When Darkseid arrives in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it’ll be the first live-action appearance for the iconic DC villain in the 51 years since his comic book debut.
But this is far from the first time Darkseid has crossed over from page to screen. In fact, he’s been doing that for decades, with some genuinely surprising actors bringing him to life along the way — although perhaps it’s not too surprising that the voice of cosmic nihilism is occasionally accompanied by an accordion.
Darkseid first appeared in 1970’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, part of the “Fourth World” series of stories by Avengers and Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby. He was created as the ultimate villain, a character searching for the Anti-Life Equation, which would give him control over all free will in existence. In that respect, he was the ultimate fascist, inspired as much from Kirby’s WWII experiences as any other superheroic inspiration, and a near-existential threat to the DC Universe as a whole.
But by the time he made his television debut, Darkseid apparently scaled back his ambitions.
The Darkseid that showed up on 1984’s Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show was far more of a generic bad guy — so much so that he was voiced by Frank Welker, the man behind the voices of Megatron, Soundwave, and Galvatron on the 1980s Transformers animated series.
This incarnation of Darkseid, which continued through the following year’s retitling of the show as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, softened him in more ways than one: his ambition of removing all free will was scaled back to simply wanting to conquer Earth, but he was given a secondary goal to make up for it: he also wanted to marry Wonder Woman, because… he really believed in the institution of marriage, I guess…?
Darkseid is ... problematic.
Things went much better in his next animated incarnation, beginning with “Tools of the Trade,” a 1997 episode of Superman: The Animated Series. This version of Darkseid, who would continue to appear throughout that show as well as Cartoon Network’s subsequent Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series, was far closer to his comic book inspiration in terms of attitude and impact.
In this series, Darkseid was a grim, unforgiving figure whose quest for the Anti-Life Equation brought him into conflict with the Man of Steel and his comrades, either through proxies — Darkseid ruled the planet Apokolips, which meant he had many eager minions to do his bidding — or, if necessary, personally. Given a power and stature that he’d been lacking on Super Friends, this Darkseid also had a voice actor to match: Michael Ironside, veteran of Scanners, V, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Finally, Darkseid sounded scary — on purpose, anyway.
By the second decade of the 21st century, Darkseid’s media profile was raised significantly, perhaps as a result of his central role in the high-profile comic book storyline Final Crisis, which ran from 2008 through 2009.
In 2010, he returned to animation in two different series: Batman: The Brave and the Bold, voiced by Broadway actor Michael-Leon Wooley; and Teen Titans Go, voiced by none other than ... Weird Al Yankovic?
Darkseid is ... weird!
Believe it or not, Weird Al’s surreal stunt casting is actually part of the plot. In the episode, Darkseid claims that Weird Al is more evil than he could ever be, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
2010 also saw the start of the final season of Smallville, the CW prequel to the Superman story. By this point, the show had been running for a decade and was in need of a big finale… so who better to be the final year’s villain than Darkseid?
That wasn’t to say that Darkseid actually appeared on the show, per se. Instead, he possessed members of the cast including both longtime allies and returning villains, giving the show the perfect chance to indulge in final season nostalgia and avoid trying to find an actor who could have the physical and vocal presence required to bring Darkseid to live-action life.
With Smallville keeping the real deal off-screen, it falls to Justice League to finally deliver the live-action Darkseid we’ve been denied all these years. Ideally, Zack Snyder and crew have learned from what came before and delivered something with more gravity and presence than cartoon Starscream; a villain who has the ambition of his comic book incarnation, and who accepts that Weird Al may be the evilest of them all.
Can Ray Porter, the actor responsible for Justice League’s Darkseid, carry it off? We can only hope — even if, as Darkseid himself would argue, hope is something to be crushed under his heel.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League streams March 18 on HBO Max.