Lex Luthor: A Protagonist in His Own Twisted World

The Red Capes are coming. The Red Capes are coming. You and your hearings… galloping through the streets to warn us. One, if by land. Two, if by air.

There are some great comic book movies with great antagonists and it’s true to say that the strength of a comic book movie is shown by the strength of its antagonist. Lex Luthor has always been the iconic villain to Superman as the Joker has been to Batman. We’ve seen a truly great depiction of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and it was a question on how great could Zack Snyder’s Lex Luthor be. Zack Snyder was the first filmmaker to show this unique portrayal of Superman but how could his Lex Luthor be the perfect contrast to his Superman?

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When the marketing for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice began, an interesting debate sprung up. #WhoWillWin? Thousands and thousands of people debating on the answer to this very question. Would it be this alien who has the ability to fly, has super strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, super senses and, to be honest, almost any ability that comes to mind? Or would it be an experience Dark Knight who spent twenty years fighting crime and is known to always be one step ahead of everyone? Sure, he may be just a human, but if he obtains the one thing that can weaken and essentially kill Superman, what’s to say that he can’t win this critical fight?

This was set up to be an ultimate battle between the two most beloved superheroes of all time. The concept of the two behemoths fighting wasn’t foreign to comic book fans, but they too were looking forward to how this version was going to be different than in the comics. However, even with all signs pointing to one emerging as a victor, neither of the two was the true winner.

It was Lex Luthor who won.

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If there is one thing that is to be said about Lex Luthor, it is that he is always a planner. From the first time we see him at LexCorp to the last time we see him in a jail cell, he is an undefeated evil genius, always one step ahead of everyone else even in the face of sure defeat. One would think that for a superhero as powerful as Superman, his ultimate antagonist would be equally as powerful, but Lex Luthor is equipped only with his unrelenting motivations and intellect.

It is said that the power of the antagonist truly reflects the greatness of a protagonist and Superman has had many opponents in the past, but none of them are quite as powerful as Lex. This isn’t due to super powers or gadgetry and surprisingly, not even his intelligence is what makes him powerful. Rather, it is his belief that he himself is the protector of humanity that drives him and is the reason he is powerful. When competing with the most powerful creature on the planet, there isn’t an extent that Lex Luthor isn’t willing to go to.

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The first thing to consider about Lex is his motive. While you do see Lex Luthor physically for the first time in the film at LexCorp, the presence of Lex Luthor has existed from the very moment we see Lois Lane in Nairomi, Africa. But now that he is actually there, it’s about figuring out his purpose in the film. We all know that Lex Luthor is a very well known antagonist, but what is his purpose in Batman v Superman?

More likely than not, these exceptional beings live among us. The basis of our myths. Gods among men. Upon our little blue planet here. Now you don’t have to use a silver bullet, but if you forge one, well then, we don’t have to depend upon the kindness of monsters.

He speaks of having to grow up under a tyrannical regime under his father, and such sees that it is “providence” that as his father’s son, he would end up obtaining a mineral that, according to him, serves as a necessity for “planetary” security. His motives become clearer as he compares Superman to tyrants—he believes that Superman is too powerful. It slowly becomes clearer than he isn’t against Superman—he’s against the power of Superman.

Even when everything is done to fail him, Lex Luthor doesn’t give up, and this is is what makes him a great villain. You gain an insight into Lex’s mind when Senator Finch informs him that she’s blocking the import license for the mineral. “The Red Capes are coming,” he says, trying to exert the influence of the situation he is creating. He’s painting a picture for Senator Finch, drumming his fingers on the table to create the sound of galloping horses. It is now evident that Lex Luthor will go to any extent to achieve his goals. When the Senator stops him, he doesn’t get angry, but instead he aims to go one step ahead. “You don’t think Dad would mind, do you? If I change just one thing in this room.” His expressions are simply diabolical. Someone getting in the way of his aim doesn’t affect him at all because he has another plan.

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It’s not like he believes that he can physically defeat Superman—he knows that he can’t. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to defeat Superman through the power of his mind. His problem lies with Superman’s power and he makes that clear during his speech at the Benefit for the Library of Metropolis where he diverts away from his original topic and ends up talking about something that probably no one in the room could understand. “The bitter sweet pain among man is having knowledge with no power. Because…because that is paradoxical.” He has the knowledge, which no one possesses, he has the mind of a genius, but in front of Superman, he feels powerless.

What he does have the power to do is to manipulate those around him, and so he does. He becomes the puppet master, essentially making the most powerful do his bidding. He’s the one who invites both Bruce and Clark to the benefit, he’s the one to cause them to interact, and he’s the one who’s behind the entire conflict. Why would he want Batman to hate Superman? What does he get if they fight? Superman could destroy Batman. We are left to try and figure this out until the next series of sequences play out in front of you.

For the Senate hearing of Superman’s involvement in Nairomi, Lex invites a disabled man who was critically injured during the Battle of Metropolis to speak against Superman. Lex gifts this man a new wheelchair in return for the favor, but we find out that Lex installed a bomb inside the wheelchair of a disabled man and lined it with lead so Superman cannot see it. He then asks Senator Finch what the oldest lie in America is and then proceeds to answer his own question: “It’s that power can be innocent”. It’s interesting because this is the moment you realize that you tend to be what you think of others. He isn’t innocent but he has power and so he thinks that if Superman is powerful, he can’t be innocent either. He never attended the hearing and when the explosion occurs, he knew that it would trigger Bruce Wayne in to finally taking action against this alien. Coincidence or not, the explosion occurred just as Bruce read the words “You Let Your Family Die.

You would think that Lex would be a little disappointed when Batman broke in to the LexCorp Research Facility to steal the kryptonite from Lex. After all, what extent hadn’t he gone to to obtain it? Instead, he smiled.

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While Lex was plotting and planning, there was one person trying to expose his satanic nature: Lois Lane. It might be surprising that while Superman and Batman were essentially Lex’s puppets, Lois wasn’t. She figured out that the desert was a setup to lure Superman there and to then allege him of destroying the village when it was actually Lex that was the mastermind behind the incident. She discovered that LexCorp developed the metal of the bullet and that it was Lex who had put a bomb inside the wheelchair lined with lead. He eventually catches her too, wanting to lure out Superman to confront him, but the confrontation to really focus on is of Lois and Lex. She wasn’t scared of him; instead she told him that she had proven what he had done. Lex was still a step ahead of everyone and pushed Lois off the building, knowing Superman would save her.

Everything was going according to his plans. He confronts Superman, and we see the inevitable face off between the two. The brilliance of this scene lies between perfect dialogue and perfect acting. Lex is unaffected by Superman’s threat and instead, proceeds to tell him what he really thinks of him. It’s this moment when Clark Kent realizes that Lex had everything figured out. He compares him to “God” and tells him that if he is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good. Lex wants to expose Superman for the non-good entity he thinks he is. He points across the bay to Gotham and tells him that he will fight Batman. Superman is unaffected but surprisingly, Lex hasn’t been more confident in the entire film. Superman asks him, “You think I’ll fight him for you?”, to which he replies, “Yes, I do”. Lex knows he has the upper hand, and Superman realizes that when Lex shows him the pictures of Martha Kent, captured by Lex. Superman is angry but Lex isn’t afraid. Instead, you see an excited Lex Luthor. This is exactly what Lex wanted—for Superman to feel powerless in front of Lex. He is proud of himself as he says, “and now God bends to my will.”

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Perhaps, what he hadn’t anticipated was for Batman and Superman to find a common ground. Batman saw Superman under a different light and realized that he was more human than he thought. But to get them to fight wasn’t Lex’s last plan. He had a backup, as he has shown he always does. While Batman was blinded by his rage and while Superman was trying to figure out his purpose once again, Lex had obtained General Zod’s body and with his own DNA, he created Doomsday. When Superman came back to him to tell him that he had lost, Lex tells him that he doesn’t hate the sinner, he hates the sin and that Superman’s sin is “existing”. He can’t let him win and he had hoped that Batman could have killed him because he had the kryptonite. “If man won’t kill God, the Devil will do it,” he says. Superman didn’t expect Lex to have yet another plan up his sleeve, but Lex wasn’t about to put an end to his plotting and planning. He always had another plan.

Doomsday did succeed in killing Superman but what is so surprising is that even then, Lex had another plan. When he is caught by the authorities and is imprisoned, Batman visits him to tell him that he is going to be transferred to Arkham Asylum. Diabolically, Lex says, “But the bell’s already been rung. And they’ve heard it.” It is unclear what he means but it’s clear that Lex yet has another plan. You then see how Lex has turned the painting in his father’s room upside down to show devils coming down from the sky. That imagery doesn’t depict Superman anymore—it’s something else.

But the bell’s already been rung. And they’ve heard it. Out in the dark, among the stars. Ding dong, the god is dead.

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It’s absolutely incredible. This version of Lex Luthor was different from all others. It was perhaps the way Zack Snyder pictured him or the way Chris Terrio wrote him, but Lex Luthor is so good that it’s almost irritating. A movie that was apparently about Batman and Superman fighting was so much more. It showed the true power of the antagonist, which wasn’t either Batman or Superman—it was Lex Luthor. He didn’t win because of any physical power he possesses—he won because of the knowledge he possesses, and that knowledge translated into an almost satanic power. Jesse Eisenberg’s casting was originally questioned and criticized, but a combination of the direction, writing and acting has proven that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is simply exceptional—a perfect contrast to Henry Cavill’s Superman.

When put in comparison to his depiction in the comics, this portrayal comes closest to the one in the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel issues. His motives are somewhat similar in that he thinks Superman is too powerful and must be stopped. As in Batman v Superman, Lex wants the world to realize that Superman isn’t an ally, that he is not all-good. “When I see you, I see something no man can ever be. I see the end.” Lex says, before calling him his “nightmare”. But what is so interesting is that he claims that he isn’t afraid of him because whatever he has, Lex has more. He has “hope”.

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In terms of comic book movie antagonists, Batman v Superman’s Lex Luthor remains unique. You see super villains with immense powers and aliens with evil intent, but rarely any that are simply just mere humans. Zack Snyder brought a new dimension to this version of Lex Luthor and paired with Chris Terrio’s writing, there haven’t been many antagonists in comic book films that can be put in to comparison with Zack Snyder’s Lex Luthor.

I figured it out way back, if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all-good. And if He is all-good then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be. They need to see the fraud you are. With their eyes. The blood on your hands.

What makes Lex Luthor such an exceptional villain is the complexity of his motives. He doesn’t hate Superman as a being, he hates his existence. He hates the power he possesses. It’s as if he thinks that Superman doesn’t deserve the amount of power he has. Surely, someone more knowledgeable should possess that power. Lex Luthor felt powerless as a child who was subject to abuse. He rose above that and worked hard to be incredibly knowledgeable and successful, only to still be powerless in front of Superman. What really makes him such a good villain is that he truly believes that he is the “Superman” the world needs—the existence an alien with unlimited power is against his beliefs. He is such a firm believer of that belief that he competes against Superman’s physical power against the power he derived from knowledge and meticulous planning. Because he wants to be the Superman the world deserves. And what’s outstanding in Batman v Superman’s depiction of Lex Luthor is just that. It’s something you don’t realize until the very end of it—Lex Luthor isn’t just the antagonist, he’s a protagonist in his own world.