It felt like the DCEU has been slowly building up to the introduction of big bad Darkseid, but Justice League suggests that's changed. With Warner Bros' much-hyped, famously-troubled production having opened to soft box office numbers and negative reviews, the future of the franchise - if the not the entirety of the DC Extended Universe - may have been cast somewhat into doubt.
There's been very little sequel talk apart from already-planned solo films for Aquaman, Batman (possibly without Ben Affleck) and the Wonder Woman sequel, and the broader franchise's immediate plans otherwise have focused on emergent properties like Shazam!. Not necessarily the point the studio wanted to be at when setting up their answer to The Avengers several years ago.
In fact, it can be downright difficult to remember that at one point - back before the unexpectedly negative reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice joined a chain reaction of production shake-ups culminating in the hiring of Avengers-helmer Joss Whedon to rework and complete the film following the departure of credited director Zack Snyder owing to a family tragedy - Warner Bros was so confident in Justice League's prospects that it was planned as a two-part epic that would form a trilogy along with Batman v Superman itself.
The actual plans for what sort of story would unfold over these films was never officially revealed, but the most widely-discussed premise in terms of industry gossip and fan-conjecture consistently revolved around an encounter with the supervillain Darkseid, an alien conqueror who serves as the chief antagonist in the corner of the DC Comics Universe alternately referred to as "The New Gods" or "Jack Kirby's Fourth World." And while Warner Bros never fully came out and confirmed this to be the case, the presence of Parademon storm-troopers and the giant Omega symbol that serves as Darkseid's calling card being part of Batman v Superman's infamous "Knightmare" sequence certainly seemed to point in that direction - as did making Steppenwolf (traditionally a relative and advance-soldier of Darkseid) the villain of the first League movie.
But whether or not that was ever the actual plan, at a certain point the production schematic for the Justice League property changed completely: talk of doing two films back-to-back receded, then the concept of more than one installment itself faded. Steppenwolf definitely acts like he has something to prove, and he mentions "Darkseid" at least twice, though in an opaque way where you wouldn't know he's talking about a person unless you already knew that. Considering nobody was ever cast to play Darkseid, it seems at least he was being held back for a sequel.
In fact, the case that he was at one point planned as the "finish line" villain for this initial buildup of the DCEU seems so clear that figuring out where he might've been meant to figure into Justice League before the project was chopped down to its current version is already a popular pastime for fans online. One prominent theory suggests that the strange turn the plot takes at midpoint (where Batman decides out of nowhere to use a Motherbox to resurrect Superman, then loses it to Steppenwolf offscreen because the League forgets to keep an eye on it while fighting a sort-of-angry Kal-El) is a drastically reworked piece of a theoretical "original ending" that might instead have seen a more outright "evil" Superman arriving as a cliffhanger for Part 2; where'd he'd presumably be restored to the side of good in time to face Darkseid himself.
Whether or not that was ever the case, does the subsequent downplaying mean that the Lord of Apokolips has been bounced from the DCEU? That's difficult to say, for obvious reasons. He certainly doesn't seem to be part of whatever future Justice League plans might be - even the film's big post-credits bonus scene is about Lex Luthor inviting Deathstroke to join a version of either the Injustice League or The Legion of Doom as the new primary DCEU threat. On the other hand, there are still enough loose threads in Dawn and League that he wouldn't feel too out-of-nowhere to fans if he did show up at some point down the line.
But why back away from Darkseid in the first place? Well, it might just be a creative difference: supposedly it was Zack Snyder who was mainly keen on using the New Gods characters (legendary among hardcore comic fans but virtually unknown to the general public) as foils for the united superheroes. With Snyder widely expected to remain decoupled from the DCEU, Warner Bros may have opted to go in a different direction altogether. Indeed, the (hypothetical) decision to use Darkseid in the first place has long been called into question - as stated, he's not particularly well known, and while he was technically created first it's all but inevitable that he'd be viewed as overly-similar to Thanos, the heavy scheduled to menace Earth's Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: Infinity War. He's also a very unusual character, the main villain of one of comics' most convoluted hierarchies.
Envisioned by onetime main Marvel artist Jack Kirby as a new pantheon of sci-fi/mythology demigods that could potentially replace the "old gods" in the Thor comics, Kirby instead brought his ambitious New Gods concept with him when he jumped to DC in the 70s. Spread out over multiple books with at first only tangential connections to the more established DC Comics continuity, it was a sprawling intergalactic Space Opera (sometimes called "Star Wars before Star Wars") involving dozens of original characters caught up in the eons-old clash between the warring planets New Genesis and Apokolips, from which Darkseid commands demonic legions and scours the cosmos for a power called "The Anti-Life Equation" that will let him control the universe.
Considered by many to be Kirby's masterpiece, it's been long beloved by comic fans but also long balked-at as unadaptable into other media - not with oddball fixtures like Motherboxes and Boom-Tubes, or characters with names like Scott Free, Big Barda and Granny Goodness. And that could also easily be what might make Warner Bros skittish about committing to him as the prime villain of their franchise: the potentially off-putting weirdness of the New Gods cosmology is the main thing that makes Darkseid more than just another Alien Overlord stock character - on his own, he's not even one of the more ostentatious-looking New Gods; a gray-skinned alien typically clad in a blue tunic and boots. It's the whole interplanetary road-show that comes with him that makes Darkseid "cool," and that's going to be expensive to realize for something with potentially limited appeal; especially with Warner Bros having now taken a box office hit on two team-up features in a row.
Should fans lose hope at the prospect of ever seeing Darkseid or the rest of the New Gods onscreen? Probably not. The DCEU in its current form may change wildly following Justice League, but comic book movies don't seem to be going anywhere. Kirby's "Fourth World" could at some point wind up with a movie of its own, or perhaps folded into the storyline of a more established "cosmic" property like Green Lantern or Martian Manhunter. But, for now, it does seem as though those who've been waiting will be waiting a little longer.
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018