THE STORY – Jaime Reyes suddenly finds himself in possession of an ancient relic of alien biotechnology called the Scarab. When the Scarab chooses Jaime to be its symbiotic host, he’s bestowed with an incredible suit of armor that’s capable of extraordinary and unpredictable powers, forever changing his destiny as he becomes the superhero Blue Beetle.
THE CAST – Xolo Maridueña, Adriana Barraza, Damián Alcázar, Raoul Max Trujillo, Susan Sarandon & George Lopez
THE TEAM – Ángel Manuel Soto (Director) & Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes
The state of superhero movies these days is in a precarious place. The utter onslaught has provided a plethora of options, but it certainly looks as if the luster that seemingly began in the late 2000s is starting to wear off. Gigantic spectacle and interconnecting narratives aren’t as novel anymore, and diminishing returns have started to show themselves. At this point, a bold statement needs to be made to inject new life into this arena. Some of this may be down to tone and aesthetics, but a new perspective also feels necessary. “Blue Beetle” feels like it understands this call and certainly tries to infuse a representational specificity to make itself stand apart. It’s successful on that front, only undone by mediocre conventions that tether it to a familiar foundation.
It’s time once again to reveal the humble beginnings of a larger-than-life hero, and this time the focus is on Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a young man who has just returned from a stint in college back to his loving family. However, the family has been hit with hard financial times, which forces Jamie and his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) to take menial work to help. It’s here that he happens to cross paths with Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), the leader of a multi-billion-dollar corporation with the goal of possessing a great power to fuel their weapons manufacturing. Her niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), attempts to undermine this plan by stealing a metallic blue scarab that is the source of this power. She gives it to Jaime in an attempt to hide it, but instead, it bonds with him, fusing with his mind to create a full suit with fantastic abilities. He is now tasked with not only preventing this evil from succeeding but protecting his loved ones as best he can from the danger.
Two significant elements that always impact how good one of these films is can be found in the strength of the hero and villain. Regarding the former, Maridueña carries the film with an easy charm that quickly envelopes the screen with an endearing presence. It’s a reasonably typical arc he’s given, but his portrayal is utterly charismatic and a well-placed anchor. He delivers both comedic and emotional moments with an authentic sincerity that is quite appealing. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Sarandon. To be fair, anyone would struggle against the chains of a paper-thin antagonist with the broadest of motivations. In this instance, she’s just not given much to do from the material. Kord is another sinister capitalist with obsessions of world domination but with very little to make her compelling. Sarandon doesn’t even look to be trying that hard to revel in the sinister nature, making her threat feel muted throughout and a huge impediment to becoming fully invested.
Thankfully, the supporting ensemble does a great deal more to create compelling dynamics and are a blast to watch. Escobedo is delightful as the quippy sister that manages the great feat of never bordering on abrasive and cloying. The same is said for George Lopez, who plays the eccentric uncle with a knack for impromptu inventions. He brings a zany energy that steals every scene he’s in. Once again, it would be so easy for this character to become an annoying player, but Lopez brings the right amount of comedy and heart to the role to be effective. It’s also felt for Adriana Barraza as the grandmother, another captivating player. Marquezine holds her own but has a rather thankless character that doesn’t leave much of an impact.
One gets the sense that Angel Manuel Soto’s priority is to create a welcoming portrait enriched by its cultural identity. Even though the film takes place in a fictional city, the plights of a close-knit, working-class Mexican family struggling in hardship but surviving by the strength of their love is appealing. The cultural specificity is vibrant in every frame, and while some touchstones may go unrecognized to some, that’s precisely what makes the tone so special. The simple act of the grandmother never once speaking a word of English, not even as a throwaway joke, feels sincere to the character and this world. When the family becomes a more active participant in the finale, it is an act that is representative of the bonds this unit has for one another. There’s a nice balance here of indulging in a background that comes across as true to a Latino experience while also giving it the appropriate amount of space to play in broad entertainment, which is greatly appreciated.
Having said that, the story at the core of Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s screenplay is much less inventive. The typical tropes of what is expected from origin stories are presented here, and many will undoubtedly recognize the hallmarks. While this is understandable for the inaugural outing of a character, the storytelling never finds a more creative avenue. The journey toward self-actualization is signposted without much variation, and the aforementioned anemic villain completely lowers the stakes. Even the action sequences, while competent, aren’t particularly that engrossing beneath the surface. All of this ultimately results in a film with a ton of personality, but that individuality is only stretched so far until it eventually becomes a rather tiresome display.
Throughout its runtime, there’s a conflict that “Blue Beetle” continually wrestles with in order to tell its tale. On one side, there is a genuine effort to create a piece that is indebted to its ethnic and cultural background, creating alluring characters and an inviting sensibility that is effortlessly charming. Yet, the necessity to indulge in the more standard superhero fare does it no favors. The plot is devoid of any aspect that could manifest more intriguing drama, opting for stale villains and passable set pieces that hardly leap off the screen. Still, there’s an enjoyment that runs steadily enough throughout that makes the film a pleasing romp. One wishes more were done to separate it from the pack outside of its specific setting, but it manages to be just enough in many places to be entertaining.