Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) has returned home to Palmera City, Texas, as the first college grad in his family, but all is not well among the Reyes clan. His family is on the verge of losing their home and his father is recovering from a heart attack that left him out of a job. After an encounter with Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the heir to the immense Kord Industries fortune, he finds himself with an alien scarab that has latched onto his brain cord and can turn him into a superhero. As you do. Now, he must protect his family, find a way out of this exoskeleton, and stop the callous CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) from harnessing its power to create an army of super-soldiers.
Reviewing a DC movie always comes with a ton of exhausting baggage. This franchise is ever-evolving, often stuck between forced phases, and constantly entangled in a battle for supremacy of creative vision. Zack Snyder only made three films for the DCEU, but the shadow his legacy cast is vast, and Warner Bros. has never been able to fully decide what the hell to do with their exceedingly expensive and historical property. James Gunn is now in charge of that division but the movies we’ve gotten in this liminal period have bore the scars of a messy divorce. Black Adam tried to measure up to Dwayne Johnson’s ego and failed. Shazam! Fury of the Gods forewent the low-stakes charm of its predecessor and entered needlessly grim territory it couldn’t hope to tackle with any real understanding. Batgirl was just deleted from history entirely. So, it’s a minor miracle that, not only is Blue Beetle pretty solid, but seems to have emerged from this ongoing corporate battle unscathed.
Initially intended for an HBO Max exclusive release, Ángel Manuel Soto’s take on Jaime Reyes’ Blue Beetle was bumped up to theatrical after executives liked what they saw (although clearly not enough to give it a release date worthy of real attention.) It’s easy to see what charmed them, for the best stuff in Blue Beetle arises from the appealing Jaime and his close connection to his family. The film greatly benefits from the time we spend with the Reyes family, who are deftly depicted as more than the stock sideline supporters we all too often see in this genre.
Jaime’s sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) is sardonic and realistic about their situation. Mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo) is supportive and devoted. Father Alberto (Damián Alcázar) remains optimistic in the face of troubles. Uncle Rudy (George Lopez and his especially unhinged ponytail) is a paranoid stoner of surprising tech prowess. And Nana (the legendary Adriana Barraza) is the glue that ties them all together (who also has one hell of a past that eventually comes to life.) There’s real humour here, and proper stakes. Blue Beetle mercifully doesn’t make Jaime fight for the fate of the world or the safety of Palmera City. His goal is to keep his family safe, and the film does a good job of conveying the utmost seriousness of that. Soto has a light touch that reveals his indie roots are at their best when the action is contained in this manner. You care about what happens to this family, which is more than you can say for a lot of prior DC films that treated buildings full of people as faceless bodies in bloodless massacres.
And the family sticks around for the entire film, never sidelined for more CGI action, which is just as well because of course Blue Beetle has a messy third act. At this point in time, I have to wonder if the punchy-punch SFX blur third act stumble is a contractual obligation. Really, the action stuff isn’t as interesting as the scenes of Jaime just being with the ones he loves. Sure, there are some good moments, especially as Jaime flails like a slapstick comic trying to figure out the sentient suit he’s found himself stuck in. One fight scene makes especially good use of this concept. Mostly, however, it’s just another set of superhero tropes slapped onto the narrative in the same way they always are. It’s a shame because a lot of the origin stuff for Blue Beetle has a lot of charm and manages to differentiate itself enough to not feel like a retread. His first transformation scene is like PG Cronenberg at times, genuinely painful looking and scary in a way that will certainly give some kids nightmares. Soto and Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer thankfully avoid winking jokes about the admitted silliness of a superhero built from an alien scarab, which gives them a point over too many Marvel films.
The weaknesses with the obligatory super-tropes also mean that the villains are somewhat lacking. Raoul Max Trujillo Ignacio Carapax/OMAC, Kord’s bodyguard and technologically mutated soldier, is flat and doesn’t gain much from a third act emotional reveal. Susan Sarandon often seems bored as Victoria, although when she bothers to remember a movie is being made, she turns up the cackling rich lady smarm enough to divert. Her sad backstory about sexism in the family feels a lot less developed than her cold hunger for power and willingness to be a full-blown war criminal to get it. A smarmy tech CEO who does business with the military and sees destroying developing nations as a necessary evil in the name of progress is scary enough. The looming threat of this blend of corporate and political hits home for the Reyes, whose neighbourhood is being gentrified in part by Kord overreach. In one scene where Kord’s soldiers raid their home, Soto moves the camera through the small building like news footage of an ICE raid, a real threat for a family with undocumented members.
Gunn has said that there could be room in the next reboot of the DCEU for Blue Beetle, and there are obligatory mentions of the likes of Superman and Batman (who Uncle Rudy calls a ‘fascist’), but nothing here that feels like a studio mandate. if we get more of Blue Beetle, nobody would be mad, but, as a stand-alone title with refreshingly low stakes and a rock-solid emotional centre, it’s worth your time. But if you zone out during the fight scenes, I won’t judge you. I think that’s what they’re there for now.
Blue Beetle is in cinemas now.