[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.}
[This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.]
Your heart can’t help going out to Blue Beetle.
Warner Brothers initially intended the film to be an HBO Max exclusive to bolster its streaming slate. After its merger with Discovery, the studio saved it from cancellation (unlike Batgirl) and gave it a theatrical release in the dog days of August. (It doesn’t help that its release follows the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.) The confused priorities don’t end there. DC Studios’ new leaders James Gunn and Peter Safran are touting Blue Beetle as part of their universe, even though it still references the now-shuttered DCEU. Simply put, Blue Beetle bears a lot as it flies into theaters. (That doesn’t account for the glowing insect attached to its superhero’s back.)
Whatever real-world weight Blue Beetle bears doesn’t make it to the screen. The film is solely focused on Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a first-generation Mexican-American college graduate who moves back home to Palmera City. Jaime believes his college degree will secure him a well-paying job to support his cash-strapped family. It doesn’t, and Jaime and his sister work as cleaners for Kord Industries CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) instead. A chance encounter with Victoria’s niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine) exposes Reyes to the Scarab, a sentient alien nanotechnology that transforms him into a superpowered being. Reyes can fly, create whatever weapons and defenses he needs, and more. It immediately makes him Victoria’s target, who wants to use the Scarab to build highly-destructive, highly-expensive military suits. Reyes must learn how to live with the Scarab and protect himself and his loved ones from Victoria’s well-funded onslaught.
After nearly 25 years of oversaturation, little novelty remains in a superhero’s big-screen introduction. Director Ángel Manuel Soto embraces, rather than subverts or mocks, the film’s similarities to other comic book titles. He borrows stylistically and structurally from Iron Man, Shazam, Black Panther, and Spider-Man (Sony and MCU) to establish this relatively niche hero within a cinematic context. The creative strategy works surprisingly well for Blue Beetle, as it feels familiar without being oppressively formulaic. The film’s frenetic but controlled energy helps in this effort. Soto keeps a zippy pace, darting between thrilling action set-pieces, hilarious sequences, and thoughtful moments that keep audiences on their toes and refresh its more standard superhero elements. While this approach makes for a thoroughly entertaining experience in its own right, it also allows Soto to emphasize what makes his film feel distinct in the crowded and weary superhero film landscape.
Blue Beetle is unique in conceiving Jaime’s primary motivation for being a superhero in the first place. Jaime’s family is the central force in his life, and Soto establishes their significance to his journey from the beginning. Jaime’s parents, grandmother, sister, and uncle Rudy each have specific, engaging inner lives that are united in their devotion to each other. Together, they are an electrifying unit, their collective energy powering the film’s raucous forays into body horror-comedy and action-packed hijinks. The film earns its biggest laughs from the tightly-knit clan’s reactions to the insanity that Jaime’s Scarab causes. (They know about the Scarab from the start, witnessing its embed in horrifyingly and hilariously brutal detail.) Its most harrowing and even heartbreaking moments come from seeing the family pushed to the brink of destruction. Whatever the circumstance, whether outlandish or tragic, Jaime and his loved ones stand firm.
More than blood binds the Reyes’ together. Jaime’s devotion to his family is an intimate reflection of cultural survival and resilience against dehumanization and erasure. Soto doesn’t shy away from showing the tangible and existential threats facing Jaime and others because of their race. An undercurrent of xenophobia and racism runs beneath humorous and dramatic moments, rightfully characterized as a feature of this purportedly civilized but callous universe. Victoria’s end goal – to create a highly-weaponized military force with the Scarab’s technology – directly cites the over-policing of Latino-American communities. Against the backdrop of deliberate name mispronunciations and searing evocations of vicious family separations, the Scarab’s clinging to Jaime is a profound metaphor for the lives of many Mexican-American families.
And yet, amidst the bias, prejudice, and violence, Soto insists that Blue Beetle celebrates and centers Jaime’s Mexican heritage. He weaves countless cultural, historical, and spiritual touchpoints throughout the film’s fabric with deep reverence and care. Whether a slow pan across lit candles at night or a casual chat about the telenovela María la del Barrio, these lived-in details brighten and sharpen Jaime’s world. They also illustrate that tradition and community inform family as much as genetics. They’re all linked together to form the core of who Jaime is as the Blue Beetle.
Xolo Maridueña wears Jaime’s thematic and narrative ties very well. He is delightful, bursting with bright-eyed charisma and joy in every scene. Maridueña makes you fully believe him as an ambitious but hapless hero-in-the-making. He excels within the film’s comedic and action-oriented beats. Whatever greenness Maridueña exhibits in the more dramatic moments doesn’t detract from how enjoyable he is. The only risk he runs against is losing his breakout film to George Lopez’s Uncle Rudy, who practically redefines “scene stealer” with his explosively hilarious performance. (Special notice also goes out to Adriana Barraza as Jaime’s grandmother. She unexpectedly delivers some of the film’s best comedic and emotionally resonant moments.)
Blue Beetle’s reflections on the intersection of family, culture, and heroism are so compelling that the film’s tangential elements can pale in comparison. While Victoria’s criminal enterprise touches on the film’s themes, her villainous arc feels superficial and perfunctory to Jaime’s story. (Without much meat to her character, Susan Sarandon leans on her best Joan Collins in Dynasty impression, delivering uneven returns.) Jenny’s budding relationship with Jaime fares even worse, hobbled by Marquezine’s stilted performance and her limited chemistry with Maridueña. The film’s attempt to parallel Jenny and Jaime’s family circumstances is the one time it feels inauthentic.
Even with its issues, Blue Beetle ranks amongst the year’s best superhero films. It is also one of the best films of the post-Nolan DC canon. Ángel Manuel Soto’s thrilling and hilarious origin story for Jaime Reyes doubles as an exploration of how a superhero’s cultural identity can shape their purpose. However one approaches the film, to see themselves and their heritage reflected on the screen or to witness the unofficial launch of DC’s next phase, it is hard not to love and appreciate it. Yes, studio politics may have stacked the odds against it. But Blue Beetle doesn’t need pity. With humor and heart, it blasts past its obstacles to reach heights only a few of its contemporaries reach.