Justice League is a perfectly fine film. Zack Snyder's latest film (with a substantial assist from Joss Whedon) is breezy fun that doesn't take itself too seriously, with solid performances by its core cast that makes the DC cinematic universe's future seem very bright. It's not going to win any Oscars, the villain is lousy, and the plot is paper thin, but it's an agreeably diverting way to spend an afternoon. And yet, it's decidedly out of step with what's currently happening in the superhero movie genre, which is unquestionably a contributor to its middling reviews and lukewarm box office returns.
2017 has been the year the comic book movie took a creative leap forward. The genre's stale tropes have largely been jettisoned in favor of big swings that have pushed the possibilities of costumed heroes into exciting new territory. Logan is maybe the closest that mainstream comic book movies have come to arthouse cinema, showcasing a bleak future that is a dark meditation on mortality and legacy. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a John Hughes style teen movie that occasionally features Spider-Man jumping along rooftops. Thor: Ragnarok reinvigorated Marvel's weakest cinematic hero by embracing the absurd and leaning into Chris Hemsworth's comedic talent. And Wonder Woman not only told a female fronted period piece with grace and heart, it tapped into the righteous feminist revolution currently facing off with America's darker impulses. Wonder Woman somehow managed to be a beacon of hope in a time when many people are feeling hopeless.
Justice League should have been the genre's victory lap after a historically successful year. Instead, the film's relative failure has thrown the future of DC's film slate into question, with only Aquaman, Wonder Woman 2, and Shazam seeming like sure things at this point. A safe, traditional superhero film just wasn't what audiences were looking for in 2017.
The great irony is that DC had just got done taking a massive creative risk with these characters. It's probably safe to say Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is the most divisive superhero film of all time. While it was critically savaged, Batman V Superman has a deeply devoted following who adore it for its dark deconstruction of DC's two biggest icons. Indeed, it's hard not to wonder if Batman V Superman would have been more warmly received in 2017; while Wonder Woman is a ray of light in a dark world, Batman V Superman embraces that darkness with a level of glee that borders on nihilism. That level of cynicism was off putting for most viewers in early 2016, and yet it feels oddly prescient at the tail end of 2017, predicting the chaotic forces that would come to dominate real world events soon after its release.
Batman V Superman's greatest creative risk is the one that, for many people, was a bridge too far: its framing of Batman as such a deeply broken man that he is essentially the film's antagonist for the majority of its run time. Batman V Superman showcases a version of the Caped Crusader that wide audiences had never really seen; not simply a Batman who is losing his fight against crime, but who has, for all intents and purposes, already lost. Batman, generally portrayed as the smartest DC hero, acts in brash, shortsighted ways, as he's so blinded by the paranoia and fear that he fought against for so many years. He exists in a bubble of his own misery and cynicism, convinced the world is spinning out of control as the emergence of godlike beings push his feelings of helplessness into overdrive.
Batman V Superman is also, structurally, a very strange movie. One of the chief criticisms lobbed against it was that it was incoherent, a collection of scenes that don't really have much to do with each other. That's not a wholly unfair criticism, and one that was partially rectified by the film's extended Blu-ray cut. But it was also just a bit of the point; Marvel has done a fantastic job of establishing a structural template for superhero films. You can set your watch to certain beats in those movies. Snyder has largely eschewed that structure; he did it to generally greater acclaim in Man of Steel by borrowing the flashback heavy structure of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. But Batman V Superman was a decidedly different animal, seemingly edited in a way to wallow in the Superman's self doubt and Batman's nihilism. The film eventually clicks back into a more traditional narrative, as the third act consists of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman wailing away on a big CGI monster, but those first two acts are unlike anything that had been seen in superhero films, as it ruminated on the very nature of heroism in unusually fatalistic ways.