A dramatic redesign that occurred sometime during production may be the reason why the CGI behind the villain of Justice League, Steppenwolf, was so subpar. The fifth film of DC’s shared movie universe has gotten off to a rough start across the board, receiving a mixed to poor reception from critics while underwhelming at the box office in its first three weeks in theaters. Those two go hand in hand, of course, and the less than glowing reviews are a big reason why Justice League is shaping up to be the lowest performing DCEU movie yet. Critics pointed to a number of different shortcomings the movie suffered from, but perhaps the one thing they all seemed to agree on was that the visual effects behind the big bad from Apokolips were laughably bad.
Sure, Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face was the talk of the town following Justice League‘s release, but at least there was a reasonable excuse for that. Paramount turned down Warner Bros’ offer to foot their visual effects bill so that they could conduct the Justice League reshoots with a clean-shaven Superman. This left the VFX team with only two or three months to completely reconstruct Cavill’s face as the reshoot footage came in (a far more impossible task than whatever Paramount’s cooked up for Mission: Impossible 6). Fans in the know understand what went wrong with CGI Superman, but the bizarrely crappy effects behind the villainous Steppenwolf remain a mystery. The VFX team shouldn’t have been in a similar time crunch with Darkseid’s uncle, as he was confirmed as the villain for Justice League way back in June of 2016. Plans for him to star in the film were likely in place long before that, in fact, since he appeared in a deleted scene for Batman v Superman. So why was Steppenwolf’s final design so woefully undercooked?
A recently released collection of the concept art behind the film may reveal the answer. Justice League: The Art of the Film is jam-packed with goodies, from alternate character designs to exclusive interviews with the cast and crew. Judging from this art collection, the sweeping changes that Steppenwolf underwent over the course of production may have been more drastic than we thought. Just how late into the process the villain’s distinctly alien design was scrapped isn’t entirely clear, but there’s evidence to suggest that it may have been one of the film’s final major pivots. Check out how the antagonist’s original design stacks up alongside the final product in the image below.
Steppenwolf underwent a number of aesthetic alterations after debuting in that deleted scene from Batman v Superman, with that look ultimately becoming something of a placeholder while the DCEU hammered out his final appearance. The left side of the image above, meanwhile, looks to have been built on the back of a previously glimpsed bit of concept artwork, a piece that teased the villain’s first act confrontation with the Amazons on Themyscira. All three unused designs starkly contrast Steppenwolf’s final form, for better or worse. We’re gonna go with worse.
The Steppenwolf concept art glimpsed above features an impressively distinctive look that is at once familiarly reptilian and frighteningly alien. Its eye-catching use of greens and purples completely blows the intensely bland color scheme of the villain’s final design out of the water. Seriously, Steppenwolf looks like he spent the entire post-production process being dropped through various desaturation filters. That’s time he could have spent with an experienced SFX team that presumably would’ve been able to make his mouth actually move along with voice actor Ciaran Hands’ words in a believable way.
Considering that the rest of the concept art released for Justice League isn’t all that different from what we ultimately got onscreen, it looks like that at some point during production, the folks in charge decided to change Steppenwolf’s look in a major way. Little to no information about the villain’s appearance was made available until a series of toy leaks popped up on Reddit in mid-July. He was never even revealed in a trailer; we only got our first real look at Steppenwolf when a clip of the film was released online less than two weeks before the premiere. It looks like the special effects team worked up to the eleventh hour on this one, and the half-baked results are indicative of that.
As far as we can tell, there are two possible explanations for the Steppenwolf’s redesign. The first being that, like virtually everything else concerning Justice League, the changes came as a response to the criticisms leveled at Batman v Superman. That film’s mindless, bland CGI monster (Doomsday) wasn’t exactly well received, and perhaps Warner Bros was worried that audiences wouldn’t connect with an antagonist that didn’t at least vaguely resemble a human.
The second possibility concerns Steppenwolf’s family tree. While the reptilian concept art is striking and unique, it’s not only a major departure from the character in the comics, but it’s also a radically different look than the traditional design of Steppenwolf’s uncle, Darkseid. It would be a tall task to get audiences to buy into the fact that those two were related if the DCEU ended up adapting the Lord of Apokolips — assuming filmmakers stuck with his classic look. Plans were definitely in place to introduce Darkseid at some point, and fans simply would not have tolerated any major tweaks to his appearance.
It’s impossible to say just how late in the game it was decided that a more human looking Steppenwolf was needed. It’s also very possible that we’re completely off base here, and the final design was decided early on in production. But if that’s the case, Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and whoever else was calling the shots on Justice League have shockingly low standards for good CGI.