Movie Review: Blue Beetle
As incredible as it may seem, people are getting tired of watching muscular loners dressed in Spandex. The Flash debut, the Shazam! sequel and
the Ant-Man threequel all fell prey recently to the box office ennui known as superhero fatigue. Things have gotten so bad in Comicsville, DC Studios recently announced plans to wrap up its DC Extended Universe, which began promisingly a decade ago with Man of Steel. DC’s co-CEOs, James Gunn and Peter Safran, will create a “new” DC Universe of rebooted superhero hijinks that will try to do the same things but differently.
It arrives in theatres with the rude finality of a bug being stomped by a boot. There are no supersized names in the cast, the Hollywood strikes are depriving it of publicity, and everybody knows it’s not a DC priority film — it was originally destined for streaming only. The film has a not-so-secret weapon, however, which it fully exploits for fun and empathy: the tight migrant family connections of its Mexican-American milieu.
Far from being the usual genre stereotype of a loner turned vigilante, our reluctant hero, pre-law grad Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña of “Cobra Kai”), is a devoted son who keeps his relations close to him at all times. He gains his powers not in a lab but in the humble living room of his soon-to-be-evicted family, before the shocked eyes of his blood brood: his adoring mom and dad (Elpidia Carrillo and Damián Alcázar), his mouthy sister (Belissa Escobedo), his feisty grandmother (Mexican screen legend Adriana Barraza) and his wacky Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), who functions as comic relief in a story that is already pretty silly.
Jaime becomes the title superhero after a neon-bright alien scarab he brought home in a hamburger box attaches itself to his spine. It starts encasing him in blue armour, making him look like Iron Man auditioning to be in the Blue Man Group, with shoulder antlers for added effect. The scarab “looks like the world’s biggest tick,” comments Uncle Rudy, a bearded and tattooed tech-head (The horn of his truck plays the insect themed La Cucaracha, which is a cute touch.) The scarab is actually sentient, with a voice provided by singer/actor Becky G and a determination to turn Jaime into a super warrior, despite his declaration of being just “a nobody.”
Jaime will need these skills when it comes time to fight Victoria Kord (a miscast Susan Sarandon), villainous CEO of weapons maker Kord Industries. She wants to create an army of RoboCop-style enforcers to take over the world or something like that. She already has one such soldier: Raoul Max Trujillo’s Carapax, a Kord Industries stooge who looks like a giant red Christmas ornament when he’s in full battle attire.
The blows-up-good direction by Angel Manuel Soto, sketchy plot by screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (“Miss Bala”) and sonic swamp of a score by Midsommar composer Bobby Krlic attest to the original streaming intentions of the “Blue Beetle” team. Like most origin stories, a great deal of the movie is spent introducing characters that will (hopefully) become more interesting in subsequent chapters. Maridueña is good as Jaime, but he’s not given enough screen time to fully register as either a dude or super dude.
The characters frequently charm, though, with their unabashed expressions of family devotion, including macho males who aren’t afraid to say “I love you” to each other. And Soto and his compañeros are really onto something in the way they relate “alien” not just to the outer space origins for the title scarab but also to the fragile U.S. residency status of the Reyes family in their fictional town of Palmera City. They’re more afraid of the cops or government than they are of those other aliens, the ones beyond the stars.
Not afraid of anybody is Jaime’s Nana, a former Mexican revolutionary who knows how to use a machine gun and is happy to do so: “There will be a time to cry,” she tells her grandson. “This is not that time.” “Blue Beetle” could use more of that spirit, and so could Comicsville. The “new” DC Universe should include Nana — and Uncle Rudy, too — in the sequel, if one actually happens.