Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the hugely divisive Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the character Alexander Luthor (portrayed by Jessie Eisenberg). Many absolutely hated the character and most of those people do not understand his motivations or how he is true to the heart of the comic book character. Understanding a character is key to appreciating a character and I think the film did a beautifully subtle job of explaining who Lex Luthor is without giving us an hour of exposition. Spoilers will follow.
Power and Abuse:
“It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.”– Epicurus; Greek Philosopher
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tells us one disturbing fact concerning Lex as a child: he was abused. Lex muses on power and its lack of innocence throughout the film, and we can see why when we take a look at his relationship with his father. When we first hear of his father, it seems to be in an admirable tone, but he reveals a chilling detail in what would have been a normal “Oh don’t call me that, that’s my father” line: his father just claimed that LexCorp was named after his son as a sales pitch. Where did Lex learn differently? We can infer that his father told him and likely reminded him of it. From the get go, we understand that Lex’s father was powerful, admired, and an abuser (later confirmed by Lex himself). This gives Lex an absolute hatred and mistrust of authority, particularly towards God- with whom he pleaded to intervene in his abuse. Lex’s father dies though, and leaves a void in his life. There is no one to lay his anger on, no one to blame, no one to enact vengeance upon. He hates God, but cannot assail him. Lex gains power for himself in the hopes that he will never be abused and understands only that there are abusers and the abused. He probably would have been totally okay just gaining more power, money, and success while shaking his fist at God… But then an all-powerful alien falls from the sky and the void left by his father is filled. Here is the ultimate power, the ultimate abuse, an aberration of pure strength but not, in his mind, pure intentions.
The White Whale:
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”– Herman Melville; Moby Dick
Lex has transferred all his hatred for God and his father onto Superman. Superman is not some obstacle in the way of a higher, more selfish goal, his death IS Lex’s goal and motivation. He muses about leaving his father’s room the same as the silly wish of an orphan. In a strange way, he DOES miss his father but even that can be pushed aside for this new symbolic bad guy in his life. Superman is a symbol that inspires hope in most, envy in some, and loathing in others. Lex understands that Bruce Wayne has similar mistrusts of power and he preys on this, using this relentless vigilante as his first move against the Man of Steel. Lex is a man with backup plans though, as he knows things can easily go wrong. His masterful manipulations of most every major character in the film culminate in a fantastically orchestrated bombing of the US Capitol building. Lex doesn’t inspire fear with machismo or brutishness. His threats are more sophisticated than any previous film version of the character. He causes the head of the committee on Superman to tremble just by showcasing how well he’s moved his pieces. She doesn’t fear long though, as his gloating is never premature.
Like Captain Ahab, Lex’s obsession destroys his mind. By the end of the film, he is reduced to muttering “Ding, ding” in mockery of a bell he has rung. Unlike Ahab, Lex is ultimately successful in his pursuit. The Superman is dead and, in that way, he is fulfilled. His obsession with Superman lead to his discovery of other beings in the far reaches of space. He has communicated with them, broadcasting that Superman is dead (and likely bragging that he is responsible). If Zack Snyder’s Christ-like imagery is to be taken on all accounts, then this is Pontius Pilate writing “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” on the sign above the cross. Lex is deeply pleased, but now totally unhinged. His hatred and anger towards Superman was the glue that held his composure together.
“If man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!”– Alexander Luthor; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Given this insight into the mind of Alexander Luthor, we can surmise why he would unleash an uncontrollable behemoth on the world just to kill Superman. It is clear that Lex’s hatred of Superman reaches a point of complete irrationality. Lex sees Superman as the world’s one unforgivable sin- a God who never made things easier for him. The Ultimate Edition’s Director’s Cut gives even greater insight into the mind of Lex Luthor because we learn that he has been communicating with otherworldly beings. Lex ignored the will of the Council of Krypton on the basis that they were dead. Lex is alive, and sees himself as a greater authority for it. It isn’t enough to blaspheme on Earth, he must blaspheme on Krypton as well- the birthplace of his hated enemy. Another world, a greater place, a higher power- everything Lex hates about God is made apparent in Superman. In his hatred he turned to the devil. If rebellion against these mighty powers is heresy, then he would rather be a heretic than a hero. At first, Lex played Batman against Superman, hoping that the Ubermensch would destroy the literal Superman. When this fails, Lex is ready to turn and trust a higher power again- but not the right one. Instead he puts his faith in the Devil- a fellow rebel whose dreams were crushed by an all-powerful God. In Doomsday (and possibly Darkseid), he found the devil and after all this time, powerless little Lex Luthor is begging for another being to rid him of his woes. This contradiction is enough to drive a man completely mad: the kind of madness that gloats over his victory in killing God, the kind of madness that flips Heaven and Hell, the kind of madness that makes a compelling character.