As blandly competent, cliched, and underwhelming as superhero movies can get, Blue Beetle squanders an opportunity to do something truly new and revolutionary in favour of pulling remainders out of the recycling bin. While this latest DC offering does have some strong elements going for it – most of them revolving around the story’s prominent Mexican-American representation – there’s nothing inventive, new, or creative to be found within the actual story or its mechanics. Blue Beetle is a boilerplate movie welded together out of useable spare parts lifted from more successful and entertaining superhero movies. Instead of redefining a genre and imbuing it with new life via a vibrant cultural backbone, Blue Beetle only further enhances the feelings of growing superhero fatigue.
Recent pre-law college graduate Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is in for a surprise when he returns home to his family in Palmera City. In Jaime’s absence, his father (Damián Alcázar) had a heart attack, the family business closed down, and they’re all about to lose their home after greedy land developers jacked up the rent astronomically. After Jaime and his sister (Belissa Escobedo) get fired from a job cleaning up the estate of the same rich white woman (Susan Sarandon) who wants to push the Reyes clan out of their home, he has a chance encounter with the woman’s much nicer niece, Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine). When Jaime goes to pay Jenny a visit and ask for a new job, he has caught her at a bad time. Jenny has been investigating her industrialist, war mongering aunt’s nefarious plans to use an ancient alien scarab to create an elite force of unstoppable cyborg supercops. In a hurry to get away, Jenny passes the scarab off to Jaime for safe keeping. The scarab – which chooses the person it wants to bond to – gives whomever possesses it an impressive suit of armour, superpowers, and the ability to conjure up whatever weapon the user desires at a moment’s notice. The scarab bonds itself to Jaime and typical superhero derring-do ensues.
Let’s start with the handful of things that work well in Blue Beetle, beginning and almost ending with the rich family dynamic that gives the film all of its heart. The idea of a superhero whose love for their family could be construed as a weakness is a hallmark of the genre, but seeing that dynamic from a highly specific Mexican-American perspective is the most refreshing thing Blue Beetle has to offer. Granted, all of these characters are still easily identifiable cliches – the optimistic, hard working dad, the wise mother (Elpidia Carrillo), the secretly cool grandmother (Adriana Barraza), the eccentric uncle (George Lopez), the sassy sister – but when put together there’s a winning dynamic that never shies away from a profound and proud sense of heritage and culture. They are, if nothing else, a proud, resourceful, and loving Mexican-American family trying to make their way in a place that continually marginalizes them. The best moments in Blue Beetle come whenever the film simply lets the family members be themselves, and not larger cogs in a big budget, effects laden machine.
Director Angel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings) injects a lot of visual energy into Blue Beetle, bringing some flashes of blue and purple neon colours to the standardized DC movie drabness, with the help of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. The score from Bobby Krlic (a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak) is relentlessly catchy and effective. Maridueña is a likeable and charismatic leading man in his first big role, even when the overall cliched arc of the character underwhelms at every turn and sometimes works against his abilities to craft a layered performance. Maridueña’s chemistry with Marquezine, as both a colleague and love interest, is endearing. Lopez, Barraza, and Escobedo bring some much needed humour to an otherwise unfunny affair (unless you think farting robots and Motley Crue needle-drops funny), and even though she’s strikingly under-utilized as the villain, Sarandon looks like she’s relishing the chance to play a campy titan of industry. (Okay, in the interest of transparency, I will admit to laughing quite hard at a moment when a character bluntly states they have to go to the bathroom. It’s well delivered, and I’m not made of stone.)
These are the elements that keep Blue Beetle watchable while never reaching its full potential. There’s no spontaneity to Blue Beetle whatsoever. Everything falls into place exactly how those well versed in the genre would expect. We get introduced to the hero and their personal problems. We discover the powers of the scarab. Jaime struggles to figure out how to use his newfound powers. The family is put in danger by the villain. There’s a showdown. There’s a hint at a sequel. It amounts to what might be the most flat out predictable movie of the year. The script from Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala) could’ve been created by AI that watched a thousand hours of superhero movies. Every detail of the adventure and backstory in Blue Beetle has been cobbled together from spare parts left over from Man of Steel, The Flash, every Batman movie, every Spider-Man movie (someone might as well just say “with great power comes great responsibility” here and just make it more obvious), Iron Man, Shazam, and Ant Man.
While Soto dresses things up in a pretty package (save for putting garish neons on the sides of buildings in broad daylight, which looks pretty bad), he can’t create a pace quick enough to keep the viewer from realizing they’ve seen this all done better numerous times before. Something this reliant on cliches and conventions shouldn’t be this plodding, with the climactic battle taking up almost 45 minutes of total screen time and feeling like it took an eternity to get to that point in the first place. This leadenness and bonanza of cliches undoes everything Blue Beetle tries to accomplish through its unique cultural representation. It’s not a masterstroke of big blockbuster equality when you saddle an underrepresented audience with the exact same plot points one would see in any other run-of-the-mill superhero movie. It just makes the viewer wish they were watching a straight up comedy or domestic drama with these same characters instead, or worse, that they were watching something better they’ve already seen a few times. The film’s few moments tackling issues of racism, economic inequality, and marginalization are left hanging as if they were punchlines or footnotes, not as genuine substance. It’s all a lot of window dressing, save for a moment where Soto impressively stages a militaristic attack on Jaime’s family that eerily echoes the fears of an immigration raid. It’s a smart and harrowing moment in an otherwise hollow movie.
Blue Beetle is frustrating because the potential for greatness is evident, but it settles for the path most travelled instead. There are no risks being taken because the powers that be have callously decided that they need a film featuring Latinx performers in nearly every major role to be as robotically mainstream as possible. It reeks of writing by committee and corporate synergy. Blue Beetle isn’t one of the worst films of the year, but it’s absolutely one of the most disappointingly average ones.
Blue Beetle opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 18, 2023.
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