'Blue Beetle' review: DC flick has heart, but squanders its potential
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Arriving at a turning point in the industry when “Barbenheimer” proved audiences wanted something other than bland and generic spandex origin stories, “Blue Beetle” is trying to keep the DC cinematic universe alive and test the resilience of the superhero genre. Well, what’s left of it after Dwyane Johnson bulldozed through “Black Adam,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” tanked, and “The Flash” cratered. Ironic, “Blue Beetle,” is better than all of those movies considering it was originally commissioned for HBO Max.
The first (and long overdue) Latino-led film of its kind, there’s plenty to like about the film, especially as it leans on familiar troupes like the bond of family, and the sacrifices we make to protect them. If only the film had found better footing in the VFX/CGI department as the Angel Manuel Soto film can’t help but look like one of those canceled CW pilots. Hey, it’s still better than “The Flash,” but that’s not necessarily a high bar to clear.
Packed with enough charismatic performances and George Lopez zingers to keep you from going completely insane, the problem with “Blue Beetle” isn’t so much what it’s trying to accomplish, but how it’s doing it. Rarely do you witness a superhero origin so uninterested in explaining, well, its own origin. Any unfamiliar audience members in attendance will likely perform a quick Google search upon the film’s completion as they try to ascertain basic inquiries like: What is the Blue Beetle? Why does it need to be symbiotic with its host? Why is it also called Khaji-Da? How much money did Susan Sarandon really make for playing the mustache twirling villain out to harness the Scarab tech that’s merged with college graduate Jaimie Reyes (Xolo Mariduena - sporting that bubbly “Cobra Kai” energy)?
It’s somewhat of a disappointment, but at least “Blue Beetle” never takes itself too seriously. From the opening shot when the persnickety Victoria Kord (Sarandon), a bio-weapons manufacturer who has all the character development of a fly on the wall, and her appropriately named henchman Conrad Carapax, emerge from a helicopter in the arctic looking up at what appears to be a giant egg left over from “Jurassic Park” and acting all giddy, it’s obvious “Blue Beetle” doesn’t plan on rewriting the genre.
The film then cuts to the fictional locale of Palmyra City, where Jaimie, the first in his family to get a college degree, is trying to catch a break after studying pre-law. His family is encouraging, especially his father, played by Damian Alcazar, who will undoubtedly end up being the Uncle Ben to Jaimie’s Peter Parker; mother (Elpidia Carrillo, a great actress who is given minimal leeway); and, of course, Nana (Adriana Barraza - doing the most with a familiar archetype) who you’ll see late in the film gleefully brandishing a machine gun while screaming “down with the imperialists.” His sister, played by Belissa Escobedo, razzles him daily, especially when cleaning toilets at their country club summer gigs and Uncle Rudy (Lopez - who had me cackling at several instances) laments about how the government is watching their every move and thinks Batman is a fascist.
It’s at the country club where Jaimie crosses paths with the smokin’ Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine in her first major role) who doesn’t love what her power hungry Aunt has done with her father’s company. In a bid to thwart her efforts, she steals the Scarab (aka the Beetle), hides it in a hamburger box, and gives it to Jaimie to guard it with his life, but insists he never open it. As if that was ever going to happen.
In one of the film's more inspired sequences, the family watches as Jaimie undergoes the transformation of his life. At its best, it has the intensity of B sci-fi movies where characters endure grueling body horror (we see his spine get ripped open as the scarab connects with its new host) and, at its worst, a poorly CGI rendering that resembles graphics on a PC floppy disk. Now, looking like the cheap “Iron Man,” Jaimie is a superhero, and the montage of self-discovery and annoying bickering with the suit’s embedded technology follows closely behind.
Touching on gentrification, Hispanic culture, heritage, and the tense political landscape, “Blue Beetle” has its heart in the right place and as a late summer tentpole targeted towards children and a vastly underserved audience, DC has seen worse. And yet, its generic storytelling, laughably dull battles, and not-so-subtle attempts at leaning into nostalgia with a variety of tepid needle drops, also hold it back from rising above the latest crop of live-action superhero flicks. Sure, “Blue Beetle” proves this genre is probably here to stay, but the targeted audience shouldn’t have to settle for mediocrity.
BLUE BEETLE is now playing in theaters.