DC plunders the musty vaults for material and comes up with a poppy Latino riff on the boilerplate superhero yarn.
There’s a bit at the end of 1997’s The Matrix where Neo attains God Genius status and is able to see the binary code inside the malevolent machine that he and his helpmeets have been elbow fighting against. By the same standard, we’ve now reached the point in the superhero movie fatigue cycle where we are able to see all the constituent parts of the film and how they fit together.
And they are very much all present and correct in Ángel Manuel Soto’s fitfully charming, if depressingly familiar DC property, Blue Beetle. It takes all of three minutes for the thought to occur, “Oh, so we’re doing this one again are we?”
It’s yet another power/responsibility origin story in which a plucky dweeb who looks kinda hot in a certain light (Xolo Maridueña’s Jaime Reyes) is french-kissed by some ancient alien technology in the shape of a scarab and is soon being heat-melded together with some kick-ass insectoid body armour which enables him to administer pain in seven ways from Sunday. Out to retrieve her spoils is a power-suited pantomime Susan Sarandon as evil captain of private industry Victoria Kord who needs the tech for her private army of blast-happy mech cops.
This really does play out beat-for-beat by the manual, almost to the point of parody. It’s not that Soto has no moves in his arsenal when it comes to achieving a mere modicum of originality, it’s that the formal structure of these films is now so tired and dreary that, even with a few, nifty customisable elements, everything looks and feels like a rehash of something else. Indeed, you could likely come up with a fairly stable chemical formula for the film’s genetic make-up, a dash of Ant-Man, a pinch of Spider-man, a soupcon on Shazam!, etc, etc… More amusingly, there are points that reminded me of some more alt/weird comic capers, like 1994’s The Mask 1990’s Darkman.
Yet despite everything, Blue Beetle still offers up a fairly decent time at the movies, particularly in its full-throated and endearingly brash celebration of Latino culture and nostalgia. It references everything from telenovellas and kids cartoons, to superior Hispanic covers of English language pop songs and the old “Luchador” wrestling films from the 1950s. In fact, everything that Soto and his writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer do to deviate from the beaten path really stands out, not least the film’s sincere focus on the importance of family ritual in which the makers actually allow the family to feature prominently in the film.
Also, the film does more than it perhaps needs to when it comes to fleshing out the sociopolitical background of the Reyes clan. Initially, Jaime comes home to discover that rent hikes have led to his parents to lose their house and autoshop, yet soon discovers that all working class communities are being cleared out by corporate interests who want to fire up disgusting flouro skyscrapers on the land. In the background is the doddery seamstress Nana (Adriana Barraza) who hasn’t forgotten the guerilla tactics of her formative years fighting against unnamed imperialist scum.
All these details actually feed into the storyline rather than exist as little bits of referential flotsam that can be checked off a list. The climactic raid on an off-shore fortress works because it’s not the omnipotent hero forced to save his family, but the other way around. Plus, there are a couple of really good lines (“I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it!” yells crusty tech whizz Uncle Rudy, gamely played by George Lopez), and lots of neat retro gadgets, including a retooled Nintendo Power Glove, care of rebellious heiress, Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine).
It’s got a couple of fun action sequences and doesn’t push for anything too creative when it comes to the CGI (blue blasts, exploding walls and a split-down-the-middle commuter bus are the limit), which means there’s nothing massively offputting from an aesthetic vantage, Which is rare for these films. And it wraps things up with no oblique references to other superhero franchises, and no obvious path towards a sequel. So that already makes it a cut above the majority of its rivals.
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Published 16 Aug 2023
The marketing campaign for this film has been very quiet.
The same old tricks, but done with a measure of heart and sincerity that you don’t often see in these films.
Not sure I’d need to see it again, or be excited for a sequel, but makes for a nice partner feature with the great Alita: Battle Angel.