Zack Snyder's Justice League has been all the rage as of late, even keeping pace with Marvel's Disney+ ventures in the general conversation. The entire situation that the project was birthed from was incredibly unique—likely playing heavily into its current popularity and general audience interest. Though Warner Bros. may never want to admit it, the film even held up against Wonder Woman 1984's viewership.
No matter what one thinks of the quality of the film itself, it's hard to argue against how great of an opportunity it was for Snyder to see his version of Justice League through. To be able to complete his own vision—especially after the heavy studio interference, and the tragic events in his personal life—that he poured his soul into for almost a decade is something that not many filmmakers get to do.
The timing of Zack Snyder's Justice League was no coincidence, having been approved by the studios during a worldwide pandemic when there wasn't much work able to happen outside of one's home. This led to Snyder being able to complete all the additional SFX and editing that his version of the film needed. All of that post visual creation is certainly apparent in this final cut, but there was definitely one stand-out element: Steppenwolf, and his redesign.
STEPPENWOLF'S EMOTIONAL ARMOR
In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, Zack Snyder discussed how Steppenwolf became one of his favorite parts of the special effects work that took place with Zack Snyder's Justice League. Snyder enthusiastically described Steppenwolf as a "legit space knight", a description that became a guiding principle behind his Snyder Cut makeover.
Also, on hand were Kevin Andrew Smith and Anders Langlands, both visual effects supervisors at Weta Digital in New Zealand. Langlands went on to explain where they started in the process.
“We essentially went back to the original design that you saw at the end of Batman v Superman, and worked from that same concept art...Zack had the idea that his armor would react to his mood and be part of his performance, as if it was some kind of alien technology that’s symbiotic with him.”
This idea was a major new addition to the character's look and aimed to not only completely change his overall design but add additional character to one of Darkseid's former generals.
"That’s why the spikes that adorn Steppenwolf’s exterior are always glimpsed shifting and rippling within scenes. “We built the armor as a bunch of interlocking scale pieces, with individual metal scales laid on top of his surfaces. Our animators were able to develop a system where they could go from a dormant state to an angry state.”
Steppenwolf spends most of the film fairly spiky, showcasing how his anger and determination were visualized in this creative new way. On top of portraying his general emotions, the armor became part of his very fighting style—something Langlands was happy to elaborate on.
“When he’s fighting in various scenes you can see how the ripples almost augment his strength, like he’s boosting a punch or a jump..."
Then Langlands shifted the conversation to the color of Steppenwolf's metallic symbiotic suit, and how they came to what it became.
"We hit upon a kind of iridescent silver metal, and then played around with different ideas for how colorful it would be. Normally you’d show the director a calmed-down version and an extreme version and end up somewhere in the middle, but with Zack it was like, ‘Let’s go with the extreme one.’ And that was great because it made him a really compelling character to work on. He was so much fun to light, because his armor reacts in this beautiful way with all sorts of color shifting over the surface and pinging off the shiny metal.”
Snyder interjects, talking about how much he loved Steppenwolf's "horn shine", AKA the light that bounced off his very large headpiece. It's something the director claimed to have exclaimed about every day when he got a shot back from the visual effects work.
Another key aspect of this new look was the axe. Steppenwolf's signature weapon was just as important as every other element of their work on the character.
"The other conversation we always had was about his axe: He’s always sticking his axe in the ground whenever he gets mad. We decided that’s what he would do as part of his mood. Whenever he needed to emote, he’d just stick his axe in pretty much anything: steel, concrete, whatever. That was fun. He’s a space knight in his weird armor just stomping heads.”
While the Justice League villian was definitely stomping heads at points throughout the movie, that fate caught up with him by the end of the film. Having just been stabbed by Aquaman, decapitated by Wonder Woman, and super punched by Superman, Steppenwolf's head rolls right under Darkseid's boot—which proceeds to crush his former henchman. According to Kevin Andrew Smith, this fate was something they always wanted to get to.
"We always knew that we wanted Steppenwolf’s head to roll right under Darkseid’s foot, and he was going to catch it like a soccer ball...But we realized his head wouldn’t roll correctly because he had horns. So that was the birth of the idea that Superman would cut one of his horns off with his heat vision. Once we did that, people were like, ‘You might as well break the other one as well just to add insult to injury.’ Some people have expressed to me that they felt sad when his head gets crushed, but I’m like, ‘He was trying to destroy the Earth with Parademons! He’s hard to defend in a court of law.’”
STEPPIN' INTO A NEW LOOK
There was a lot about 2017's Justice League that wasn't great as much of it was chopped up and put together in strange ways. This left tons of content on the cutting room floor. Part of that cut footage was the majority of Steppenwolf's role in the film, reducing him to a poorly designed and very boring villain. An especially terrible thing to have for one's first Justice League team-up film.
Thankfully, as the interview above makes certain, that was cleared up thanks to the time Snyder was given. Steppenwolf's scenes in the film were easily some of the best the four-hour epic had going for it. From the visually pleasing redesign, to Darkseid's former general actually becoming a good character, the threat the League faced was much more interesting this time around.
The special effects work wasn't all as up to par though. Much of Snyder's newly shot sequences very clearly looks like it was filmed on a green screen, alongside many entirely CGI-driven scenes looking like outdated video game graphics.
One thing that was never going to be saved though, was Cyborg's design—which holds the spot for one of the worst designed superheroes in the last decade.
Zack Snyder's Justice League is currently available to stream on HBO Max.