As anyone who’s been keeping an eye on DC Comics’ cinematic universe will recognize, its whole “changing of the guard” has been slower than imagined. I’m sure most of us have all but forgotten the heavy stone that was The Flash, a misnomer that all but sunk the ship James Gunn’s been tasked to raise. Anything else in the same realm is bound to be an improvement, but still perhaps a little too soon. And too much like an undercooked stew, amplifying an already sour taste still lingering on the tongue. That’s exactly what we get with Blue Beetle, another mid-level favorite in the company’s catalog, given its mainstream dues with a diverse perspective, and a litany of cliches weighing down its gravitas to idle comedy territory. Knowing this effort was once intended for (HBO) Max helps less.
Director Ángel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings) and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala) do not see too much difference between big screen or small, applying their theatrical flair to a mixed bag of ideas. On one end, they prove their faithfulness to the main character’s third pulp incarnation. Another, an open forum for allegories on gentrification and real estate, and an eagerness to deviate off focus to land a familiar gag. To keep things serious while playing with these three buckets is possible, but the clunks are all but visible, even crude and slightly underdeveloped in nature.
Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is the most skilled player here. A recent college graduate with a pre-law degree, he returns home to Palmera City – a flashier fever dream version of Miami, and miles away from the comics’ home of El Paso – and to rough news from his large family. While dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), mom Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), paranoid uncle Rudy (George Lopez), their Nana (Adriana Barraza), and little sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) all welcome him with warm smiles, it’s all just a softened blow to a serious truth. While Jaime was away, Dad’s auto shop went under, he underwent a health scare, and his house, like much of their working immigrant neighborhood, is under threat of foreclosure, despite decades of scrappy can-do gumption.
Both brother and sister do what they can for summer jobs, with Jaime finding himself thrown into the mix with the wealthy business pro Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), who offers him an open invite for an interview. Ultimately, it’s to smuggle out the Scarab, a piece of military hardware her aunt Victoria (Susan Sarandon) is keen to propagate like the next Robocop. Toying around idly with the metallic object that is, indeed, shaped like a beetle, triggers it to select Jaime as its host. And through a painful transformation, he becomes the Blue Beetle, a target in Victoria’s eyes, and those of her bodyguard associate Conrad Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), the intended host.
From there, it becomes a battle to safely remove the beetle before it achieves symbiosis, while fending off the elder scientist’s villainous advances, while lightly dabbling in prior lore involving the Kord name, with the sharp-clawed Jenny coming to terms with both bright and dark sides of her family’s legacy. While appearing more muddled than necessary, it still has great fun connecting the dots between Jaime and his new ally. All this shows just how serious Blue Beetle can be, once it earns the space, and it can look past some questionable CG work. And automatically, that makes it better than what all we have seen from DC in the last ten months combined. Although, the feeling deserves to last a little longer, focus heavily flailing about just as Soto hooks on to his favorite idea. One that’s firm, upbeat, understandably reechoing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, or Gerald Christopher’s Superboy with its youthful, near-geeky spark. But one that also comes up a tad rough, worse so when linked with its other puzzle pieces.
The supporting protagonists, Jaime’s family, for instance, really could’ve benefitted from a nominal rewrite. It’s not easy to root for their plight of survival when that emotional timbre is undercut by cheesy sitcom-level jokes shared among them. Lopez’s presence is all but integral there, keeping comedic muscles and energy loose, radiating toward his on-screen family. When the aim is to tickle the funny bone, the wattage is too high, or too loud, resorting to mere situational reactivity.
That can only work to a certain point, simplistic screaming reaching deliberate annoyance. It does get better, albeit late, as the Reyeses quickly rebound to legit, emotive individuals who border on delightfully cocky. Escobedo and Barraza have no trouble shining with an acerbic grace, as do Jaime’s voice assistant Khaji-Da (an on-point Becky G), and Kord’s Smithers-like lackey Dr. Sanchez (a frustratingly underused Harvey Guillén).
Both Sarandon and Trujillo are unwavering titans as the obvious baddies, though they too deserved better material to work off. One to be less corny, although she wears it well, taking it to an astonishingly catty/shrill high that had me grinning. The other to show his backstory, a historically rooted triad dating back to childhood, more within center. They are, at any rate, still easy enough to scorn toward, despite inconsistent motivation beyond eyeing the McGuffin that’s wrecked poor Jaime’s body – with a mildly effective horror comedy bend highlighting cinematographer Pawel Pogozelski’s (Beau is Afraid) eye for the lightly macabre.
And Jaime himself goes through so much, it’s amazing his mental willpower does not buckle. Lopez and Alcázar both displaying comforting father figure zest might be a strong aid to soothe that anxiety. But it’s all Maridueña, otherwise, who balances stamina with weariness. And with a game Marquezine, an affirmed, laidback rapport. One could tell Soto is taking the most joy on this project when building a scene around his star’s unwavering strength and reflexes. Not just physical, but especially emotional. And then angling to go all out with an extreme fish-out-of-water demeanor, something the rising talent proudly takes to heart with spot-on awkwardness.
That kinetic partnership between director and lead actor all but secures Blue Beetle’s place in the DC tapestry, as well as a triumphant victory for on-screen Latino representation. One can hope both will carry over as Gunn’s oversight marches on to another top-to-bottom refresh. Though with where it stumbles as a comic book film on its own footing, regardless of influences, franchise cache, or third-act redemption, Soto leaves the venture only a momentary experience. I’m sure not to forget in a hurry what worked in his toolbox, supporting a mostly fresh viewpoint to the origin story motif. But amid a major genre sea change, chances are it will get lost in its own booming noise. (C+; 3/5)
Blue Beetle opens August 18, with early previews beginning 2PM August 17; rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, language, and some suggestive references; 127 minutes, including mid and post-credit scenes.