Zack Snyder’s Justice League has come and gone. It has placed a firm imprint into the landscape of cinema for better or worse. Love it or loathe it as a film — or pair of films — one character has consistently been sold short. That character is Steppenwolf, the New God general who faced off against Earth’s greatest heroes.
A Tale of Two Steppenwolfs
Steppenwolf’s tragedy began with Joss Whedon’s iteration of Justice League. He is ineffective and unimpressive in this version, due to his lackluster design and generic characterization. He simply looks like a Hasbro figurine, flipping across each scene spouting how much he needs “Mother” and how things smell of Mother. This particular issue is compounded by his dialogue being completely rewritten to make little or no mention of Darkseid, DeSaad, or anything else from Apokolips.
Of course, Superman ultimately shows up and hands him his ass, resulting in Steppenwolf’s fear overtaking him and the Parademons deciding to destroy their one-time leader. It is a clichéd and poorly written ending that suits the wannabe conqueror.
However, fast-forward four years, and we have the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League — and with it the debut of buff boi Steppenwolf. Gone is the gaunt grandad seen previously: Now we have a monster clad in living armor who commands his troops with actual fear and respect. In general, he looks so much more impressive, and the script fleshes him out much more as a character as well.
It Is Redemption He Seeks
However, while Steppenwolf in Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a far superior specimen, these improvements bring new challenges for the character. This Steppenwolf was exiled from his home planet of Apokolips due to slighting his nephew Darkseid. Having been shunned from the only home he’s ever known, Steppenwolf is trying to make amends the only way he knows how: by conquering planets in the name of his lord.
In scenes where he reports to DeSaad you can see how distraught he is. He is clearly devoted to conquering planets, but he wishes to do it with Darkseid’s blessing — not simply as a punishment. It does not help that with this upgrade in design Steppenwolf looks like a sad puppy at times. His eyes are expressive, and when you see his disappointment, frustration, or sorrow, you actually respond to it.
There is a particular moment when Darkseid speaks to his banished uncle. During this interaction not only does Steppenwolf look up to him with “take me back” eyes, but Steppenwolf’s armor peels away so that he may fully prostrate himself. It’s a revealing moment that shows the power dynamic more than words ever could.
When Steppenwolf realizes he has accidentally discovered the Anti-Life Equation is on Earth, he finally sees his moment of redemption. At this point he is frantic in getting what he wants. There is a fever of devotion in his eyes to try to achieve his goal and return home. Unfortunately, like in the Whedon cut, there is an obvious obstacle in Steppenwolf’s way.
Doomed to Fail
The return of Superman significantly complicates Steppenwolf’s pursuit of his goals. A clear path to victory becomes a desperate struggle. He fights with the ferocity of an enraged bull, but to no avail. Even when the Justice League falls and his lord Darkseid arrives to conquer Earth, a mouthy speedster figures out some way to turn back time.
Then in an ironic twist, Steppenwolf does get to go home head first, as he is soundly thrust back to Darkseid after being impaled by Aquaman and decapitated by Wonder Woman.
This is the tragedy that is Steppenwolf’s cinematic journey. At first he was simply a victim of the work. Whedon’s cut of Justice League saw him as an underdeveloped piece of plastic that would scare the toddlers, maybe.
With Snyder’s more nuanced take on the New God, we saw a more relatable stooge. He was threatening, had a pure and understandable motive, and a potent presence. Ultimately though, Steppenwolf became a victim of circumstance. He was between a rock and a hard place, and there was no success in sight. Strangely, in becoming a better villain, he also became a better victim.