Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor? He's Already the Best Villain
So did you hear? Bryan Cranston is Lex Luthor!
…Well, he might be. Maybe. Mayhaps. Possibly. According to Cosmic Book News, the three-time Emmy Winner who plays the iconic Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad has been cast as the new Lex Luthor in the Batman vs. Superman (or whatever it will be called) film. Granted, this story comes from an anonymous source that also claims Ben Affleck, fresh off having Argo win Best Picture, signed on to play Batman for up to 13 films and that Warner Brothers is already making overtures for Matt Damon to play Aquaman in an as-yet-announced Justice League movie, AND that Mark Strong may reprise his role of Sinestro from the forgotten box office dud Green Lantern (2011). So, I would take this with a bit of salt. Like the amount in the Pacific Ocean.
Still, if Cranston DID end up being Lex Luthor, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Hell, I think anyone who has ever watched any premium cable show, much less AMC, would applaud it. That’s because they all know a simple truth about our modern pop culture landscape: The best villains are now on television.
In 1999, Home Box Office premiered an original series entitled The Sopranos. This landmark television program is noteworthy for many reasons, such as successfully telling a mob story worthy of Martin Scorsese on the small screen, putting HBO on the map (as well as at the top of the awards circuit), and making a star out of the late great James Gandolfini. However, it also set another legacy that has let premium cable shows flourish in the following 15 years. It reinvented the typical bad guy as the hero.
On most network television series, the idea of dealing with the mafia is a no-go. And for the few who did, whether as a cop procedural (NYPD Blue), a lawyer procedural (LA Law), or both procedural (Law & Order), the message is always the same. The mobsters played by Italian-American actors are villainous villains who our righteous protagonists must overcome.
Well, Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) is most clearly a bad guy. He murders family members, business partners and even surrogate sons. However, he openly challenges the viewer by not only being a villain, but by also being a HUMAN BEING. The series created by David Chase does not shy away from the wanton cruelty of the character, but admits to it in the most heinous manners while simultaneously daring the viewer to like this guy. Since he’s our protagonist, we are constantly forced to view the world from Tony’s eyes, which is the easiest way for a story to make us sympathize with him. But the more it displays Tony Soprano the husband, father and suffering man, the more uncomfortable it becomes when we see him lie to these people and slaughter even the closest of friends.
The show was accused more than once of glamorizing violence, but not unlike movies such as Mean Streets or Goodfellas, it ultimately depicts a lifestyle that is toxic despite its token frills. It also paved the way for so many more complex series about other creatures of distaste. In the wake of The Sopranos, many cable shows heard the call and created protagonists that any other morally decent network would have wearing black hats. Shoot, Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen did own a black hat. It fits very well with the proverbial knife he uses to send business rivals to the South Dakota pig farms as chow. Then there’s his namesake, which he earns by swearing more than any lead character ever put onscreen. He revels in curse words and diverse profanities like Monet experimented in oils. And as part of an ensemble, it would have been easy to make him merely the heavy to Timothy Olyphant’s deceptively stoic marshal. Instead, the series unpacked the western idea of good and evil, searching for a true moral ambiguity that while not fully achieved, was as poetically pleasing as McShane dropping an f-bomb before suffocating the local preacher…in an act of mercy for the man suffering from dementia.
Obviously, there are other gangsters who get to play the lead on TV these days, including Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire and Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the much maligned Magic City. However, over the past decade the trope has become less upfront and more subversively insidious, such as the smiling devil embodied by Julian McMahon on Nip/Tuck or the petulant manchild, Henry VIII, captured by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors.
But what has been more intriguing is that cable television is no longer afraid to admit that they have true villains that we should root for. Long gone, is the necessity to underline the family dynamic or existential doubt any rational human being would face. Rather, they call a spade a spade, and still expect the audience to find something endearing about it. This has been underscored best by Game of Thrones. Despite having six families (that we know of) vying for power on the show, the series based on George R.R. Martin’s gargantuan novels has no issue with giving us a family of foolish heroes (the Starks) and irredeemable monsters (the Lannisters). The funny thing is that, even for viewers who love the Starks, the Lannisters are the preferred family.
Many viewers will deny this, but the truth is that watching the Lannisters squabble is much more fun. Also, I’m not speaking of merely “the good one” played brilliantly by Peter Dinklage. First, there is Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) who is the patriarch of the blond-haired clan. He would be the typical Tony Soprano or Walter White of other cable series. Indeed, viewers cannot help but be seduced by Twyin’s merciless execution of power, even as he puts down fan-favorite Tyrion (Dinklage) for being a disgraceful son solely because he was born a dwarf. This is the character who masterminded the Red Wedding and that killed off half of the Stark cast, but viewers still are most interested in the aftermath about how Tywin will now handle his petulant grandson (Oh, I’ll GET TO HIM) or whether he will give Tyrion an ounce of respect. When he does, it is genuinely satisfying, even if it is sandwiched in between an insult and the whole “massacre the heroes” thing.
Below Tywin are the incestuous twins of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei. One pushed a little boy out a window in the pilot and the other is the devious Queen who orchestrated the death of her (admittedly awful) husband and stupidly raised her incest baby to be…King Joffrey. Oh, yes: Joffrey. One of the best incarnations of evil in any medium, Joffrey is a cross between Draco Malfoy, Caligula and Jeffrey Dahmer. The boy-king who truly started the war when he cut off series hero Ned Stark’s head, Joffrey is played with total unapologetic malevolence and toxic stupidity by Jack Gleeson. And he is a joy to watch, not because he is evil, but because he is a fascinating personification of corrupt power and abusive leadership. By far, this fair-haired demon spawn is one of the most entertaining things on the show to the point where, deep down, you know you’d be sad to see him go. Fortunately for Joffrey, thus far he has been on a show that has no apologies for evil characters, and he has flourished while so many Starks have emptied to where all the flowers go.
Television’s refusal to soften their villains or ever simplify them has allowed a diverse multitude of actors to find the many shades of gray in the blackest of hearts. It has created a platform where storytellers need not be subjected to cliché or audience expectation, thereby creating a comfortability or tameness to its bad guys. Nonetheless, believe me when I write that there is none less tame than Walter White.
The casting of Bryan Cranston as Walter White is one of the savviest subversions ever perpetrated on the small screen. Prior to Breaking Bad, Cranston was best known for playing the dad on Malcolm in the Middle. As an affable, friendly personality, there is just something so endearing about his everyday demeanor, which is the true brilliance of this character. Birthed from the mind of Vince Gilligan, Walter begins the tale as a high school science teacher who is suffering from cancer. All that was missing was an abandoned puppy he found and took in from the side of the road. Thus, when he realizes that he is dying, Walter decides, for his wife and son’s sake, that he will make a little money while he can; he just wants to leave his family with something when he is gone! The fact that he makes the money by cooking meth with his seemingly brain dead former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) is presented in a totally understandable light.
That is the beauty of this AMC series. Audiences are tricked early into thinking they’re watching a show about an anti-hero forced into a life of crime, instead of realizing that they’re witnessing the genesis of Meth World’s Hitler. Meth is merely his SS and the desert is his Bavaria. Over the course of five seasons, Walter is going to cheat, lie, murder, and intimidate his way into real power. When he discovers the cancer is in remission? Terrific, now let’s go cook some more meth and kill a child.
This is one of the all-time great villains of fiction, simply because he tricked you into liking him before his “origin story.” It is so perfect that any villain Cranston could play after Breaking Bad would be a gently sloping cakewalk, as none can have more contours and nasty legions than this piece of work.
So, it would not be surprising in the least if filmmakers turned to picking from the cable set for their new castings. After all, they have picked most traditional leading actors pretty thoroughly clean for the superhero genre already. They’re even outsourcing the heroes with almost weekly regularity now. So why not turn to the medium which, unlike film, appears to be experiencing another golden era?
The advent of cable series following The Sopranos has ushered in a staggering rise in amazing long-form storytelling. Serious and respected filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Frank Darabont, Neil Jordan, and David Fincher are either dabbling or immersing themselves in it. Great actresses such as Claire Danes, Jessica Lange and Glenn Close are all finding it preferable to the film roles that they are generally being offered. It is a medium that is having an explosion of creativity from villainy to beyond. Thus, I expect both Marvel and Warner Brothers to start turning more readily to the medium’s rising stars as they look for new, untapped faces to put on the comic book screen. And none looms larger in 2013 than Walter White, Cranston’s calling card. After White, Lex Luthor may look like the mild mannered Metropolis resident.
Yet, the idea of Walter White holding his foot to the throat of Kal-El and Ben Affelck’s Batman makes me worry…for their safety. Because there is no way this can end well for those capes. Not unless, the rumor is of course only that.