It goes without saying that I haven’t been the biggest fan of Warner Brothers’ approach to the films based on their roster of DC Comics superheroes (also known as the DC Extended Universe). Even before Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad debuted to less-than-enthusiastic reviews, I went on record being against the DCEU’s tone and aesthetic. After BvS failed to become the pop cultural behemoth it was supposed to be, the folks at DC Films attempted a much publicized “course correction” to take their movie universe in a different direction — and if the Comic-Con trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League are any indication, consider me all in for this new “course.” But as much as I’m looking forward to this new phase of the DCEU, I will never be satisfied until they recast the two characters I feel they’ve bungled the most: Lex Luthor and the Joker.
They are arguably two of the most iconic villains in all of comics, and both have had multiple live action interpretations throughout the years. It would have been difficult for any actor, much less Jesse Eisenberg or Jared Leto, to step into the iconic shoes of Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Jack Nicholson, or Heath Ledger without being unfairly compared to previous performances. I don’t fault either actor for taking on these roles with such cinematic history. And it’s more than understandable that both actors would want to put their own spins on the characters to further separate themselves from those who came before.
But man… of all the things that BvS and Suicide Squad get wrong about the DC Universe, nothing’s wronger than how Luthor and Joker come across on screen. Fortunately, DC has built in a couple of convenient, in-story outs for both characters that would allow for new actors to take on these roles in future installments of the DCEU. If this happens, in addition to the tonal shifts indicated by Wonder Woman and Justice League, things just might be looking up for our super friends at DC.
So What’s Wrong with Lex Luthor?
In Batman v Superman, Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex as a different kind of evil billionaire genius. Unlike how most of us think of Luthor — cold, calculating, middle-aged, etc. — Eisenberg’s Lex is a neurotic millennial full of nervous tics and jars of piss (literally). I guess the filmmakers thought molding their Luthor after a Silicon Valley tech wunderkind, and then actually casting the kid who played Mark Zuckerberg in case it wasn’t obvious enough, was their way “updating” the character for the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Lex just comes off more as an obnoxious character with an incoherent set of motivations than a criminal mastermind. Making Lex younger wasn’t actually the issue. Hell, my favorite take on Lex is still Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville.
Instead, you never feel like Luthor is the smartest person in the room. He’s just a mastermind because the film tells you he is. There’s a lot of telling when it comes to Lex’s character. We don’t actually know why he hates Superman. He just does. We know why Bruce Wayne hates Superman, though. In fact, Bruce Wayne came off more like Lex than Lex does1!
What’s even more disappointing is that the controversial ending of Man of Steel had prepped the audience for the definitive live action take on Lex Luthor as an evil businessman — something even Hackman’s Lex of the Donner films, as well as Spacey’s take in Superman Returns, could not even claim. With half of Metropolis decimated by Superman and Zod, Luthor should have set himself up as the savior of the city, turning its citizens against the alien that rained death and destruction upon it. That storyline would have made more sense than whatever the hell Lex’s plan was in BvS.
How to Fix Lex for Future Movies
The out to rethink Luthor that the filmmakers snuck into BvS lies in the fact that Eisenberg is actually playing Lex Jr. Since the movie keeps harping on Lex’s daddy issues, we know that Lex Sr. is a cruel man who built the empire that Junior is currently in charge of. It’s implied that daddy has been dealt with — and in most Luthor origin stories, Lex commits patricide on his way to super villainy. But what if Lex Sr. isn’t really dead? What if Eisenberg’s dad is the kind of Lex we all know and remember?
Bringing in Lex’s father who more closely resembles the traditional take on Luthor for Man of Steel 2 and beyond would go a long way in helping us wash the taste of Eisenberg’s Lex out of our mouths. It’s hard to say who could be a convincing Lex Sr. I know Bryan Cranston was a favorite, but I think that was mostly because Breaking Bad was on the air when they were first casting Lex and no one could think of another bald guy. All I know is that Vincent D’Onofrio is doing wonders as Wilson Fisk on Daredevil, and DC would be wise to find an actor of a similar caliber — say, Clancy Brown with a shaved head? — to take on a new Lex2.
A different actor, one with more gravitas and pathos, would be a great first step in resetting the DCEU on firmer ground. Because heroes are only as good as their villains. And if there’s one thing DC has an advantage over the MCU on, it’s the iconography of its villains. Speaking of which…
So What’s Wrong with the Joker?
One of the biggest complaints about Suicide Squad — from both those who loved it and those who hated it — was that there was not enough Joker in it. Feeling misled by a marketing campaign that heavily featured the Clown Prince of Crime, his presence in the movie is not much more than a glorified cameo. While Jared Leto claims that an entire movie’s worth of Joker footage was cut, I for one am not eager to see any of it.
From the moment Leto was first revealed as the Joker, I had been wary. From the grills in his mouth to the too-on-the-nose prison tats, this take on Joker always promised to be different. I remember when the first look at Heath Ledger’s Joker was unveiled. Fans were similarly outraged, a Joker wearing clown makeup was a common complaint. So I tried to go into Suicide Squad with an open mind. But man, I just can’t with this version of the Joker. It also didn’t help that Leto’s on-set antics seemed to be more of a distraction than any kind of method acting — and it didn’t really endear him to his co-stars.
His lack of screen time aside, this version of the Joker as douchey Hot Topic mob boss just doesn’t rise to the precedent set by Ledger’s agent of chaos or Nicholson’s art deco gangster. Again, like Lex, this Joker is more obnoxious than intimidating. As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw put it so well on Daily Dot:
By trying to make the Joker look as dangerous and subversive as possible, Jared Leto and David Ayer accidentally rebooted the character as a teenage boy who just found out about Banksy and likes to quote Hunter S. Thompson to girls at parties. He literally has the word “damaged” tattooed on his forehead. So edgy.
This is the problem with Leto’s Joker in a nutshell.
How to Fix Joker for Future Movies
But even if Leto doesn’t quit acting in time for the standalone Batman movie or even Suicide Squad 2, there is a way to recast the role without him, though it isn’t necessarily an in-movie reason like Lex above. Instead, the DCEU could take a page out of DC’s Rebirth comics when it comes to the Joker. WARNING: if you haven’t been reading the current crop of Batman comics, you might wanna skip this next bit.
It was recently revealed in the pages of Rebirth that there have actually been multiple Jokers throughout the current continuity, each one representing a different iconic era in Batman/Joker relations. This revelation means that the Joker you may know and love is actually different from the Joker I may remember. While it’s definitely a controversial move among comics readers, it’s a way for the DCEU brain trust to move beyond the tatted up Leto Joker and give us a more iconic version in a future movie starring Batman or Harley Quinn.
Either way, I think it’s safe to say these grand experiments in re-imagining two of the most recognizable villains in superhero comics were not as successful as DC/WB had hoped. But it isn’t too late to “course correct” for future installments. I’ve given you guys an out, use it!
- Think about it. Ben Affleck’s character is a middle-aged billionaire industrialist who hates Superman because he’s an alien and spends the whole movie plotting to kill him with Kryptonite, even going so far as to build himself an armored battle suit. Shave his head and Ben Affleck is Lex Luthor. ↩
- I’m still holding out hope the folks in charge of Supergirl cast Leslie Odom, Jr. as their version of Lex Luthor. If that happens, I could care less what the movie side does about Lex. ↩