For good reason, it’s been drilled in our collective heads for years now that representation is an important and wonderful thing. And the new DC superhero movie, Blue Beetle, is as solid an example of Mexican-American representation as I can recall in a mainstream, tentpole movie in quite some time. If for no other reason, that accomplishment makes the movie important and different.
But being different doesn’t mean the resulting film is actually good. Unfortunately, the best I can say about Blue Beetle is that it’s fine, although I hope that, if the character does manage to return in either a sequel or another hero’s movie, we can get out of origin-story mode and get to some real storytelling and character building.
The Blue Beetle comics character dates back to the late 1930s (something that is sort of dealt with in this movie), but the costumed hero we’re addressing here is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a recent college graduate who returns home to a city that resembles Miami (it’s another one of those made-up DC cities—Metropolis, Central City, Gotham City—that still manages to be in the United States) only to find that his family’s business has gone under, his father Alberto (Damián Alcázar) has had a heart attack, and in three months, they are set to lose their home. Intent on saving the day, Jaime is determined to get a good job using his pre-law degree, but instead becomes part of a cleaning crew that includes his younger sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo).
The crew gets work cleaning the home of Kord Industries CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), who we see in the film’s opening attempting to unearth a relic known as the Scarab for, we assume, nefarious purposes. When Jaime meets her, she’s arguing with her niece, Jenny Kord (Brazilian actor Bruna Marquezine), about whether or not the company should be involved in making weapons. Victoria being a one-dimensional villain character, we gather she’s in favor of those weapons. When Jaime intervenes to protect Jenny from Victoria’s massive bodyguard, Conrad Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo, Mayans M.C., Sicario), she tells him to come by the company offices so she can find him a job. But when he arrives the next day, she’s just stolen the Scarab and hands it off to him for safe keeping in a food container.
Even though he’s told not to open it, naturally he does, at which point the Scarab “chooses” Jaime as its symbiotic host, attaching itself to his spine and brain and giving him a bio-mechanical blue suit of armor that can generate any weapons he can imagine. The armor also speaks to Jaime and even protects him, even if it has to contradict his orders to do so. It turns out the tech is alien and that Jenny’s father was the original (or at least previous) Blue Beetle—although he was never able to unlock the full potential of the Scarab, so he just built his weapons from scratch (kind of like Iron Man or Batman). For those wondering, although this story does take place in the DC universe, aside from the occasional Superman, Flash or Batman name drop, this film has no real connection to previous DC movies (although it may connect to future films).
Most of the film consists of fight scenes taking place in near darkness, with the Blue Beetle and the Carapax character (also armored up) fighting with masks on, giving us very little face-time to get to be charmed by Maridueña’s obvious charisma. Blue Beetle is directed by the talented filmmaker Angel Manuel Soto, whose Charm City Kings was one of the highlights of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and there’s certainly nothing lacking here from a technical standpoint. The biggest issue with the film is Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s screenplay, which is a succession of cliches—superhero cliches, action movie cliches, movies about “family” that are barely about that; we even have to suffer through another superhero movie where we’re meant to sympathize with the villain (Carapax) for no particular reason than he also got screwed over by the mean lady who runs the company he works for.
The film also suffers because every scene that features Jaime’s uncle (George Lopez) has Lopez cracking countless jokes and literally talking over other people’s lines just to lighten the mood or show that his character is paranoid or just crazy. It gets old very quickly. I didn’t mind the scenes of Jaime trying to figure out how his costume works, although I’ve seen that in other movies too—including another DC property, Shazam! What We Do in the Shadows star Harvey Guillén shows up as Victoria’s sidekick doctor, whom we know doesn’t like her either, but his comedic talents are utterly wasted in this film, and it actually bummed me out. (Seriously, he was better in the Puss in Boots sequel as a weirdo dog.)
Never a regular reader of DC Comics myself, I knew nothing about Blue Beetle going into the movie, and I still don’t feel like I’ve learned much now that I’ve seen it. I like most of the actors here, especially young Maridueña in a breakthrough performance; I just hope we get to see and hear more from him if he pops in anywhere else moving forward. The film is composed of noise, darkness, screaming, crying, more screaming, and of course a couple of credits-oriented scenes to give us some idea of where things are going. By now, you’re familiar with the formula, and while I would never declare myself a sufferer of superhero fatigue, I’m certainly tired of films taking what makes them unique and treating it like a gimmick, rather than a solid, cultural jumping-off point.
The film begins playing in theaters on Thursday.
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