Spoilers for Justice League follow below.
If you’ve seen Justice League, you’re now well aware that the baddie that finally brings this team of superheroes together is none other than Steppenwolf. Indeed, instead of going with a major comics name or a character we’ve seen before in the DC Extended Universe, director Zack Snyder and his team opted to bring Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) into the fold as the villain who squares off against Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and yes, Superman (Henry Cavill). But you may still have some questions after seeing Justice League about who Steppenwolf is, exactly, where he came from, and what he wants. So let’s break it down.
In the DCEU, Steppenwolf was first teased in a deleted scene from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released online at the time of the film’s release. We saw that when Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was captured by authorities inside the Kryptonian ship, he was communicating with Steppenwolf via some sort of hologram-infused Kryptonian Skype. When the authorities arrived, Steppenwolf’s shape disappeared—but it was clear something was going on.
Cut to Justice League, where we learn that in the wake of Superman’s death, Steppenwolf has decided it’s time to return to Earth and take over the world. That’s right—as relayed in a lengthy and visually impressive piece of exposition, we learn that Steppenwolf first came to Earth thousands of years ago, assuming his rightful place as its ruler. Using three Mother Boxes that combined to form the “unity”, Steppenwolf set about laying waste to Earth’s resistance, but a union of Amazonians, Atlanteans, Men, and even a Green Lantern battled Steppenwolf, forcing him into his first ever retreat.
(Side note: If Steppenwolf was waiting until Superman was dead to attack, why hadn’t he attacked in the thousands of years before Superman actually arrived on Earth? The film posits that Superman’s death caused a worldwide panic, and that fear could be sensed by the parademons, but still. Where you been, Stepp?)
Following his first Earth attacked, Steppenwolf was none too pleased at being humiliated on the battlefield, so in Justice League he sends his parademons—i.e. creepy bug dudes that feed on fear and enact Steppenwolf’s will, and who also happen to be the zombified forms of Steppenwolf’s defeated enemies—out as scouts to hunt for the Mother Boxes. That’s the basic plot of Justice League: Steppenwolf is hunting for the three Mother Boxes so he can form Unity, kill the metahumans, and force humanity to bend its knee to its new ruler. Easy peasy.
But what’s the baggage here? Why is Steppenwolf so mad? The film doesn’t offer a ton of context to Steppenwolf’s actions beyond insinuations that he’s trying to impress alien supervillain Darkseid, who was teased as the DCEU’s potential BIG Big Bad in those “Knightmare” scenes in Batman v Superman.
Indeed, in the comics Steppenwolf is Darkseid’s uncle and a member of Darkseid’s Elite, which is a band of warriors who do Darkseid’s bidding. His role in the comics is basically doing anything that will make Darkseid happy or save his life—at one point Steppenwolf fought off the monstrous Doomsday, who appeared onscreen in Batman v Superman as the creature that Lex created in that Kryptonian goo. But it’s the New 52 comics iteration of Steppenwolf that most closely mirrors his onscreen counterpart in Justice League, as the character lead a massive earth invasion with his parademons—although in that version, while he’s ultimately repelled, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all die. Bummer.