You have to feel a little sorry for Blue Beetle. After all, it is the last-born child (in ‘original film’ terms) of a now defunct cinematic universe that’s currently undergoing reinvention by James Gunn and Peter Safran. As such, there is a certain air of it playing to a crowd that may already have left the building. Although, that said, perhaps there’s no need to be too concerned for this new kid on the blockbuster.
Firstly, aside from a few passing references to Superman and Batman, the film feels sufficiently and blissfully unassociated with the specific events and adventures of the DCEU (unlike the previous-plot-entangled The Flash), and so stands on its own six legs. Secondly, despite being almost eye-rollingly formulaic at points, it has plenty of charm and wit. And, as everyone knows, having a great personality goes a long way.
Let’s deal with the ‘formulaic’ bit first. Blue Beetle is an origin story through and through. It involves a bright Mexican-American kid named Jaime Reyes (Cobra Kai’s easy-on-the-nerves Xolo Maridueña) who, shortly after reuniting with his amiable folks in the fictional Palmera City, has great power thrust upon him in the form of a flesh-burrowing bug that excretes a symbiotic alien-AI supersuit. Think Venom meets Iron Man in Sonic The Hedgehog blue, complete with a F.R.I.D.A.Y.-like voice-in-the-head provided by singer Becky G.
Blue Beetle makes one smart decision that saves its shiny cerulean ass: it brings Jaime’s family along for the ride.
After some rather overplayed scenes in which Jaime gets to grips with his incredible new powers — flight, invulnerability, turning his hands into any weapon he can think of — he comes into conflict with evil corporate boss Victoria Kord (a happily hamming Susan Sarandon). She says evil-boss things like, “Carapax, ready the claw!” and wants the tech to make loads of baddie versions of our nascent superhero. In fact, she already has one in the form of the aforementioned Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), a cyborg henchdude who favours Sith red in contrast to Reyes’ Jedi blue; a handy chromatic distinction during the noisy climactic clashes, where big-money pixels predictably collide in a visually unstimulating way.
In broad story-and-action terms, there really isn’t much here that feels fresh. Just the kind of microwave-reheated super-fare that will do fine if your tastebuds are that way inclined. But Blue Beetle makes one smart decision that saves its shiny cerulean ass: it brings Jaime’s family along for the ride. And we mean actual same-DNA family; not just a bunch of crooks and former enemies that you invite to a barbecue every weekend. Usually in these heroes’ journeys, families exist to be left behind, victimised or avenged, while the chosen son or daughter hogs the spotlight. But, without wanting to give too much away, Blue Beetle is a title that can be claimed by the Reyes clan as a whole, rather than just Jaime himself, in a very direct and active way.
There is some victimising and avenging going on, but Jaime’s parents, sister, Nana, and — most entertainingly — George Lopez as his ultra-mulleted, authority-mistrusting Uncle Rudy, stand alongside him throughout. For the most part, they provide sidekick-comedy relief (Nana — played by Adriana Barraza — revealing her revolutionary past and toting a kind of disco-powered mini-gun is a treat) and complement Jaime’s moralistic rigidity with some cheeky shading. Most significantly, they also give the film its thoroughly uncynical soul. The performances of Lopez, Belissa Escobedo (as slacker younger sis Milagro) and co are so warm and appealing, they somehow resist the fatal tang of cheesiness. Though one heart-to-heart too many between Jaime and his blue-collar sage of a dad (Damián Alcázar) does come close.
The persistent prominence of the Reyes clan also helps showcase another admirably distinctive thing about Blue Beetle; not only is this cinema’s first Hispanic-American lead superhero, but the film has an almost entirely Hispanic-American cast, making culturally specific references (okay, we had to Google María la del Barrio) amid dialogue delivered in Spanglish. All of which contributes to a cinematic personality that might even be strong enough to earn the film a sequel in DC’s brave new universe.