A film review by Craig J. Koban August 23, 2023


2023, PG-13, 127 mins

Adriana Barraza as Nana Reyes  /  Damián Alcázar as Alberto Reyes  /  Susan Sarandon as Victoria Kord  /  Raoul Max Trujillo as Conrad Carapax / Carapax the Indestructible Man  /  George Lopez as Uncle Rudy Reyes  /  Elpidia Carrillo as Rocio Reyes  /  Bruna Marquezine as Jenny Kord  /  Harvey Guillén as Dr. Sanchez  /  Gabrielle Ortiz as Tia Letty

Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto  /  Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer

Just before I screened BLUE BEETLE - the 14th installment (well...maybe...more in a bit) of the DC Extended Universe, I checked out Netflix's HEART OF STONE.  My main issue with that Gal Gadot spy thriller vehicle was that it seemed like it was lazily pilfering from the genre playbook and offered up a greatest hits package of well worn and overused troupes.  

I felt the exact same way as I exited BLUE BEETLE.  Here's a super hero origin film that feels like so many countless others that we have received over the years.  There is no comic book movie convention that this film doesn't utilize. We get an in-over-his-head outcast that's granted vast super powers (via an accident) who later has to do battle with a dastardly villain that wants his abilities to inflict massive harm on the world.  

If any of this sounds slavishly formulaic...then you're not alone.

Having said all of that, there are three major saving graces to BLUE BEETLE that help elevate itself above being a relative super hero cliché dispensing factory.  

Firstly, the film scores huge points on the inclusiveness and representation front by being the first massive budgeted super hero solo film (from either DC or the MCU) that largely features the Latin community (having a film starring, written by, and directed by people of color is noteworthy).  Secondly, the Puerto Rican born director/producer/screenwriter Angel Manuel Soto uses this platform to tell a story of a tight Mexican family unit (and the young hero at its center) to delve into thoughtful and relatable real world cultural themes of gentrification and business imperialism.  Lastly, the main cast assembled to play said family are all so uniquely winning and charismatic, especially lead actor Xolo Mariduena (COBRA KAI) as the titular costume clad justice seeker in question.  BLUE BEETLE is a clunky and derivative super hero flick that - to its credit - is saved by its agreeable cast, their good performances, and some compelling thematic material at play.     

Mariduena plays 22-year-old Mexican college grad Jamie Reyes, who has just returned home after his studies to his fictional home town of Palmera City.  His family is an eccentric bunch, to be sure, but they love him all the same and are proud that he's the first Reyes with a college degree.  Unfortunately, the initial glow of coming home is sullied by the news that his father, Alberto (Damian Alcazar), recently suffered a heart attack and lost his auto shop business.  Worse yet, the Reyes family home is about to be pushed away by the vile Kord Industries, whose CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) wants the land to expand her business empire.  She's also an artifact hunter that's desperately searching for an alien piece of tech called The Scarab, which she hopes can be exploited and duplicated to create her own line of super soldiers.  Victoria's niece and second in line to the Kord family fortune, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), doesn't share her aunt's oppressive view of a militaristically ruled world, so she takes it upon herself to steal The Scarab and ensure that it never falls into the wrong hands



Regretably for Jamie, he has a chance encounter with Jenny while on the job hunt front.  Having spontaneously hidden the artifact in a fast food container, she gives it to Jamie and instructs him to keep it safe and never, ever open it to see what's inside.  Obviously, Jamie doesn't adhere to her strong words of warning, mostly because his tech-savvy and conspiracy theorist worshipping Uncle Rudy (an infectiously snarky George Lopez) insists that they check out what's in the box.  Inside they find a blue-hued and metal beetle-esque robot that very quickly attaches itself to the traumatized Jamie and frighteningly covers his body from head to toe in armor (it also contains an A.I. entity that helps him navigate through all of the powers that his new super suit grants him).  Furious at her niece's betrayal and becoming obsessed with nabbing The Scarab once and for all, Victoria goes on the hostile offensive and orders her robotic limbed henchmen, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), to find and stop Jamie and - if he needs to - use his family as bait.     

And, yes, this just might be the worst coming home experience for a recently graduated law student in movie history.   

One aspect that's a tad confusing while watching BLUE BEETLE is precisely where it fits in the overarching (and soon coming to an end) DCEU.  Obviously, and with James Gunn taking over the creative reigns of DC's film properties, this leaves many viewers perplexed about where the upcoming crop of DC centered films rests with the overall continuity.  BLUE BEETLE makes many concentrated references to other super heroes throughout (especially a hilarious quip from the paranoia-fuelled Uncle Rudy that "Batman is a fascist!"), but as to whether this film is tying itself to the Zack Snyder DCEU or is a fresh start for the Gunn-ian DC to come is left murky here.  I also think that super hero films are only as good as their villains, and BLUE BEETLE's is somewhat underwritten and lacking in a terrifying level of threat.  Susan Sarandon is a great actress, but she never seems up to the challenge of fully harnessing this despotic corporate leader that will step on and over anyone (especially the Reyes family) to expand her business' reach.  She's simply miscast here and rarely comes off as a menacing presence in the slightest.  Just imagine, say, what an intense Sigourney Weaver could have done in this role.  

BLUE BEETLE - as all super hero origin films do - goes to great lengths to show the down on his luck Jamie acclimating to his new powers and the realization that with great powers comes great responsibilities...you get the drift.  The Blue Beetle character is as old as Superman himself as far as comic book history goes, and there have been many incarnations of him over the last several decades, but this film appropriates the third iteration created in 2006 (previous versions ranged from police detectives and archaeologists donning the costume).  This newer Blue Beetle owes considerably to Spider-Man and Iron Man mythos, albeit with a Latino infusion.  I would easily argue that the weakest elements of BLUE BEETLE are in the hero's discovery period of the enormous powers that The Scarab grants him, not to mention the final action-packed climax that pits hero versus villains in CG-infused sequences of chaos and mayhem that are more yawn inducing than truly exhilarating.  This is just reheated leftovers from the super hero production playbook.     

But - big but! - the family aspect of this film and the thoroughly engaging and committed performances by the Latin actors here are what makes the less appetizing elements of the film go down much more smoothly.  There's a special kind of heart and soul in these mutually loving and nurturing members of the Reyes family that - for clear reasons - has never really been explored in other white-dominated super hero blockbusters.  Not only does BLUE BEETLE do a good job of celebrating unique aspects of the Latin community, but it's also solid when evoking this empowered family bracing themselves for any obstacle.  There's a surprisingly powerful dramatic moment when the Reyes matriarch - grandmother Nana (Adrian Barraza) - calmly and sternly tells her traumatized family members that they need to put away their tears and cry later in order to get through the next few arduous hours to come.  I admire a film of this ilk managing to find time to show that these Latino characters are not merely props being used to propel the plot forward; they're strong, independent minded, and fiercely protective of themselves and their community.  They become active participants as the story progresses.

There's also the aforementioned undercurrent of Victoria Kord's sinister plan to take over and cast aside members of the Mexican community (like the Reyes clan) for the sake of what they perceive as "good progress."  There are well observed ideas presented here about the economic gulf that exists between Jamie and his family and absurdly affluent white people that have the capital and reach to do away with the 99 per centers of the world without blinking an eye.  Then, on top of that, just consider Jamie as a character himself.  He comes from a poor and disadvantaged Mexican slum area that managed to make something of himself in college, but then when he returns home he struggles to secure employment despite his academic standing.  Peter Parker had his share of letdowns, but he never lost work and had opportunities taken from him because of his color.  Mariduena is so thanklessly decent as his compellingly rooted character.  He has a delicate performance challenge of making Jamie strapping and amiable enough to warrant our rooting interest while simultaneously showing his fragile emotional state built around the lack of opportunity for people like him and his family.     

Under most other normal circumstances, I simply would not recommend BLUE BEETLE.  It tells a painfully by-the-numbers super hero origin tale made from distractingly familiar traits.  From the perspective of the superficial comic book universe building of a newly minted hero and a nearly unstoppable villain locking horns, there's nothing here on the page that hasn't been done before and much better.  But - big but! - the film crafts a lively, inviting, and frequently humorous and touching portrait of its deeply prideful Latin characters that makes this comic book film feel more lived-in than it probably has any business being.  That, and the story injects in messages about family unity, resilience, and honor alongside more damning concepts of how some cultures can be maliciously displaced by white interests.  BLUE BEETLE is definitely built upon wobbly genre norms (the whole genre could implode one day because of an over reliance of this), but the film's unique cultural prerogative and the strong roots it plants helps it from becoming yet another cheaply disposable and forgettable super hero tale.   

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