[WARNING: This article contains minor SPOILERS for Justice League]
It may not be the formula used for most superhero movies, but after introducing the new Man of Steel by pitting him against his famous film foe General Zod, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment set him opposite a new threat: the Dark Knight. There was a time when the mere title of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice would have had fans reeling, but in this modern era of shared blockbuster universes, solo origin stories and team-up films, it wasn't long before audiences looked even farther ahead to the imminent arrival of the Justice League. And in 2017, it hits theaters.
We got a firsthand look at the budding DC super-team during our recent visit to the Justice League set, and learned more than a few details - and saw just as many rumors confirmed or denied. Thankfully, those comic book fans wondering exactly who the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg will be fighting can rest a bit easier. We now know the villain who will force the team together, the soldiers and set-pieces to expect, and most importantly, what larger threats may still be building...
For those who wish to remain in the dark about the villains, plot beats or action sequences, read no further. We don't believe these will all be kept secret as the marketing spins up (and coming castings are guaranteed to make headlines), but expect some minor spoilers for both the film and their DC Comics source material ahead as we break down Justice League: What We Know About The Movie's Villains.
The Batman V Superman Clues
The writing was on the wall even before Batman V Superman hit theaters: if you're going to introduce a 'big bad' for the Justice League, there's really just one 'bad' big enough. But surely Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips would be years, and countless movies away, right? That assumption was blown out of the water when comic fans took their seats and witnessed Bruce Wayne's 'Knightmare' - the world of Metropolis and Gotham reduced to yet another dry, hellish factory for Darkseid, with his famous symbol carved into the Earth itself.
The following confirmation had been partly revealed in the film's marketing, as Batman eventually fell to a swarm of winged, alien soldiers. Soldiers that, in the finished cut, were revealed to be faithfully-rendered live-action versions of Parademons, the insect-like footsoldiers used by Darkseid as his invading armies. Add in a tease from Lex Luthor that a much greater, far more evil threat was coming this way - one that had waited until Superman was removed from the fight - and a deleted scene released online seemed to confirm that a horned beast was the culprit, with origins almost certainly tied to Apokolips.
We had those questions and more answered by director Zack Snyder, producer Deborah Snyder, and even got to see some of the setting of the team's battles for ourselves. And while the 'Knightmare' may have been all Bruce Wayne's imagination (or was it?) the enemies battling the League have already been revealed.
The Footsoldiers: Parademons of Apokolips
Yes, the story will begin when swarms of Parademons rear their ugly heads in the shadows and back alleys of Gotham - though who or what they are, or what they're after isn't clear. We did learn that the winged soldiers (or, as Batman calls them, "flying moneys") will have kidnapped a number of key people, presumably with information regarding the larger Mother Box plot, by the time the film's real action gets under way. At that point, the role of Apokolips, Darkseid, or any servant thereof is still resigned to the shadows. Which leaves Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and The Flash to find their base of operations.
In a classic bit of old school Super Friends teamwork, the group determines that at the center of the Parademon attacks sits Gotham Harbor, and in it, the abandoned tunnels once planned to act as an underwater thoroughfare between the two massive metropolises. Assuming that must be the Parademon nest, the team sets out to exterminate it. As can be expected, a massive fight soon follows, forcing each and every one of them to put their unique skillsets to work on the many-limbed, winged, otherworldly monsters (again, without knowledge of where they come from, or why they've been sent).
That general premise actually shares plenty with the New 52 "Justice League" origin story concocted by Geoff Johns as part of the company's 2011 relaunch, with the earliest days of the just-emerging heroes seeing them thrust together by - you guessed it - an Apokoliptian invasion. We can't say that a full-scale "invasion" like the one in that comic book arc or, indeed, Bruce Wayne's vision of Earth's future, will actually come to pass, but the beginning is the same. In that comic, Parademon attacks on Earth's heroes forces them together, with Batman leading the charge in uncovering just what is actually transpiring.
The real mystery will be tied in with the larger mythology and threat being cooked up, first teased in the film's pre-history prologue, and leading to a showdown in the final act. But to get there, the League will need to face more than just a horde of flying monsters. They'll need a full-blown 'big bad.'
The Big Bad: Steppenwolf
Sure, Justice League will rely on endless hordes of enemies to propel the many action scenes and fight sequences (like nearly every modern superhero movie), but it's all to bring them face-to-face with the one commanding them: Steppenwolf. That's right, the rumors have proven true, revealing that it will be elite military leader Steppenwolf of Apokolips crossing paths (and blades) with the Justice League - and it was already teased in Batman V Superman. While on set, Zack Snyder confirmed that it was a holographic recreation of Steppenwolf seen "in communion" with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). He even went a step further by explaining why the deleted scene was released while the film was still in theaters, claiming the idea of releasing it as a post-credits scene had crossed his mind.
The real meaning there is that it was an intended tease, and the vague claims by Lex of something "coming" were intended to be a bit clearer to the audience. So, who is Steppenwolf? For comic book fans and newcomers alike, it's a difficult question to answer. Not because the character is mysterious, but he simply isn't as iconic a figure in DC Comics lore as you tend to expect from a team-up's villain. But his character outline is easy enough to draw: he's from Apokolips, he's immensely powerful, incredibly skilled, and every bit as brutal and merciless as his commander - and nephew - Darkseid.
Even the implied story, conflict, or tension that one would expect from a powerful soldier being forced to serve his nephew isn't really an element in the comics: Steppenwolf is simply (and usually) the weapon of Darkseid, unleashed upon his targets... who, most often, tend to be the Justice League. But it's interesting to see just how much the design of the Apokoliptian general has already strayed from the source material. In the comics, as seen above, he's represented - like most residents of Apokolips - as a human man in the hulking, intimidating armor of his homeworld.
Yet in the "Communion" deleted scene, the figure now known to be Steppenwolf looks more like a demonic alien beast than a humanoid sporting a horned helmet - a large part of the reason why many assumed the figure was the more demonic father of Darkseid, Yuga Khan. It's unclear if the figure standing over Lex Luthor is a rough depiction of him in his armor, an intentional misrepresentation for the purpose of intimidation, or the design of Steppenwolf in his natural state (most Apokoliptian characters have succeeded in 'hiding out' in human forms here on Earth).
The producers wouldn't say who was being pursued to bring the villain commanding the Parademon forces to life, but the final product will be a CG character - and the actor is "close" to signing a deal. It may only act as an appetizer, however, since Steppenwolf isn't the one giving the orders - he's just the one carrying them out. Even if the Justice League succeeds in defeating this invader and his army, it will only act as homework for the real villain of the DCEU...
The Shadowy Mastermind: Darkseid
As mentioned above, Steppenwolf isn't the kind of person who takes action on his own. When the commander you serve is basically the most powerful living person in the universe, you tend to want to stay on his good side. That isn't to say that disloyalty or subterfuge are alien concepts to Apokolips, but it's always safe to assume that Darkseid is pulling the strings behind any crossover of Apokolips and Earth. The question then becomes: what is Darkseid planning? And is it something more than world domination?
Honestly, a desire to 'take over the world' functions pretty well in understanding the threat posed by Darkseid: he usually wants to kill or enslave humanity, and turn Earth into another one of his forge planets (and has the power to do it). So before entering the battle himself, he sends Steppenwolf to soften up the defenses - an easy task, assuming the metahumans of Earth aren't united. And when Lex Luthor warns that a great threat is coming, there's a good chance he didn't mean an alien general commanding an army without any orders.
But that still raises some key questions. For starters, why now? If the details of the film's prologue prove true - that the civilizations of man, Atlantis, and the Amazons once banded together to fight a massive (perhaps Apokoliptian) threat, why wait thousands of years to strike again? Whatever the explanation, there's also the question of how drastic a redesign fans should expect when it comes to Darkseid himself. Will he, typically less human-looking than his lieutenants, be depicted as even more demonic and strange? Or has Steppenwolf been redesigned to more greatly distinguish Darkseid as a more human character? Only time will tell.
Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020.