Blue Beetle – Review

DC to say the least has had a rough time of it lately.  The last decade they have been playing catch up to Marvel, which has dominated the landscape when it comes to comic book movies.  There have been bright spots to be sure in their output, like the box office success of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), but their reputation has been more defines by their failures more than their successes.  The controversial Justice League (2017) release proved to be a tipping point for the fledgling cinematic universe, as it just exposed all of the faults of the DC Extended Universe’s lack of cohesion.  The pandemic also effected the success rate of DC, as the highly anticipated sequels Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and The Suicide Squad (2021) both failed to deliver on the same level as their predecessors, though Warner Brother’s misguided plan to do day and date streaming releases for these movies was probably a bigger factor in their struggle.  Still, the DC brand took a big hit in popularity, and with the Warner Brothers Discovery merger, the powers that be saw that it was a better option to scrap the future of the DCEU and just start anew.  Director Zack Snyder was the chief creative force of the original cinematic universe, which gave the DCEU the nickname of the Snyderverse, but for this new era of DC under new management, Warner Brothers appointed filmmaker James Gunn to chart the course of the DC Universe.  Gunn, coming off of his tenure at Marvel with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, is now in charge of giving DC the shot in the arm it needs to re-find it’s footing.  Unfortunately for DC, there are some remaining projects in the pipeline that still needed their release.  The last of the DCEU has been released throughout this year, and much to the dismay of Warner Brothers execs, the films are showing that the DCEU is not going out with a bang, but rather a wimper.

Things did not start off great, with the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023) performing well under what the original film did; grossing a mere $133 million worldwide compared to the 2019 original’s $367 million.  But that lackluster result was nothing compared to the disastrous results of the release of The Flash (2023).  This notorious troubled production underperformed so badly, making only $260 million worldwide against a $250 million production budget, that it looks like Warner Brothers is set to lose $200 million alone on just this one film.  If it wasn’t for the phenomenon of Barbie (2023) right now in theaters, Warner Brothers’ accounting team would be sweating pretty hard right now.  What is likely happening with DC and these back to back failures is that audiences have already lost interest in the DCEU.  With the collection of Justice League heroes now about to be rebooted in the James Gunn DCU, why would anyone care about these relics of a now doomed universe.  This also doesn’t bode well for the last remaining DCEU film, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023), which is scheduled for this Christmas has it’s own set of production woes that are ballooning it’s already high production budget.  And then there is this little oddity in between called Blue Beetle (2023).  Blue Beetle is a film based on the comic book hero that has gone through many different personalities since his debut in 1939.  The film, a first time adaptation for the comic book hero on the big screen, introduces us to the third and current iteration of Blue Beetle, whose alter ego is Mexican-American Jamie Reyes.  Initially, this film was developed to be a straight to streaming film for Warner Brothers’ MAX app, but after being screened for James Gunn and other studio executives, they felt confident that this could be a theatrical release instead.  Strangely, Gunn has stated that this is separate from the established DCEU continuity, but he has also declined to commit this film as part of the new continuity that he is establishing.  So, the question remains, is Blue Beetle enough to reverse DC’s bad fortune at the moment, or is it going to circle the drain along with the rest of the DCEU.

The story takes us to the bustling metropolis of Palmera City, where young Jamie Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) is returning home from college.  He is greeted warmly by his family, including his father Alberto (Damian Alcazar), his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), his abuela Nana (Adirana Barraza), his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) and conspiracy nut uncle Rudy (George Lopez).  Unfortunately, he learns that the family has suffered hard times in his absence, due to his father’s health problems and the increased gentrification of the neighborhood, known as the Edge Keys.  Jaime hopes to help give his family a boost by putting his degree to work by finding a job in the big city.  Things don’t quite work out the way he planned, as the best he can do right away is get a service job cleaning up a beachfront house owned by the wealthiest woman in town, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon).  While on the job, Jamie runs into a young woman named Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece and her chief adversary at the omnipresent Kord Corporation.  Jenny responds well to Jaime’s assertive chivalry and offers to give him a meeting at the corporate office at a later date.  Believing that this is a breakthrough for him, Jaime arrives at the Kord headquarters hoping Jenny will give him a job offer.  Unfortunately, he finds her on the run from security.  She eventually runs into Jaime, and asks him to protect something she has hidden in box.  Jaime takes the box home with him, and sees what’s inside.  What he finds is a weird metal scarab, which suddenly comes to life and immediately latches onto Jaime.  Jaime suddenly finds his whole body getting covered in blue colored armor.  Afterwards, the armor, which has it’s own computerized voice (Becky G) takes Jaime for a ride out of his control, demonstrating all of the power the suit holds; including the ability to fly.  Jaime wishes to get rid of the scarab, but it has already been imbedded into his body.  He seeks out Jenny, but she’s being hunted by her Aunt Victoria’s henchmen, led by the fearsome Lt. Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), who has a super suit of his own.  Jenny reveals to Jaime that her father Ted was the previous host of the alien scarab, and he used it to become a vigilante hero known as the Blue Beetle.  Jamie can’t get rid of the scarab, but he can learn to master it, and with his family and Jenny Kord’s help, he is determined to set things right and accept his destiny as a hero.

The situation for this movie coming out at this moment is pretty dire for comic book movies.  As mentioned before, DC right now is flaming out as it releases the remainder of it’s DCEU output, but the year hasn’t been kind to comic book movies in general.  The disappointing box office of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) began a trend of diminishing returns for this once mighty force in the global box office.  Despite that, the Marvel brand still has had bright spots, with both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse both doing well enough at the summer box office, albeit not to record-shattering numbers.  Nothing this year has gone DC’s way, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Flash becoming two of the biggest box office bombs ever in the genre.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on Blue Beetle’s shoulders, and it doesn’t look like the movie is going to turn the ship around for DC at the box office based on early predictions.  The upside is that Blue Beetle isn’t as big of a risk compared to the other two, costing a more reasonable $100 million to make; and honestly what it makes at the box office now is more than what was initially planned with it’s original streaming plans.  Still, DC needed a win, and for a lot of longtime fans of the character from the comic books, this is a movie that needs to succeed.  So, does it?  Yes, and no.  As a standalone movie, it does what it needs to do; creating a likable hero worth rooting for and delivering fun and colorful spectacle to please audiences.  But, it’s also nothing that we haven’t a dozen times before in so many other comic book movies.  It comes in with low expectations, performs above average, but does little to actually leave a mark on the genre as a whole.  It’s good enough, and sadly that’s not enough to reverse course for a studio much in need of finding it’s footing right now.

The problem with the movie is it’s familiarity.  We know all of the beats that this movie is going to hit before they happen.  Plot wise, the movie does exactly what you know it’s going to do.  It’s following the same super hero origin story plot that has been done to death over the last several decades.  It’s why Marvel wisely decided to dispense of origin narratives for some of their franchises like with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019) as it worked better to drop into their heroes storylines already in progress.  In a way, DC also did that too with Aquaman, and it resulted in their biggest box office hit.  It frees up a lot of unnecessary time wasted on world building, which this movie does quite a bit of.  The character of Jenny Kord in particular unfortunately suffers quite a bit from being the exposition deliverer for most of the movie; filling in all the Blue Beetle lore that the movie needs to deliver to the uninformed audience.  The film definitely feels like an early, Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, where it has to lay down some very heavy handed world building, as opposed to allowing the audience to just absorb the world through the experience.  That being said, it’s not delivered in too clumsy of a way.  While the message may be old hat, the delivery still comes through in an effective way.  The story is very much better handled here than the messy Flash movie, which didn’t really know what it wanted to be.  Blue Beetle may be cliched, but it’s got it’s heart in the right place.  One of the things that is refreshing is that it keeps the stakes small compared to most other super hero movies.  It’s not a fate of the universe story, but rather a simple hero looking out for the ones who matters most to him and stopping a greedy tycoon from causing more trouble.  For a genre that in recent years has gotten lost in the need to keep topping one another in spectacle, it’s kind of refreshing to see a story that just delivers on the basics and nothing more.

The best part of this movie which really helps to put it above average is the winning cast.  In his first starring role, Xolo Mariduena (best known for his work on Netflix’s Cobra Kai series) is really charming as Jaime Reyes.  For one thing, he really nails the reluctant hero aspect of the character; not jumping into his role right away, but over time learning to accept his duty as a super hero.  Given his martial arts background, he also does a good job of selling the fight scenes in and out of the suit.  It’s a physically demanding performance, which sometimes requires the actor to go mask off for close-ups, and Xolo does his best, while at the same time making the character endlessly likable.  He is also surrounded by an exceptional ensemble.  The Reyes family is just as important to this movie as it’s hero, and they get involved in a surprisingly large amount of the action too.  The movie does a surprising job of making each of the family members an important part of the story, and each one a distinctive personality in their own right.  The standouts are definitely Uncle Rudy, who obviously is the movie’s most comedic character given that he’s played by legendary comedian George Lopez, and Nana Reyes, played wonderfully by award-winning Mexican actress Adriana Barraza (Babel) who shows a few surprising skills of her own.  Susan Sarandon does the best she can with a rather cookie-cutter villain, and Raoul Trujillo likewise brings surprising depth to his big bad that otherwise would’ve been missing in a lesser performance.  But, the most pleasing aspect of this movie is that it is unapologetic with it’s cultural representation.  This movie proudly displays the Mexican heritage of it’s main hero and wears it like a badge of honor.  From the way the movie is cast, to the cultural references found throughout (Guillermo Del Toro films, telenovelas, and a very Latin flavored soundtrack) to the very frequent use of Spanish throughout the movie; the filmmakers definitely wanted it’s audience to know that they were taking the introduction of the first Latino super hero on the big screen seriously and it really helps to give the movie a strong identity as a result.

Visually, the movie carries those cultural inspirations over too.  The location of the fictional Palmera City is very much meant to be the DC universe equivalent of Miami, Florida, and the flashiness of that city’s identity really carries over into this film.  The movie is awash with a bright neon color palette, which recalls the visual look of shows like Miami Vice.  This is very evident in the depiction of the city, but the filmmakers also did a fine job of creating the look of the Edge Keys where the Reyes family call home.  It definitely feels like an authentic Latin ethnic neighborhood that you find in most big American cities, with the Reyes home feeling like it has been lived in for generations.  It’s not a Hollywood depiction of what an inner city neighborhood looks like, but something that clearly feels closer to reality; rough around the edges because it’s a poorer part of the city, but still warm and inviting because it’s built out of love for the community.  You can tell that the film’s director, Angel Manuel Soto, wanted that authenticity to come through and help dispel the outdated view of Latinx communities that Hollywood has perpetuated over the years.  At the same time, the movie also does well with the visualization of it’s titular hero.  The Blue Beetle suit itself looks pretty sleek, without deviating too much from the comic book.  Obviously, it’s trading in tights for more metallic looking armor, but the design sticks pretty close to how the character currently looks in the comics.  I like how it continues the trend of allowing expressiveness in the eyes through the mask that we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies like Deadpool (2016) and the MCU’s Spider-Man.  The way that the Blue Beetle powers work also is well utilized, even if it at times feels a little too similar to Iron Man.  One thing that is refreshing is that it looks like the filmmakers made an effort to incorporate more live action stunt-work into the movie, using CGI more as a tool to support the action on screen rather than replace it.  It helps to give the action scenes more of a tangible feeling of ferocity, knowing that in quite a few moments it’s real stunt men on the set rather than digital rag dolls.  It’s not a particular game changer on the graphical front, but the movie does have a flavor all it’s own that serves it well.

Overall, the movie’s biggest weakness is that it largely plays it safe.  It tells us an over-familiar story with not a whole lot of surprises.  But, at the same time, it does so with an earnest approach with a cast that is irresistibly likable.  Putting so much emphasis on Jaime Reyes place within his culture and more importantly his family is what helps to lift this movie up above what would’ve otherwise been more super hero mediocrity.  I still think the two Shazam movies were better executed comic book adventures, but Blue Beetle is infinitely better than the messy Flash.  For one thing, Blue Beetle is a character worth rooting for, and he doesn’t spend the movie making obnoxious low brow comedy.  The movie, despite the familiarity, does remain engaging throughout, with it’s faults only coming when the movie has to set up the rules of it’s world.  Thankfully, the movie knows when to kick into gear, and it leads to a very engaging and satisfying finale.  It’s hard to know how well this movie will do in the long run.  It already seems like the film will not reverse DC’s box office woes at the moment; which may hurt it’s chances for a sequel, or a future in James Gunn’s re-launch of the DC Universe.  That’s too bad, because the star of this movie, as well as the people who play his family, are delightful enough to make me want to see more adventures with them.  And there was one other thing that made me appreciate the film as well.  Because I live in Los Angeles, there was a strong chance of me seeing a Latinx family at my screening, and sure enough one such family was seated right next to me.  They were really digging the movie, especially the young boy who must’ve been so delighted to finally see a super hero on screen that had a family just like his.  That’s the kind of impact a movie can have that goes beyond just the nuts and bolts that I was analyzing.  The movie may not have been speaking the same way to me, but to a kid like the boy at my screening, it was speaking a whole lot louder.  That is something that I can really appreciate beyond just the movie itself.  Like Wonder Woman and Black Panther before him, Blue Beetle can be another super hero icon that can transcend culture and help give a face to an underrepresented group of people within the most powerful box office genre in the world and help break down more barriers as a result.  Blue Beetle is a decent enough entry into the overly crowded super hero field at the box office, but it’s impact could lead to some very, much needed changes in the halls of Hollywood if it manages to successfully find an audience.

Rating: 7.5/10