WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Justice League
The rumored original ending to Justice League may not have pleased every fan, but the changes WB made to remove it made it worse, not better. The reports of changes to Zack Snyder's original version have varied from wild rumors to confirmed insider insights, with the most recent reports claiming that Snyder's cut of Justice League wasn't just "darker." It wasn't simply longer, either. It was a leap into the DC Comics Universe fans were craving, apparently including both Darkseid and the DCEU's new Green Lanterns.
Ambitions like that don't always guarantee that a film will succeed, and Snyder has flirted with overreaching more than most directors ever will. But with Justice League's box office disappointment, and criticisms largely focused on the studio rushing to get Justice League out - not 'out in its best possible form' - it's become apparent that WB and replacement director Joss Whedon didn't succeed at the task before them. But they may have been doomed once it was decided to cut out the part of the story that the DCEU's Superman story was truly building to.
The rumored outline for Snyder's version was recently restated by director Kevin Smith, who praised the original Darkseid ending for capitalizing on what is actually teased in the film itself. And for the DC fans left confused by several Steppenwolf-centric scenes and subplots that made it into Justice League, it would have been an ending that left them satisfied... instead of confused.
The Original Darkseid Ending
Beginning with the use of the term "mother" by the villain Steppenwolf when addressing the three cubes he seeks on Earth. To be clear, these are and have always been referred to as 'Mother Boxes,' with little elaboration on... why that is. Heroes, villains, and every other character on Apokolips have addressed their miraculous boxes as "Mother," too. But for whatever reason, it never seems as creepy or imbued with meaning as Steppenwolf makes it - and for a good reason that was cut from the film.
By now, those following DC leaks may have heard that Snyder's original plan was to claim that the three Mother Boxes contained Steppenwolf's actual mother, Heggra. It was the communion of the three that united Heggra's power, and would grant Steppenwolf power enough to conquer an entire planet. Now from a DC Comics perspective, this is some serious re-writing of the existing mythology. In the comics, Heggra was Steppenwolf's sister, and mother to Darkseid. She was also the person Darkseid had to kill along with his father before taking the throne of Apokolips.
Given the blurred lines between military conquest of Apokolips and royal family squabbles, the basic 'story of Steppenwolf' in Justice League makes sense. Having failed to conquer Earth with the power of his Mother Boxes, Steppenwolf was forced to retreat, leaving them behind. His mission, as stated in the film, is to recover the Boxes, conquer Earth as he intended, and only then join the ranks of the New Gods, putting an end to his exile from Apokolips and Darkseid. Which all leads to the original ending, when Superman returns from the dead to defeat Steppenwolf with the rest of the League....
At which point Steppenwolf is forced to retreat yet again, and return to Apokolips with his tail between his legs. Darkseid, twice displeased, kills his general and pledges to meet this "Kryptonian" himself.
Cutting Darkseid's Scene Caused More Problems Than It Solved
As scrupulous fans can no doubt guess, removing that final tease of Darkseid - whether to cut time, WB's apprehensions about setting up a sequel in Marvel-ish fashion, or simply doing so on Zack Snyder's terms - means more than just cutting the scene itself. Without the twist that Steppenwolf's story was more than evil, the earlier hints or references wouldn't amount to anything satisfying (confusing BOTH fans paying close attention, and those looking for an easily understood plot). The solution for Whedon and WB, it seems, was simply to make Steppenwolf want to kill Earth... just because.
Steppenwolf is simply an alien general who destroys worlds, back for revenge against the Earthlings who embarrassed him. Turn the Mother Boxes into three cubes that, when joined, form 'The Unity' (a fittingly boring placeholder for such a McGuffin) and you're done. Unfortunately, that still leaves Bruce's 'Knightmare' vision of a future where Superman is evil, the Earth is scorched, and Darkseid's Parademons fill the skies. It was Bruce accepting that vision as a warning that began his mission to unite Earth's heroes at the end of Batman v Superman, and that knowledge that something "dark" was coming added to the foreboding of Justice League's marketing.
Batman was looking out into space, into the unknown, to the one actually pulling the strings... which is exactly what the studio didn't want.
The Solution: Instead of Dark, Go Dumb
Since the cosmic forces or revenge stories couldn't be used for motivation, the focus was placed directly on the three Mother Boxes. What are they? Doesn't matter, the heroes just have to get them. The villain has them, now what? Just find it, and keep them apart. It really can't be overstated just how creatively bankrupt this section of Justice League really was, from the very first scene added in reshoots (the one Joss Whedon originally made even more comedic before WB reined it in). Specifically, when a Parademon self-destructs, leaving behind the image of three squares.
Melted into cement. From its body detonating into nothing. None of the logic at play here is ever even addressed, meaning the Parademon could have erupted into smoke spelling out the word "Steppenwolf" and it would be just as plausible. And as added insurance to keep audiences from wondering about Aquaman's story with Atlantis, the filmmakers drew the audience a picture in his remote fishing village. A picture of three cubes: one on land, one on an island, and one at the bottom of the ocean, with a big, bearded, tattooed man swimming down towards it.
Do you get it? Good! Because that empty, meaningless plot device is going to come back in the final scene, when the other change made completely undercuts the tension and stakes of the climactic battle.
Since Steppenwolf can't be killed by Darkseid without including that scene, and he can't be killed by the heroes, either (the whole point here was to make them more 'fun'), a quick fix was inserted. It's not Whedon's most elegant work, having Batman simply state that the Parademons "sense fear" like wild animals... a fact revealed to a random Gotham criminal in what is surely Bruce's most questionable decision thus far. Since the logic behind the reduction of Steppenwolf's soldiers to primitive, even animalistic being is fuzzy (the Parademons are shown to have once been intelligent beings) it's never brought up again, until it functions as the final scene pot device it was inserted for.
Steppenwolf is afraid of Superman when he freezes his axe, and the Parademons suddenly care about nothing else (we know because Batman states it out loud again). The mindless soldiers ignore Steppenwolf's commands and swarm him, presumably to tear apart/eat him, although that's not clear either. And just to make sure the scene doesn't slip into the horror one would expect from ravenous alien insects eating a giant man alive, a Boom Tube inexplicably deploys to spirit them all away. Who triggered it, why, and to where are all questions fans shouldn't bother asking. Bad guy dead, Earth saved.
The result is an enemy who falls directly in line with the most infamous of Marvel's lackluster villains, built upon a subplot designed to be straightforward, and not interesting, all leading up to a conclusion that makes even Superman's resurrection seem boring. In the end, the story ends as if the filmmakers just wanted it to - because they did. No greater meaning to any of the events the audience has seen, no payoff for Bruce Wayne's 'Knightmare,' and audiences and studio executives wondering what's supposed to come next.
We may never know what the original plan for Justice League's ending or a potential sequel was, and how Darkseid's appearance would have helped or hindered. What we DO know is that removing any trace of it led to the most criticized, uninspired, and underwhelming of Justice League's runtime being added in. Which makes it hard to say that leaving everything else in would have been much worse. It just might have made enough sense for audiences to appreciate.