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New images released for March’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice teased the cinematic debut of one of DC Entertainment’s most beloved villains, Darkseid. But just because the ruler of dystopian planet Apokolips hasn’t shown up in multiplexes before this point doesn’t mean that movie audiences won’t be familiar with him.
Darkseid — it’s pronounced “dark side,” which we’ll come back to later — debuted in 1970’s Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen No. 134, of all places. He was the creation of Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hulk and Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby, and one of the main characters in a storyline that many consider Kirby’s masterpiece, the so-called “Fourth World Saga.”
Having spent the last decade building the Marvel Universe with stories of superscience-gone-wrong, unstoppable monsters, evil despots and gods living amongst men, Kirby moved publishers to DC Comics with grand ambitions to tell one epic story that merged all of these elements together, but ran in a number of different comic books published simultaneously. The Fourth World books — Jimmy Olsen, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle — marked a step up in terms of Kirby’s work, with him writing the books in addition to drawing them and creating a psychedelic mythology about freedom, war and humanity’s inherent need for kindness. All of this, of course, wrapped up in stories about visually spectacular characters fighting a lot, so as to not scare off unsuspecting readers who were hoping for the monthly adventures of Thor.
At the heart of the Fourth World was Darkseid, the main villain and antagonist of the story. Clearly intended to be, on one level, a cosmic supervillain analog for Hitler, Darkseid was obsessed by the search for something called the “Anti-Life Equation” — something that would allow him to eradicate free will throughout the universe. His search for the equation (which was never fully defined during Kirby’s time with the character, but has been given multiple, contradictory explanations since then) brought him to Earth, where he set in motion multiple plans to uncover it.
Almost immediately, Darkseid was a compelling character. Unlike most supervillains, he rarely got involved in proceedings directly, preferring to send others into battle on his behalf. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a sign of weakness, however; when Darkseid is spurred into action, he’s repeatedly been portrayed as being immensely powerful and capable, with traditional superpowers like super strength and invulnerability augmented with something called “omega beams,” which are targeted lasers that shoot out of his eyes and can either kill their targets or send them through time. Interestingly enough, they have also resurrected the dead on more than one occasion, although those who return are, essentially, soulless and personality-less compared with their former selves.
What made Darkseid so fascinating, however, wasn’t his power, but his temperament; Kirby portrayed him not as the melodramatic, self-aggrandizing blowhard of the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom, nor the craven ideologue of the X-Men’s Magneto, but as someone thoughtful, careful and almost noble in his single-minded pursuit of his prize.
As he prevents the murder of one of his enemies by a lackey in 1971’s Forever People No. 6, he explains, “I regret to say this, Desaad!! But I don’t have the stomach for your kind of pursuits… I do no more than what has to be done!!” Years later, in 1985’s graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, he responds to a lieutenant’s euphemistic attitude toward mass slaughter (“There are ‘moves,’ sire. We don’t call it ‘war’!”) with disgust: “You expect me to sanction this… this filth?” he asks. Darkseid was unlike his predecessors in terms of comic book villains, and would lay the groundwork for many classic antagonists to come.
In a couple of high-profile cases, Darkseid was a direct inspiration. Thanos, the big bad glimpsed in both The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, debuted in Marvel’s Iron Man No. 55, just as Kirby’s Fourth World comics were winding up at DC, and has been admitted by creator Jim Starlin to be a riff on both Darkseid and a second Fourth World character, Metron. “Kirby had done the New Gods, which I thought was terrific,” Starlin said in a 1998 interview. “I came up with some things that were inspired by that.” (The two are hardly identical, despite sharing a purple face and oversized sneer; while Darkseid is obsessed by Anti-Life, Thanos is in love with Death, a literal personification of the concept … and he also has a magical glove, so there’s that.)
More interestingly, but less acknowledged by those directly involved, is the debt that Star Wars owes to the Fourth World. Not only does Darth Vader fall to the dark side of the Force — remember, “Darkseid” is pronounced “dark side” — but the very name of the mystical MacGuffin of Star Wars is eerily similar to the Fourth World’s own cosmic belief system, the Source. And, like Darkseid, Darth Vader gave up his son a some point in his history, only for his son to grow up and become the hero of the story destined to kill his father. On the plus side, Star Wars did have lightsabers, which the Fourth World stories lack, but there’s no denying that Darkseid’s “Parademons” and “Hunger Dogs” just sound cooler than “Stormtroopers.”
For all his influence, Darkseid’s reign outside of comic books has been curiously limited. The character appeared in the final seasons of the animated Super Friends show in the 1980s, and then showed up in episodes of subsequent animated series Superman, Justice League (and its follow-up, Justice League Unlimited), Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Teen Titans Go. In terms of live-action projects, there was a Darkseid on the 10th and final season of Smallville, but he shared very little with the comic book character outside his name.
And so, if the speculation and teases are true, if Darkseid does show up to be the main villain behind Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (and, presumably, the Justice League movies in 2017 and 2019; he was, after all, the threat that brought the latest incarnation of the comic book team together in 2011), it’s possible that he’ll seem at once known and unknown to mainstream audiences: a villain who they’ve never met before, but can’t quite shake the feeling otherwise.
It’s a contradiction that both Darkseid and his creator might appreciate. After all, it could be argued that Darkseid was never about novelty, but instead being the absolute evil — the omega that provides the name of his superpowered eye beams, if you will. Let Darth Vader, Thanos and other copycats lead the way and prepare for his arrival. If Batman v. Superman treats the character right, when the dust settles, audiences will know just who the biggest bad of them all is, deep down.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will be released March 25.
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