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At first blush, there are few unexpected notes to “Blue Beetle.” When a baddie says, “The love you feel for your family makes you weak,” you know the hero will prove that claim wrong. The villain, Victoria (Susan Sarandon), is hardly configured; it doesn’t take much guessing to know they’re a metaphor for the past and present ills of white-American imperialism. Love will prevail. Self-discovery will happen. And yet, “Blue Beetle” is surprisingly politically spry; the family-bound narrative is shockingly pure; its comedy swerves away from low-hanging memeification. Instead, the film cares more about how these characters mesh.
While the Blue Beetle character dates back to 1939, the updated, culturally specific incarnation of Jaime Reyes didn’t grace DC pages until 2006. Since then, comic book movies have become the center of American pop culture. But those films have only recently attempted to touch every corner of human existence. Marvel Studios has, for instance, the “Black Panther” series and “Eternals,” Sony has the animated “Spider-Man,” while DCU has “Black Adam,” “Aquaman,” “Birds of Prey,” and, to a lesser extent, the “Justice League” film. While diverse, the DCU movies have mostly avoided locking characters into any sort of cultural specificity. “Blue Beetle” marks a sharp break from that unwritten edict.
Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto (“Charm City Kings”), this heartwarming, crowd-pleasing comic book flick is less serious and more colorful than the tonally dour mood of many contemporary superhero films.
A mountain of love falls fast when Jaime (an endearing Xolo Maridueña) arrives home from college to the fictional Palmera City; hugs, jokes, and genuine affection compose these early scenes. But all's not well with the Reyes family: Jaime’s father, Alberto (Damián Alcázar), recently lost his auto shop business. Now, Jaime’s childhood home is in danger of being repossessed by Kord Industry. Despite his pre-law degree, Jaime struggles to land a job. He goes to work with his younger waggish sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) as help at a resort.
Much of “Blue Beetle” concerns the economic disparity between the haves and have-nots, particularly regarding imperialist powers. A person like Jaime can do all the right things: go to college, remain humble, and be pleasant—yet his background, a poor Mexican residing in the disadvantaged Edge Keys neighborhood, will always limit his future. However, he thinks he finds a lifeline when he steps in between the philanthropic Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine) and her ruthless aunt Victoria. Though Victoria fires him, Jenny offers him a job if he’ll meet with her the next day at Kord headquarters.
From there, the script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer turns toward convenience to speed up the narrative: Jenny attempts to steal a technologically advanced blue scarab before Victoria uses its power to develop super-soldiers; Jenny puts it into Jaime’s unsuspecting hands to smuggle out; Jenny never checks back on the scarab—though she has Jaime’s number—until Jaime goes looking for her. It’s a jumble of nonsensical events that get us to Jaime becoming symbiotically linked with the scarab and getting a technologically sharp blue suit.
Some light prep work follows: Jaime must learn how to use his new powers, sparks of romance kick up, origin stories spring forth—you know, the usual comic book beats. These are arguably the weakest components of “Blue Beetle,” particularly because they’re so inarticulately composed. Whatever doom Victoria provides doesn’t jump off the page, rather, the ever-capable Sarandon adds smart beats and nuanced quirks to raise this baseline villain above the mundane. Victoria’s grunting, stoic henchman, Conrad (Raoul Max Trujillo), goes much of the film as a bruising, immovable obstacle until Dunnet-Alcocer crams an entire backstory in the narrative’s final ten minutes. Jenny and Jaime also lack chemistry, partially because Marquezine can’t help but overact as she turns up every facial expression to their breaking point.
Those shortcomings, however, do not negate what works in “Blue Beetle.” For one, the script and actors mine culturally specific references to the superhero parody series "El Chapulín Colorado" and the telenovela "María Mercedes," keeping scenes alive and fresh (a Vicks Vapor Rub joke left me doubled-over laughing). Its political invocations, such as an allusion to the School of the Americas (a major topic to cover in a big-budget film) and a harrowing scene of a raid upon the Reyes home, while overwrought in its use of slow motion, humanizes endangered emigrant families, are daring subplots to add.
Though the action sequences are unremarkable, they still carry some vigor because of this infectiously entertaining ensemble: Adriana Barraza (“Babel”) is a walking, talking highlight reel of punchlines, and George Lopez as the conspiracy theorist Uncle Rudy displays a tremendous elasticity, pulling out animated pratfalls and hilarious one-liners with ease.
At the beginning of “Blue Beetle,” you know the line “The love you feel for your family makes you weak” will ultimately be proven wrong through some narrative device. Soto’s superhero flick, however, also makes family the film's strength for an enriching time at the movies. “Blue Beetle” might not break the mold, but it does break expectations.
In theaters Friday, August 18th.
Xolo Mariduena as Jaime Reyes / Blue Beetle
Adriana Barraza as Nana Reyes
Damián Alcázar as Alberto Reyes
Susan Sarandon as Victoria Kord
Raoul Max Trujillo as Conrad Carapax / Carapax the Indestructible Man
George Lopez as Uncle Rudy Reyes
Elpidia Carrillo as Rocio Reyes
Bruna Marquezine as Jenny Kord
Harvey Guillén as Dr. Sanchez
Gabrielle Ortiz as Tia Letty