Darkseid is… and boy, is he EVER. The graphical team behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League has without question delivered one of the most horrifying CGI villains to darken the DC Universe in the craggy visage of the Lord of Apokolips. But this woeful countenance is only the latest in a well-established bounty of computer-generated grandeur which DC’s most ambitious projects have long provided. Let’s take a look at how DC’s greatest 3D renderings have evolved, culminating in the breathtaking visuals that are found within Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max.
2000: The Justice League Intro Sequence
One of DC’s earliest forays into CGI was also among the most iconic—the dramatic silhouettes of the world’s greatest heroes, banded together on screen to form the stuff of legends. The majesty and import on display as our heroes demonstrated the abilities which defined them in turn through a highly stylistic sequence immediately impressed that these were no mere “Super Friends.” What Batman: The Animated Series did for the Dark Knight, and what Superman: The Animated Series did for the Man of Steel, Justice League aimed high in their mission statement to redefine the greatest team in heroism. And this intro lays that ambition bare.
2008: Two-Face, The Dark Knight
Like many of Gotham City’s greatest villains, the story of Two-Face is one of both tragedy and horror. A great ally to justice itself, and a true friend to Bruce Wayne on the lonely path he’s chosen, the fall of Harvey Dent is as grisly both physically and symbolically. To elevate The Dark Knight beyond the camp of its predecessors, the reveal of Harvey’s disfiguration had to be shocking—the kind of disfigurement that not only repelled, but astounded, prohibiting the viewer to look away. Unlike the Joker, we had to know exactly how Two-Face got those scars, and over a decade later, it remains an indelible image still seared into our brains.
2011: The Aliens of Green Lantern
In Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, John Stewart says: “There was a Green Lantern movie! But… we don’t talk about that.” You know what, though? Maybe we should—especially when it comes to the movie’s alien designs. The graphical engineers behind Green Lantern brought the likes of Kilowog, Tomar-Re and dozens of favorite, deep-cut members of the Green Lantern Corps to life on screen in a way unimaginable ever before. Where else are you going to see a multimillion dollar, lovingly rendered Rot Lop Fan than 2011’s Green Lantern? Kilowog looks so real you could practically feel his breath as he snorts derisively at the poozers who’d dare to come at him incorrect. After all, it’s not really a Green Lantern movie if you don’t give the alien designs your all. And in that respect, this Ryan Reynolds vehicle went exactly where it needed to go.
2012: Green Lantern: The Animated Series
It’s frankly astounding that more toys weren’t made out of the Green Lantern: The Animated Series cast, because this often-overlooked emerald of a series features some of the sleekest character designs on television. Every episode felt like a showcase of the coolest toy set you’ve never had, from Atrocitus’s Red Lanterns to the Anti-Monitor itself. But what GLTAS really had going for it was the dramatic, torrid romance between a brooding Red Lantern and...Hal’s ship computer. Trust me, it’s something you have to see to believe.
2013: General Zod, Man of Steel
At his core, what makes General Zod such a compelling villain is that he’s exactly the sum of all Lex Luthor’s fears, proven right. He’s the unknown entity from the stars with incalculable power who, just as Luthor has been accusing Superman of for decades, truly intends to use his power as military might. Michael Shannon’s volatile performance as the militaristic Zod in Man of Steel rivals even Terrence Stamp’s in Superman II, but one thing he has that the original never did is the costume. Embellished in CGI, Zod—along with his lieutenant Faora—were clothed in uniforms which truly lived up to the power they possessed, imbuing strength and mercilessness. Where Superman was simple, they were ornate. Where he was bright, they were terrifyingly black. Zod’s costuming provided the perfect counterpart for Snyder’s Man of Steel. This is especially true as Kal-El reckons with the implications of his own power through Snyder’s DC film trilogy…leading all the way up to donning a black suit himself in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
2015: Gorilla Grodd, The Flash
“To understand what I’m about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible.” That pretty big ask is how the first episode of The CW’s The Flash began, and for seven seasons, the show has been doing its best week after week to prove that our belief is well-placed. The impossible paid off in a big way early in Season 1, with the appearance of a villain who just a scant few years ago you’d never expect to see in the serious-minded high drama of a CW network show—the Flash’s simian nemesis, Gorilla Grodd. CGI the likes of which had never been seen in a live action DCTV show was employed to bring the powerful telepathic ape to life. Grodd has remained a malicious presence in the Arrowverse ever since—whether he’s in the midst of a spectacular battle with King Shark, or traveling through time to kill a young Barack Obama. (Seriously, that happened in Legends of Tomorrow, Season 3, Episode 17!)
2016: Batman’s Armor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
General Zod wouldn’t be the last enemy to confront Superman in a bespoke suit of armor designed to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. The next of Superman’s foils to face him in diametric duds was the Dark Knight himself, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—the second act of the Zack Snyder trilogy chronicling Superman’s fall and rise. Where Zod’s armor was an original creation, Batman’s Kryptonian-busting armor is a direct callback to the comics—in this case, the famous battle between the World’s Finest that serves as the finale of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The title match promised by the film on every theater’s marquee was one which danced in the minds of comic fans for decades, and Batman’s armor did more than its part to deliver on that promise in style.
2018: Batman Ninja
Man, I don’t even know where to start with this one. If you haven’t seen Batman Ninja, all I can say is that it’s the coolest freaking thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Produced by Kamikaze Douga, YamatoWorks and Barnum Studios in conjunction with Warner Bros. Japan, Batman Ninja is a heavily stylized, lavishly animated, fully immersive story where Batman and his greatest enemies and allies are all transported to 16th Century Japan…where an hour of high stakes samurai battles ensues, the likes of which are beyond imagining. However big, however wild you’re picturing it, you’re not even close. Batman’s rooftop battle with the Joker ranks among the finest CGI battles you’ll see anywhere and the copious other fights featured are high rankers too. Screen it at the next meeting of your anime club.
2018: Topo, Aquaman
Look at him! It’s AN OCTOPUS PLAYING THE DRUMS! 2018’s Aquaman truly brings us the finest use of a production’s CGI budget in cinematic history right here. Arthur Curry’s trusty octopus has been fighting maritime crime by his side since 1956, and his musical appearance here at the height of Aquaman’s rising action showcases a cinematic universe unafraid to let down its flowing black locks and have a little fun. Sure, the destined King of Atlantis is going on a personal journey which will determine the fate of 70% of the Earth. But come on. It’s AQUAMAN. Let’s let an octopus play the drums.
2019: The Seven Enemies of Man, Shazam!
The true power of Shazam!, to borrow a phrase, is its ability to borrow from the dangerous, captivating kid’s adventure movies of the 1980s. The ones which have delighted young audiences for generations with their willingness to getting a little scary. That’s exactly what you get with the horrifying septet of demons representing the Seven Enemies of Man—or Seven Deadly Sins, if you prefer—in Shazam!, each brutally preying upon one of mankind’s greatest weaknesses. Trust us, if you took your kids to see Shazam! in 2019, that boardroom scene where Greed feeds is going to stay with them for a long, long time. But it’s all right. They’ll be safe from the monsters as long as they remember the magic word.
So how do these demons, monsters and creatures from beyond the stars (along with the odd gorilla) stack up to almighty Darkseid? We’ll let you decide that one. Watch Darkseid’s despotic debut in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, only on HBO Max. And let us know what you think over in the DC Community.
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Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCItyQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.