Directed by Angel Manuel Soto | Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer | 127 min | ▲▲▲△△
Have you ever heard of Blue Beetle? Unless you’re a DC Comics fan I’d be surprised. Given the obscure characters the MCU has made into superstars, I can see why Warner’s gamble makes sense. This one may have an uphill battle to find an audience — we’ve definitely reached some kind of saturation point with costumed heroes in movies. As this summer has shown us, people are just as happy to go see movies about dolls and the man who created the atom bomb.
In the comics, Blue Beetle has had three iterations — four if you count what Alan Moore did with him, but more about that later.
The one they’ve chosen to ‘port to the big screen is the most recent: Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is home from pre-law studies in Gotham City, visiting his family in a retro-futurist American metropolis called Palmera City — maybe DC’s version of Miami. The Reyes have big problems — they’re going to lose their house to developers and Jamie’s father (Damián Alcázar) has health troubles.
Jamie gets a job with his sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) cleaning the mansion of a wealthy family, the Kords. The matriarch there is powerful industrialist Victoria (Susan Sarandon, delightfully arch), who’s sunk her considerable wealth into high-grade weapons development, focused on turning a man named Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) into a cybernetic soldier, a One Man Army Corp, or OMAC. Somewhat ironically, her plan is to make an army of OMACs, and that involves securing an alien scarab that gives its host a supersuit, an exoskeleton of extraordinary power.
You get all that?
Naturally, through meeting Victoria’s niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), Jamie gets ahold of the scarab. It’s a sentient symbiote, and chooses him to be the Blue Beetle, transforming him into a superhero right in front of his whole family. What follows is a chaotic second act featuring Jamie trying to figure out how to shake off the scarab after it embeds itself on his back — he has no interest in the burden of these powers — and Victoria’s minions’ efforts to track him down. Before long Jamie’s whole clan — including mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), fabulous Nana (Adriana Barraza), and the movie’s MVP, George Lopez as the conspiracy-minded Uncle Rudy — are trying to help him understand the truth about the scarab. It has something to do with Jenny’s vanished father, the original Blue Beetle, Ted Kord.
All of this is actually quite a lot of fun. Even as the superhero mythology is needlessly, yet typically, complex, the film is actually character-driven. It’s rooted in Jamie and his relationship with his very tight Mexican-American family, and there’s a lot to admire in how the filmmakers put his culture at the forefront. It has room for some pointed political subtext around racism and the way Hispanic immigrants are treated in the United States. This while aimed squarely at a younger audience — not a far cry from the first Shazam! movie.
In fact, this is the rare superhero movie where the best bits don’t feature the hero in costume, it’s the parts where he spends time with members of his family that work. And yeah, the hammering of the importance of la familia like this is a Fast & Furious spinoff is tiresome, but the people are funny and vivid on screen. When Jamie is Blue Beetle, the action stuff feels like it’s trying to copy Spider-Man or Iron Man without the budget to make it as compelling.
That said, one of the perks of the movie is its serious debt to 1980s fantasy pictures, everything from the glowing blue and purple production design to the Carpenter-esque score nods to movies like Tron and The Last Starfighter. A scrappier, more lo-fi approach kind of suits the material.
One other weird thing to note: The film reminded me that Blue Beetle was originally a character from Charlton Comics that DC purchased in the 1980s and incorporated as part of the DC Universe along with The Question, Peacemaker, and Captain Atom. Alan Moore was recruited to write a comic around these characters, but DC balked when his script ended with the deaths of a few of them. That story was turned into Watchmen, with Rorchach, The Comedian, and Dr Manhattan. The Blue Beetle became Nite Owl.
Flash forward to 2009 and Zach Snyder’s adaptation — remember a scene of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre starting up the owl-ship, Archimedes, and flying out of an underground lair, emerging from the harbour? A scene in Blue Beetle with a bug-ship is so much like Snyder’s, it’s almost as if the filmmakers here wanted to nod to that alternate universe.
Given this is all from DC Comics, I guess it’s all in la familia.