meaningful in depicting a set of characters who want to move the world backwards into might making right, and a set of characters who want to usher humanity ever-forwards towards justice and equality and freedom, and all the things we’ve been pursuing since the dawn of time, and having the forward-thinkers win out every time.

Anyway. In Smallville both Clark and Lex are young men, but Clark is a mild-mannered high school student while Lex is occupying an executive suite (and angling for the very top job) in a multinational corporation. Lex was born into the oligarchy, and Clark was not, but a lot of the other things they both might have had to struggle with as part of growing up are essentially behind Lex even as Clark is in the middle of them. Rosenbaum left the show when it suited him to do so, but it’s telling that his departure coincided with the timing in the overall narrative when Clark was becoming an independent young professional himself, and the age gap was losing its significance. The gulf between 15 and 23 is a big deal; between 22 and 30, less so. Presumably they were running out of good Luthor stories to tell on Smallville, but the changing dynamic may have forced their hand as well.

Even in the comics, there’s a reason why Clark Kent is a reporter and Perry White is the editor-in-chief. Well, OK, there are many good reasons, primarily that reporters get to go out on assignments putting themselves into danger zones where Clark can change into Superman and save people, while editors have more deskbound jobs. But another reason is that it simply makes sense for Clark to be closer to the entry level of his industry than the managing level. He’s a Superman of the people. He’s not the boss. He’s not The Man. Lex Luthor, even in his maddest mad-scientist incarnations, is very much supposed to be The Man. Superheroes are inherently subversive, even one as seemingly corny and dull as the one who started it all.

And, again, I know it is theoretically possible I’m unfairly mischaracterizing Man of Steel 2 sight unseen. Maybe Eisenberg will wear enough makeup along with shaving his head, plus act up a storm, to make himself appear 40 or 50 years old. It’s also (borderline) conceivable to have Man of Steel 2 present Superman and Lex Luthor as exactly the same age yet with such starkly different life stories up to that point that Superman is a still-idealistic 30 and Lex Luthor is a coldly cynical 30. (Man of Steel already did the sequel the favor of showing that Clark wandered the Earth for years on end with no idea what to do with himself, so sure, you could posit that during the same amount of time a hyper-genius like Luthor was graduating early with multiple degrees and climbing the various ladders of success in the business world.) But going less on pie-in-the-sky possibilities, and more on the only scraps of evidence we have at hand, the fact remains that they’ve cast someone as Lex Luthor who is a matter of months younger than the actor playing Superman, and who projects a persona years younger than that. And everything about the first movie was back-asswards and stupid.

So, not encouraging.

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