Justice League could have been an introduction to the Fourth World and the New Gods that would have been incredibly relevant in the year 2017 — but it wasn’t.
Parademons aren’t mind-controlled men corrupted by alien science-magic, they’re something much more sinister and sad. Steppenwolf isn’t the leader of a generic bug-alien army. He’s the advance guard of Darkseid, the ruler of Apokolips and a god of fascism — who has the power to bend humanity to his will.
I’m not telling you these things because I think it’ll help explain anything in Justice League. I’m not telling you because it’s an Easter egg or a hint at further plot lines. I’m going to tell you about the Fourth World setting in DC Comics because it deserves the big screen treatment — and Justice League didn’t do it justice.
The Fourth World
The Fourth World (not a place, but an umbrella term for set of characters and their stories), sprang fully formed from the mind of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee’s lesser known artistic-other-half. When Kirby’s patience with Marvel Comics finally ran out in the early ’70s, he jumped ship to DC. There, DC gave him carte blanche to make whatever he wanted, and the artist who had already co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor had something specific in mind.
With the Fourth World and the New Gods, Kirby wanted to make a new pillar of the DC Universe from whole cloth. Where the Norse and Greek pantheons formed major corners of the Marvel and DC universes, respectively, he wanted to add another pantheon of gods. He wanted to make a completely original setting and cast of characters, and to give it the same draw to readers as mythological concepts thousands of years old.
Ambitions like this are why he’s known as the King.
The New Gods
The set of concepts within the Fourth World come down to twin alien planets inhabited by the same race of gods: The New Gods. New Genesis, the less antagonistic and therefore less famous of the planets, is ruled by Highfather, depicted as pretty close to the classic Judeo-Christian ideal of God: An old man with a big white beard and a crooked shepherd’s staff.
New Genesis’ twin is Apokolips, ruled by the implacable stone fist of Darkseid. (Jack Kirby, like most mythology, is not particularly subtle.)
Apokolips is a hell world, covered in a single ruinous city, dotted with fire pits spewing heat and flames from the world’s core. Darkseid is served by his administrator, Desaad, his bumbling and sycophantic son, Calibak, and other elite torturers, mad scientists, warriors and assassins. These are the New Gods, Steppenwolf among them, who most often come toe to toe with heroes on Earth, whenever Darkseid’s gaze casts itself upon our lowly planet.
But a villain who can put a boot on even Superman’s neck isn’t the true threat of Apokolips. Again and again, Kirby frames the triumph of Apokolips as a triumph over minds. Darkseid’s armies aren’t monsters, and Parademons aren’t men corrupted by alien science-magic to smell fear and eat flesh. They’re people.
Die for Darkseid
Beyond the crazy Jack Kirby designs, the bold naming conventions and the wild colors, Apokolips’ culture and Darkseid’s plans for Earth are all about warping the truth beyond recognition. Among Darkseid’s most powerful servants is Granny Goodness, who runs Apokolips’ “orphanage.” Don’t let the names fool you: Her job is to turn the children of Apokolips’ lowest citizens, “Lowlies,” into elite and loyal soldiers of Darkseid’s cause, by making blind worship of Darkseid the only way they feel whole and safe.
At Granny’s orphanage, boys are promised that they can rise above the Lowlies if they give themselves to Darkseid. “YOU’RE NOT A BEAST — IF YOU KILL FOR DARKSEID” “YOU’RE NOT A LIAR — IF YOU LIE FOR DARKSEID” “DIE FOR GRANNY — AND SHE WILL LIVE FOR YOU” scream placards in the orphanage’s mess room in an early issue of Mr. Miracle.
Future timelines and alternate universes that take place after Darkseid has died or been overthrown generally share one outcome: The people of Apokolips do not rejoice in the removal of their totalitarian leader. Instead, Darkseid’s influence lives on. Apokolips resists elections, refuses reforms. The populace swear to die for the heroes who’ve rescued it, so broken by Darkseid’s influence that they understand no other way of living.
Darkseid isn’t a god of death, mischief or war. He’s a god of fascism, doublespeak and worship out of fear. Famously, he first comes to Earth in search of his ultimate goal:
The Anti-Life Equation
The Anti-Life Equation isn’t the key to snuffing out life, as you might easily assume. Instead, mastery of it (specifically what it is has always been slightly abstracted) allows its user to control the mind of every sentient being in the universe. To Kirby, “life” is “free will.” And free will is the best weapon against evil.
The elite of Apokolips have become masters at manipulating ordinary people into freely giving up their will to the will of Darkseid — they’ve already done it themselves. The dark god’s eternal struggle is to discover the means to bridge that final gap, and be able to take someone’s free will.
One of his emissaries is a preacher, Glorious Godfrey.
“Life will make you doubt! Anti-Life will make you right!” “Judge others! Enslave others! Kill others! Anti-Life will give you the right!” scream his placards.
“Yes, it is [Darkseid’s] gift to us, friends,” Godfrey preaches. “The cosmic hunting license! The right to point the finger or the gun! Who can stand against us, friends?”
Godfrey calls his warriors Justifiers and tells them they will be making things just, with the audience left to see that they are merely using his words to justify their worst impulses to themselves. Perfectly normal humans, swayed by rhetoric into burning books, into dragging their neighbors out of their homes, shouting that they enjoy their panicked cries, that they’ve been waiting to do this for years. Calling them animals, checking off their names on a list of prisoners.
A god of fascism
Kirby was Jewish and American, the son of Austrian immigrants. He was a kid who had grown up watching racist fascism come to power in Europe and worm its way into American discourse. He’d lived to see his parents’ home country annexed by Nazi Germany.
He served as a scout in World War II, sneaking into enemy-held towns and sketching their fortifications as reconnaissance. He was a man famous for telling stories about all the Nazis he’d fought and killed. He’d seen firsthand how swiftly and insidiously a charismatic leader could wipe freedom out of a society by enshrining lies as truth, by using fear to manipulate on a cultural scale.
Jack Kirby knew exactly what he was doing when he named the least fortunate levels of Apokolips “Armagetto,” or when he had a villain use a “paranoid pill” to cause a crowd of people to think Mr. Miracle is a demon who must be killed.
And Jack Kirby knew exactly what he was doing when he created a new pantheon of gods for post-war America and made its most powerful evil force one that manipulated minds and enshrined hatred into society.
So it really is too bad that Steppenwolf was given so little to distinguish him from any other generic villain — he isn’t even there to enslave mankind, just to destroy Earth. Because in the year 2017, I can’t think of a better pantheon of villains against which to pit the Justice League.
Update (March 16): Warner Bros. is working on a feature-length adaptation of DC’s New Gods with A Wrinkle in Time director Ava Duvernay, according to Variety and Deadline. DuVernay responded to reports with a tweet mentioning New Gods creator Jack Kirby himself.