This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Angel Manuel Soto
Starring: Xolo Maridueña, Bruna Marquezine & George Lopez
Rated: PG-13 (sequences of action/violence, language and some suggestive references)
Runtime: 2 hours & 7 minutes
A true blue (literally) origin story that is so aware of its own expectations and limits that it actually works the “it’s the journey, not the destination” stuff into the movie itself. If what’s important is that we’re on this journey together though, “Blue Beetle” at least knows how to lather the charm on top of its otherwise paint-by-numbers story. Having the ability to separate itself from the mess that is the current DCU doesn’t hurt either, but it is how director Angel Manuel Soto separates his film stylistically - whether indicative of James Gunn’s universe or not - combined with the appeal of the core family unit that makes this well-worn tale worth investing in.
To this end, Xolo Maridueña makes it easy for the audience to root for him as not only does he offer the aforementioned inherent charm, but he also plays Jaime Reyes as an earnest, bumbling goof. While I know nothing of the history of the Blue Beetle in the comics, the film positions Reyes as someone who doesn’t typically get the win and even when he does, it’s not pretty. This is seemingly meant to be symptomatic of the treatment of Latinos both in the realm of comic book movies as well as culturally, but while Maridueña and his co-stars - including Belissa Escobedo, George Lopez, Adriana Barraza and Damián Alcázar - bring a fun dynamic to the proceedings with the one fresh trait of the film being that it integrates Jaime's family into the world-saving plot it does this at the expense of fleshing out its titular hero.
Bobby Krlic's score suggests this is a coming-of-age movie, that the ragtag bunch of heroes who come into possession of a powerful weapon are suddenly responsible for keeping it out of the hands of the bad guys whilst romance simmers beneath the surface of Jaime and Jenny's (Bruna Marquezine) budding friendship. And while the score does boast an instantly recognizable theme while nailing Soto's desired tone the film falls short of etching out why the unassuming Jaime is a hero, why these powers chose him, and where this weapon truly comes from (it just fell out of the sky?). I'm sure all involved were banking on the sequel the mid-credits scene suggests that might have fleshed out some context, but what made “Iron Man” so distinct (besides RDJ's portrayal) is the conviction that anchored Tony Stark's arc, and this simply isn't present in Jaime Reyes.
I bring up “Iron Man” as “Blue Beetle” essentially apes the MCU originator's entire third act in addition to a plot device that asks what if Tony Stark became an experiment and anti-hero rather than taking out Iron Monger in round one. Granted, Raoul Max Trujillo's head CG’d on the big metal body looks better here than Ruffalo's did in ‘Infinity War,’ but that's beside the point as Jaime never truly feels called to be a hero the way Jenny does due to her familial history, the way Nana does due to her past experiences, or even the way Lopez's Uncle Rudy does as a man who sees this as his last chance to deliver on his unfulfilled potential. And maybe that's the point, maybe that's why the family unit is so integral so that by the third act Jaime has seen examples of what it means to be a hero and why it's necessary he put up a fight, but while Maridueña is charming it never feels like we earn the supposed transformation.
Jenny's convictions still exist as do the Reyes family's struggles regarding the impending gentrification of their community by Kord Industries AKA Jenny's evil Aunt (Susan Sarandon) who took over the family company after Jenny's father and grandfather died. I expected this idea of the big corporation pushing the little guy out of the place they've called home to be the emblematic portion of the film conveying the immigrant experience but was surprised to find Jaime largely comes off as indifferent when confronted with these possibilities. I realize I’m somewhat harping and do want to emphasize that “Blue Beetle” is a fun, neon-colored Saturday morning cartoon of a comic book movie that really hooked me with the "The Blame it on the Boogie" needle drop and utilization of physical sets and a distinct aesthetic. I appreciate all these things and am happy this film exists, but the forgettable personality at the center of the excitement makes this feel more like "Bland Beetle" than a franchise (or universe, for that matter) ringleader.