By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
The DC franchise is currently in a period of great uncertainty. The underwhelming audience reaction to Black Adam, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and The Flash, along with the fact that all three films failed to make a profit at the box office, has created doubt over the future of the franchise. Good thing, then, that James Gunn’s rebooted DCU is coming soon as its arrival is desperately needed in order to reinvigorate interest in these comic book stories. There’s still a lot of confusion about Gunn’s plans for the DCU, and how much of a restart it will actually be remains to be seen, but the writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has explicitly stated that the character of Blue Beetle is the first hero to enter his universe with the arrival of his solo film, out this weekend exclusively in movie theaters.
Blue Beetle follows Jaime Reyes, played by Xolo Maridueña, whose return to his family home is disrupted when he encounters an alien artifact known as the Scarab, which holds the general being of Khaji Da, and gives Reyes a series of remarkable superpowers. Maridueña’s character has the potential to great deadly weapons on his command as well as form a strong and powerful suit that acts as body armor for the young hero. In many ways, Blue Beetle feels like the DC equivalent of Iron Man, both in terms of the fact that Robert Downey Jr.‘s hero kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe (just as James Gunn says Jaime Reyes will do for the DC Universe) and the similarities in their powers and overall design.
The standout aspects of Blue Beetle are the attention paid to the characters of the film, mainly Jaimie and his Mexican-American family, and its depiction of a Latin American immigrant experience. The characters actually feel like a real family, something that can’t always be said for superhero films, which have become increasingly and noticeably lazy in recent years, and their heroes. Blue Beetle also stands apart as the first real time that a person of Latinx descent takes center stage as a hero in a superhero movie, an admirable feat that not only helps the new DCU begin with a unique story but also gives people of the culture something to watch and celebrate. Famous comic book creators like Stan Lee have always stressed that these stories are for everyone, and Superman began his journey in DC Comics with a remarkably liberal, pro-immigrant and anti-war stance, so it’s fitting that Blue Beetle went down this route and will seemingly have a sizable role in the franchise moving forward.
If there’s one criticism to be had of this diverse approach, however, it’s that it feels a little too cookie-cutter and generic of a Latino/Latina immigrant culture at times. While it’s still great to see this kind of representation on the big screen in a superhero film, some aspects feel watered down in order to achieve broader appeal. That being said, it’s important to note that Blue Beetle sticks by its diverse roots with its director, Ángel Manuel Soto, and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer bringing a level of authenticity to the proceedings.
Ángel Manuel Soto shows his talents as a director throughout Blue Beetle, and the filmmaker does his best to progress the film beyond a typical superhero origin story that audiences have clearly become tired of in recent years. The fact that the most recent iterations of Batman and Spider-Man, arguably the two most popular comic book superheroes, have skipped out on the characters origins entirely is very telling; by reverting back to the original formula that these films ran with for decades, Blue Beetle has a retro-type approach that has its positives and negatives.
The fact that Blue Beetle is relatively isolated from the rest of the DC universe allows the film sufficient time and space to breathe and grow as a story. The fact that this comes in the same summer as The Flash, which was a large scale attempt to bring the universe back together with non-stop references and cameos to past films, is ironic and goes to show the lack of direction that DC have had for a number of years now.
The origin story approach allows the audience to see Jamie in his element with his family, born before and after he becomes a hero. That’s a benefit of using this throwback formula, especially as it gives the family plenty of screen time together. This kind, funny, and resilient group are enough to add some heart and soul to this film and to a franchise that has lacked just that for quite some time (minus 2019’s Joker and 2022’s The Batman, of course).
Just as all superhero origins do, Blue Beetle eventually comes up against some formidable enemies that will take all of his strength, and that of his family, to defeat. Susan Sarandon plays the mastermind of the antagonists in this film by the name of Victoria Kord, a villain who hires Carapax, a part cyborg, part human soldier that provides the muscle to her overarching plan to use the Scarab to create military weapons for the future. This mirrors the general structure of most of the early MCU films, such as Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger, but it’s done in a way that isn’t nearly as gripping or interesting as those Marvel stories. Sarandon, for example, isn’t as captivating of a villain as Jeff Bridges in Iron Man or Red Skull in The First Avenger. In fact, Sarandon gives a performance so dull and unmemorable that it feels likely that audiences will walk out of the movie theater forgetting the details of her character immediately.
More broadly, Blue Beetle doesn’t exactly give audiences a reason to become particularly invested in this story or these characters. Yes, Jaime and his family are endearing, but viewers have been led to become attached to DC characters for so long now, only for these iterations to be thrown out entirely (the prime example of this being Henry Cavill’s Superman, who had a laughably brief return to the franchise before being replaced mere weeks later). DC have clearly lost the trust of most audiences at this moment in time, and James Gunn and Peter Safran have their work cut out to return this franchise to the heights of its past.
Blue Beetle is a serviceable superhero origin story with more heart and charm than Black Adam or Shazam: Fury of the Gods, but the film unfortunately still struggles to overcome how bland and boring it is at times.