The Justice League trailers have revealed quite a bit of the movie but mostly kept its primary bad guy mysterious — Steppenwolf the horn-headed figure voiced by Ciarán Hinds. Who is this guy? What’s he doing on Themiscyra, and what’s he want with Earth? Well, that’s a somewhat complicated question, and it all comes down to one man, Jack Kirby, and one scene in Batman v Superman.
Let’s start with Batman v Superman. You may remember the bizarre dream sequence in which Batman, in Indiana Jones get-up, fights his way through a nightmare world filled with flying insect-like aliens, and a very angry Superman — one with a giant omega symbol burned into the ground. If you don’t know your DC Comics, this is an incredibly weird, out-of-left-field moment. But for the fans? It’s set-up for Justice League, and possibly beyond.
That entire sequence is basically a big shout-out to Jack Kirby’s beloved DC series New Gods and the related titles that make up Kirby’s Fourth World books. The Fourth World was created by Kirby, who joined DC late in 1970 after serving as one of Marvel’s key creative voices. Kirby was frustrated both with Marvel, which profited off his work without paying him his fair share, and with the comics industry in general, which Kirby thought was too dependent on impulse purchases by kids. Kirby had toyed with ideas much like the New Gods in the past with Thor and the Inhumans, but the New Gods would be Kirby’s own baby, a limited story to do with as he pleased that would launch a new, prestigious form of comic book put between two covers and sold in bookstores, not in limited editions on newsstands. It was forward-thinking in many ways, not the least in the ambitions of its scope.
With its warring gods and world-shattering clashes, The Fourth World is, in many respects, another pass at Norse mythology, with a heavy dose of everything from Greco-Roman myth to the Old Testament thrown in. After an apocalyptic event, two planets were formed: New Genesis, a pristine world of trees, singing birds, and crystal spires overseen by Highfather where everyone lives in peace and harmony; and Apokolips, a lava-spewing hellhole ruled with an iron fist by Darkseid. Needless to say, both sides were mortal enemies, locked in endless battle. But, since both Darkseid and Highfather were a bit smarter than the old gods, they cut a deal. They would trade sons, holding each hostage against the other’s good behavior, and breaking the cycle of destruction.
Darkseid, as you might guess from the name, never intended to hold up his part of the bargain. This is where Steppenwolf comes in. Steppenwolf (German for “coyote” to give you an idea of his personality) is Darkseid’s uncle, and no, he does not want to offer you a magic carpet ride. He’s the leader of the military forces of Apokolips and, in the comics at least, a faithful servant to his nephew. That usually means trying to track down some sort of edge on Highfather and the forces of good, which, in the comics, brings the New Gods to Earth as Darkseid seeks to overthrow the gods of Olympus and seize their power. Those flying insect-like soldiers are called Parademons. They’ve been broken to the will of Darkseid and generally have the lifespan of a mayfly.
On the movie side of things, Wonder Woman made it fairly clear there’s only one god left: Wonder Woman herself. Now, granted, Diana needs little helping beating up gods who strongly resemble respected British actors. Ask Hades how his crafty plan worked out for him. But since Steppenwolf isn’t exactly a “take prisoners” kind of dude, and the legions of Darkseid are limitless, seeking out other heroes makes sense. There are other ties as well: Most New Gods have a Mother Box, a sentient computer that’s a mix of Google Assistant and teleportation device. In Justice League they play a slightly different role, including serving as a source for Cyborg’s prosthetics.
Opening the door to the New Gods, and the Fourth World, is a curious move in any number of ways. It’s difficult to fully explain the scope of the series or its unusual additions; we doubt DC will be discussing Darkseid’s childhood friend/superhero sex tape magnate Sleez or the space hippies the Forever People, for example. (In fact, apart from Steppenwolf, the Parademons, and the Mother Boxes, most of the Fourth World mythos remains offscreen in Justice League.) But it’s definitely something we’ve never seen on screen before, and hopefully we’ll see more as the DCEU unfolds.