Darkseid’s Strange Secret and What It Means for Supervillains
Darkseid is coming, sooner or later. DC’s big, craggy-faced god of evil will face the Justice League on screen at some point in the future of the DC films, and that kind of confrontation is expected to be a huge, spectacular battle. But will it be?
As more and more superhero movies come out on a yearly basis, one of the areas where we’re starting to see cracks in the veneer are the supervillains. The Marvel Cinematic Universe now has 15 movies under its belt, and most of these movies are solidly made enjoyable superhero action stories, but all things considered, they’ve got maybe three or four particularly interesting villains over the lot of them. 11 more films are in production at the moment, and again, as exciting as most of them look, very few of the upcoming villains inspire much interest on their own. DC’s villains have not been a whole lot better, and yet the buildup continues at both studios for a big, powerhouse enemy seeking a universe controlling MacGuffin and requiring the combined efforts of basically all the superheroes to overcome.
So if these villains and their threats are such a big part of the stories to come, what makes a good villain? Obviously, there’s an element of needing to craft an interesting character and motivation at the heart of the villain, but there’s also an element of how the story is built around them, and their place in it, that can help sell them. And since Darkseid is probably the biggest villain on the Coming Soon docket, let’s take a look at him and a particular theme at the heart of his character, and see what it can say about what makes villains super.
Darkseid’s Secret Revealed?!
Let's start with a theory: maybe Darkseid isn't the all-powerful supervillain that he's made out to be. Now to be clear, characters in-universe definitely believe he is all powerful, and he certainly doesn't attempt to dispel the idea, but there is a quiet, little rumor with great, big effects on the story that Jack Kirby intended to write a big twist near the end of the Fourth World Saga that would reveal Darkseid's "power" to be a hoax.
Now, we might think of Darkseid today as the final boss of the DC Universe, but the deal with the Fourth World books was that they were a passion project by Jack Kirby when they were originally published in 1970. Kirby had originally intended to tell these, or similar, stories at Marvel, utilizing the mythology of the Thor books. Part of this project involved killing off Thor and his pantheon to make way for these new gods, so of course, Marvel said no, which proved to be the last straw for an already frustrated Jack who took his project to DC instead. He makes a veiled nod to this in the opening sequence of New Gods #1, where he depicts the great battle where the Old Gods died, and in the center of the carnage is a silhouetted figure in a winged helmet, wielding a mighty hammer. Part of the reason we got the New Gods in the first place was that DC gave Kirby pretty much free reign across four titles to tell his tale (up until the point where they abruptly canceled them all, because the comics industry does nothing better than mistreating its greatest creators). At the time, the Fourth World books, and Darkseid, in particular, were only loosely connected to the world of DC Comics, so Kirby was free to do as he wished with them.
And the thing is, whether this rumor is true or not, if you're looking just at Kirby's Fourth World comics, then the theory holds up uncannily well. Overall four Kirby titles, New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, plus the graphic novel intended to give a conclusion to the series, The Hunger Dogs, Darkseid doesn't display any major feats of superhuman strength. He uses his Omega Beams, but their effect isn't to kill or destroy, it's merely to transplant targets through time; this essentially kills them because if they don't have time travel, they're stuck to live out their days in the past, but it isn't really what you'd call a lethal move. At another point, he creates or maybe summons a windstorm that maybe does/maybe doesn't kill a few of his minions, but it's never made clear that it's his power and he never does it again. The Hunger Dogs, in particular, takes a very different approach to Darkseid; he's depicted as outdated and rendered obsolete by the weapons and technology he had created. He's shown fleeing from the rebellious denizens of Apokolips, and in the one instance in the entire series we see him directly kill someone, he uses a hand pistol to do it. These are not the actions of an all powerful deity.
Where the theory shines, though, is in the symbolism. The idea behind the New Gods was to create a pantheon of figures that represented the modern concepts that meant the most to human society. Darkseid represented an all-encompassing evil, covering everything from fascist despots to abusive fathers. His end goal was to gain control over everyone and everything in the cosmos, and to a degree, he already has a little bit of that: he is the dark side that everyone battles with. That’s not something you can beat in a physical confrontation, and the stories represent that by being built in a way where he never really gets involved in the fights directly; he spends his time maneuvering things from afar, sending minions to do his dirty work, and searching for the Anti-Life Equation, the thing that will finally give him the full power he wants. And this is what makes him so interesting in these books. With a villain like this, you can’t win a regular fight; you have to find...
A Different Way to Win
This is where you get into how a supervillain is designed. Now, when we talk about superheroes, the nebulous concept that is conjured up by the word is somewhere between Batman and Spider-Man: a colorful and thematically dressed superhero with either gadget and special skills or some superpower faces off against similarly constructed supervillains in a series of one-off fights. Looking at Spider-Man in particular, his recurring theme is the underdog hero overcoming the odds, and his stories reflect this. He finds himself pitted against villain after the villain who seems to be stronger or tougher than him; he fights, he falls short, he rises to the occasion and wins. His collection of enemies reflects this by being a bunch of villains designed for physical confrontations. You have flyers and weapon specialists, hunters and heavyweight brawlers. You have the occasional trickster-esque villain, but generally speaking, the primary focus here is creating villains who seem like they could dominate a plucky teenager (even one with spider powers) in a street fight. To beat these guys, Spider-Man has to find the inner strength, resolve, or cunning to overcome them physically.
Batman, in contrast, is a detective and crimefighter; this means that his stories tend to involve some element of mystery and some element of there being a specific criminal at the heart of the conflict. Batman stories are concluded when the mystery is solved, the culprit is discovered, and the villain is defeated. Batman’s rogue's gallery is essentially based on this story structure, so you get a slew of villains who are master criminals in different areas. Villains who challenge his intellect, villains who are at the head of organized crime, villains who shapeshift or cast illusions; to beat these guys, Batman has to outthink them. There’s frequently punching involved, but many of his villains are not particularly physical threats, not to Batman, a warrior, and athlete in peak condition. In a one on one fight against the Joker, Batman pretty easily comes out on top, but the Joker’s threat lies in the fact that he’s cunning and tricky and always has an ace up his sleeve. Stories are more fun when there’s variety, and having a variety of villains who stories are concluded with a variety of solutions make the stories, and the protagonists, more interesting.
And this leads us back to Darkseid. Even if Darkseid is a weakling, how do you beat the god of evil? It’s difficult, if not outright impossible because evil is always there. He’s not just a single person who gets punched out and thrown in a jail cell; his power is in what he represents. To fight him physically is to engage in violence, and violence only begets more violence, and thus Darkseid is still in power. The Hunger Dogs gives us one of the relatively few moments where Darkseid honest to god(s) loses, and the solution is a fascinating one: the good guys just leave. I mentioned earlier that as much as he represents a despotic tyrant, with areas of his world being referred to with words like “Armaghetto,” he also represents evil in its more common, banal forms, like an abusive father or husband. In this case, the true visualization of his defeat comes at the hands of Orion, his estranged son, who sneaks onto Darkseid’s planet Apokolips, finds and rescues his captive mother, and just flies away. This comes on the heels of the citizens of New Genesis, the neighboring planet Darkseid makes constant war with, literally packing up and leaving to find a new world. Darkseid’s power here wasn’t in the possibility that he would take over New Genesis, it was simply in the fact that he kept them in a state of conflict. His defeat is not in any military loss, his defeat is when all his enemies simply stop playing his game and leave. There’s a brilliant, three-panel shot of Orion flying off in a ship, and Darkseid is down below, alone, growing smaller and smaller in the distance as the people he tormented leave him behind.
The idea that maybe Darkseid is powerless is reflected well in this victory; maybe you can’t physically wrestle with evil and overcome it, but it also only has as much power as we grant it. When we put our focus on moving forward and getting better, that’s when good wins, and that’s a message at the heart of the Fourth World, sprinkled all throughout the books and the characters’ stories. It’s what makes these books stand out and why they’re still celebrated almost 50 years later because they tell...
A Unique Story
This is what other comics, and other superhero stories across all media, can learn from Darkseid’s secret: variety. Different genres come with different rules for their structure, and how a story concludes is a major part of that. How you conclude an action movie is different from how you conclude a romance which is different from how you conclude a mystery; your villain plays into this, because a villain, in addition to being a character, is also a piece of the plot. And this is the beauty of superheroes: they’re not a genre of their own, they are a broad range of criteria that can be applied to nearly any genre. You can have a superhero mystery, a superhero romance, a superhero horror, and so on. Remembering that you can play with the structures of nearly any genre is a major part of telling a fun, unique superhero story, but that acknowledgment of genre trappings has to include how the villain plays into things.
Experimentation with the genre has been one of the strong points of the Marvel movies, and while this has done wonders for the tone and aesthetic of many of the films, it hasn’t as often affected the villains, their motivation, or the requirements for defeating them. Most of the villains we’ve seen are basic, power hungry, amoral jerks who have to be fought lest they take over and/or destroy everything, and they are exactly as memorable or interesting as their actor is charismatic (meaning Loki is the good one, and most of the rest have been mediocre). The problem is a lack of variety. They’ve almost all essentially wanted the same things, been defeated the same ways, and represented the same general concepts of evil. Two of the movies that have strayed from the formula to the best results were the Russo Brothers’ Captain America films, though it’s worth noting that Winter Solder essentially eschewed having a traditional villain at all and opted to have HYDRA as an organization be the real enemy, while Civil War removed the focus from the villain, Baron Zemo, and placed the conflict almost entirely in the realm of the heroes. In Winter Soldier, the point where Captain America has essentially won is not when he lands a finishing punch on someone (which he never actually does), but most obviously at the moment when he makes a speech about goodness and morality, which we see inspire the citizens to rise and fight for right. In Civil War, there isn’t a solid victory; there’s just conflict, and the story is partly about how no one wins in a war.
Part of the deal here is that superheroes in live action do not have the volumes of stories behind them that the comics do. Over decades of telling stories about superheroes fighting supervillains over and over and over again, comics have faced not just the desire, but the need to experiment with different storytelling structures, and the industry has benefited greatly from it. Only in the last couple years of the Marvel movie franchises, or DC’s budding film universe or even the CW’s TV universe have live action adaptations reached the point where the stories come out fast enough that they run the risk of feeling repetitive, but if these studios expect these stories to keep coming out at this rate, that needs for experimentation and variety will become ever more clear.
And if you’re looking to experiment, you could do a lot worse than checking out Jack Kirby, arguably the single person with the greatest amount of influence on what superheroes mean to us today. When discussing his inspirations for the planet eating villain Galactus, Kirby said: “My inspirations were the fact that I had to make sales. And I had to come up with characters that were no longer stereotypes. … I had to get something new.” He knew when to give us a red skulled Nazi villain who needed to be punched in the face; he knew when to give us an extremist mutant (who survived the Holocaust) who needed to be contained; and he knew when to give us a god of evil that represents the part of yourself you can’t really fight, you can only strive to be better than.