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Blue Beetle

The first live-action superhero film with a Latino lead sometimes struggles with standing out versus being generic, but boasts plenty of charm.
By Sarah Ward
September 14, 2023
By Sarah Ward
September 14, 2023

Buzzing at the heart of Blue Beetle are two contrasting notions: fitting in and standing out. Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña, Cobra Kai) wants to feel at home not just in his own slice of El Paso-esque Texan spot Palmera City, but beyond his neighbourhood. When he assists his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo, Hocus Pocus 2) working at the well-to-do's houses, he searches for opportunities, especially given that he's in need of a steady job to help his family save their home as gentrification swoops in. Thanks to a run-in with Kord Industries, its warmongering CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon, Maybe I Do) and an ancient artefact known as the scarab, however, the recent Gotham Law University graduate will soon be his hometown's most distinctive resident. Getting covered in blue armour, being able to fly — wings and other bug appendages come with the suit — and hearing a robotic voice (Becky G, Power Rangers) chatting in your head will do that, as will having a multinational company try to swat you down because it wants to deploy the technology RoboCop-style.

So scampers the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe — a movie that grapples with the same concepts as the ever-earnest Jaime beyond its storyline. It slots into its franchise while providing something new 14 entries in, before the DCEU comes to an end with the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (under fresh DC leadership, a different silver-screen saga is coming, which might still link in with Blue Beetle). Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings), this is the superhero genre's first live-action flick with a Latino lead, be it from DC or Marvel. It's a family drama as much a caped-crusader affair. It's a story about immigrants striving to thrive and retain their own culture. And, it revels in an 80s sheen and sound. Blue Beetle battles enthusiastically to claim its own space, then, as almost constantly seen and felt. Alas, that doesn't stop it from getting generic as well, as much save-the-world fare is.

When it soars in its own direction, Blue Beetle does indeed make an impression. When it marches dutifully in the standard superhero line, it can play like another by-the-numbers movie about great powers and great responsibilities in an ever-sprawling on-screen realm. Mostly, the former outweighs the latter — and Blue Beetle's charms go a long way. Accordingly, this initially made-for-streaming picture serves up a case of taking the struggles with the highlights, which is another of its messages. And there are highlights, particularly whenever Soto's feature feels like it's in a world away from Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash (just to name 2023's other DC movies so far) and the like. That approach worked for Joker and The Batman, two DC films that aren't in the DCEU or new DC Universe, and are each scoring sequels.

Jaime's journey to becoming Blue Beetle is instantly familiar: Marvel's also insect-focused Spider-Man and Ant-Man flicks have spun similar origin stories. Here, alien biotech-slash-treasure sparks his big change, as given to him for safekeeping by Victoria's niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine, God Save the King) because she disagrees with her aunt's combat-for-profit ways. Thanks to Blue Beetle's dedicated, warmhearted embrace of cultural specificity, Jaime's family are always along for the ride, adding a Spy Kids vibe to Soto's film. His mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo, Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities), father Alberto (Damián Alcázar, Acapulco), Nana (Adriana Barraza, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) and uncle Rudy (George Lopez, Lopez vs Lopez), an inventor with a firm individualist streak, are swiftly immersed in the chaos — and Milagro, too — as Victoria keeps valuing the scarab, suit and cash she thinks they'll inspire over any human fallout.

Although Blue Beetle has an 84-year history on the page, the eponymous figure's solo live-action cinema debut is as much for newcomers as devotees. Soto's love letter to inclusion isn't only about shining a spotlight on Latinx characters and their experiences, or putting the full Reyes crew at its core — or delivering a clash between the one percent and everyone else, blending the eat-the-rich trend with caped crusaders. It's about accessibility as well; at a time where big film franchises have become so serialised that they're akin to ongoing TV shows on the big screen (and with bigger budgets), and so laden with fan service that the off-screen cheers are virtually choreographed, Blue Beetle doesn't require hours and hours of viewing homework or years and years of devotion to jump in. Again and again, it's plain to see how Soto and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala) clearly want their feature to stand apart, even when it leans into the superhero template. 

Also easy to spot: how Blue Beetle would've stuck much closer to the usual mould without such warmth showered upon its characters and its committed performances. Affection goes two ways here, raining down from Soto and Dunnet-Alcocer, then beaming back up from Maridueña and his co-stars. Jaime and his relatives could've stepped into Blue Beetle from a heartfelt TV series that charts the ins and outs of their lives as a loving and hardworking migrant family in a place brimming with prejudice and corruption. They could take the opposite route now instead and it'd feel just as fitting. It's hardly surprising that Sarandon is cartoonish by their side — but, other than giving the plot a threat while personifying corporate and American evil, plus the lust for power and wealth at any cost, she's not being asked to do much else.

The respect, detail and authenticity that's evident in Blue Beetle's cultural homage, family focus and casting help give Blue Beetle its gleam. It still becomes a sea of smashed-together pixels late in the piece, though, just with well-portrayed characters that the audience cares about, and also ample splashes of neon and synth like this is Tron with superheroes. What does a twentysomething who's undergone a Peter Parker/Miles Morales-esque life shift with a Venom-meets-Iron Man technology end up physically fighting? Something comparable and visually bland, even if said nemesis gets a backstory rife with suffering at Victoria's hands. Blue Beetle isn't without aesthetic flair beyond its nostalgic riffs, with one scene that's shot to resemble an immigration department raid both grabbing attention and making a statement. It also doesn't lack heart anywhere. And, it's fun with something meaningful to say, neither of which are givens in this genre. That said, finding the balance between being oneself and having another force and its influence flittering around isn't only an issue for Blue Beetle's likeable protagonist.

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