It’s been a rough year for films based on DC Comics. The mixed critical reception and box office whimper of Shazam! Fury of the Gods as well as, well, everything surrounding The Flash has resulted in the home stretch of this iteration of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) becoming a laughing stock for the public at large. Other than Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom’s impending release, the only other film left before DC Studios heads James Gunn and Peter Safran take over is Blue Beetle, a film that has a checkered history of its own at this point.
Blue Beetle was initially one of two projects being developed exclusively for Warner Bros.’ Max platform. The other film, Batgirl, got cruelly shelved whereas Blue Beetle got bumped up to a theatrical release. Despite its fresh-faced star in Xolo Maridueña (Cobra Kai) and the promise of Latinx representation in the comic book film space, pre-release audience interest has been tepid. Whether it’s due to a lack of marketing or general audience distrust in the DC brand, the writing on the wall for Blue Beetle didn’t look good. At the end of the day, though, a good movie is a good movie. Blue Beetle, I’m happy to report, is a very good movie. A unique powerset, winning cast, and a focus on character before all else result in a film that feels like the product of a much better, bygone era of superhero movies.
[Warning: Mild spoilers and early impressions for Blue Beetle below!]
Blue Beetle nails superhero movie fundamentals
Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto and written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, Blue Beetle follows recent college graduate Jaime Reyes (Maridueña) who returns home to Palmera City to find his family near poverty after the ever-present Kord corporation raises the rent on their home. After a chance encounter with Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the niece of Kord’s CEO Victoria (Susan Sarandon), he goes to Kord HQ to ask for a job.
He gets a lot more responsibility than he bargained for when the kind-hearted Jenny asks Jaime to hide “The Scarab”, an ancient relic that binds to Jaime and gives him bio-technical powers. As he struggles to find his footing, Victoria sends her enforcer Conrad Carafax (Raoul Max Trujillo) after Jaime to retrieve The Scarab for nefarious purposes.
The script from Dunnet-Alcocer by and large follows the origin movie playbook, but adding in a surprising amount of depth. The tried-and-true bones are built upon with the villain being, essentially, a corporate imperialist. Kord’s shadow hangs over all the characters in the film, with the ongoing gentrification of Palmera City pushing Jaime’s family to the outskirts. That push gives way to a story of a family rising up against corporate tyranny by their force of will that stems from their sense of love for each other and their community. This is bolstered by the DC Universe at large remaining firmly in the wings. In other words, the Reyes family is firmly centered above any kind of universe-building. And what a clever choice to make!
Even the Scarab itself is more of a means to an end, a tool for Jaime to use to help those who he cares about the most. As overused as this turn of phrase may be, Blue Beetle is overflowing with heart. Naturally, that includes heartbreak. A subject that Soto and crew don’t shy away from, whether it be the trials and tribulations of the marginalized or, in Jenny’s case, dealing with the blood on her family’s hands.
Much has been made of the film’s Latinx representation, and while as a Caucasian critic, I can’t weigh in on the authenticity, you can certainly tell that the creative team belongs to and love that community. How? Because they treat the Reyes family like human beings with their own rich culture, embracing them instead of forcing them to conform to the standard model of what superheroes and their families should look like.
Xolo Maridueña leads a cast of dreams
Blue Beetle’s cast is sublime. Xolo Maridueña has the perfect everyman charm in a way that recalls the best portrayals of Peter Parker. His sarcastic sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) has a sharp scene-stealing presence. Jaime’s uncle, Rudy (played by George Lopez) left my screening rolling in the aisles with well-timed comedic relief. The tenderness of Elpidia Carrillo and Damián Alcázar as Jamie’s parents, and Adriana Barraza bringing oodles of personality to the grandmother (she gets possibly the best moment of the film), makes the Reyes family feel like a cohesive, lived-in unit. You almost get the sense that you’re part of the family by the end of the film.
Outside of the Reyes family, Susan Sarandon makes for a great, spiteful villain. She is the epitome of privilege lashing out. Although I wish her character got a bit more definition, Bruna Marquezine lights up the silver screen in her time as Jenny, especially in regards to her chemistry with the plucky Jaime.
Beloved character actor Harvey Guillén doesn’t get near enough to do as Victoria Kord’s assistant, but his internal conflict makes a strong impression in a short amount of screen time. Speaking of inner conflict, Raoul Max Trujillo floored me in his complicated portrayal of a character who would just be the brainless muscle in any other film, wringing some truly emotional moments out of a stacked third act.
The visuals and world of Blue Beetle
Of course, as Blue Beetle is a superhero film, it is required to have a certain level of spectacle. For some, it might be a letdown in this regard. I was quite taken with the film’s cyberpunk aesthetics, showing Palmera City as a series of neon towers standing stark against the ramshackle developments that the Reyes family live in.
The score by Bobby Krlic is a mostly synthesizer-based affair that’ll get the toes tapping, giving Blue Beetle his own unique theme and keeping the pace of the film. However, the cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski (Beau is Afraid) doesn’t have a lot of visual oomph.
What it does do is an exceptional job of communicating Blue Beetle’s power set. When Jaime throws down, his bio-mechanical “suit” as given to him by the Scarab, transforms into all manner of unique weapons: from hand cannons to a sword right out of Final Fantasy VII.
It gets the job done through some fantastic hand-to-hand sequences, er, hand-to-weapon sequences of showing what this hero can do. And that’s really true of the whole movie. Blue Beetle doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel, but it introduces audiences to a unique hero through an energetic, meaty narrative punctuated by some really fantastic performances. If the goal of Blue Beetle is to get the audience to want to see more of Jaime Reyes and his family, then this film hit the perfect mark.
My rating for this film:
Blue Beetle releases in theaters this Friday! Are you planning to go see it this weekend? Let me know on social media or in The Cosmic Circus Discord! And if you’re interested in learning more about Blue Beetle and Jaime Reyes in the comics, check out these great articles below!