Blue Beetle is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.

The 21st century is barely out of its adolescence, and already there have been over 90 live-action superhero movies featuring characters from the big two publishers (Marvel and DC) alone. That averages out to about one major new superhero movie every three months, and this rough math does not even factor in TV shows, animated movies, original creations, and movies based on other companies' IP.

Even for fans of the genre, the novelty has most definitely worn off. No one is reinventing the wheel at this point, and that's probably okay, because we really don't need that many different kinds of wheels. (It's not impossible that someone will find a radical new approach to superheroes, but for the most part no one is looking for that: Audiences just want more of the sort of thing they liked before, and studios are happy to give it to them, with just enough variation to power lucrative new licensing deals.)

So there is almost a refreshing honesty to the way Blue Beetle (2023) is content to recycle all the tired tropes of the genre. Based on the third character to don the mantle of a relatively minor and fairly generic hero who has been around since the 1930s, all the superhero elements and story beats in Blue Beetle have a decidedly off-the-rack feel to them. The only thing that's new is who is wearing the suit: After nearly 100 of these movies, Mexican American Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is the first Latino headliner.

Fortunately, that's the difference that makes all the difference. It is to DC's credit that instead of simply hand-waving at diversity by casting a Latino lead actor, Blue Beetle puts its cultural representation front and center, choosing instead to hand-wave at its formulaic hero origin-story and familiar sci-fi nonsense. Written by Mexican-born Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala), and directed by Puerto-Rican-born filmmaker Angel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings), Blue Beetle uses the comforting cookie-cutter shapes of the superhero movie as a sort of Trojan horse for a story that celebrates Latino culture while slyly vilifying American imperialism, capitalism, gentrification, and police militarization. That it does all this while maintaining a brisk, charming, mainstream-friendly tone reminiscent of the lightest Marvel movies or Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids films? So much the better. 

Jaime Reyes (the charming Maridueña, one of the stars of the Netflix series Cobra Kai) has just come home from Gotham University to the fictional Palerma City, a town where the line between the haves and the have-nots could not be more clear. (From the roof of their modest home in the low-income Mexican neighborhood of Edge Keys, the Reyes family can see the brightly colored neon towers of the city that proudly advertises itself as having "The #1 Lowest Tax-Rate for Corporations in America.") The first member of his immigrant family to graduate from college, Jaime has returned triumphant to discover that the family has been keeping their financial struggles a secret from him: Dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar) has lost the auto-shop, and the family is broke, in danger of losing their home.

To help out, Jaime and his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) take jobs serving the wealthy at a nearby resort, and there Jaime meets the beautiful Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the wealthy scion of Kord Industries, which owns most everything and everyone in Palerma City. Jenny is at ethical war with evil aunt Victoria (Susan Sarandon), who currently controls the company, and is planning to manufacture high-tech battle armor for military and law-enforcement use, based on a mysterious alien scarab that had fallen into the possession of Jenny's late father Ted Kord. Attempting to thwart Victoria's plans for world domination, Jenny steals the scarab, and in the process it ends up latching onto to Jaime, who finds himself able to wield its awesome power as Blue Beetle.

If all that sound confusing, don't worry about it: You don't need to care about the plot any more than the film does, which is astonishingly little. (We eventually learn a little more about the late Ted Kord—and we get hints at further explanation to come in potential sequels—but the lack of interest Blue Beetle has in its own mythology is nearly absolute. Given a super-powered suit with talking AI, Jaime never even thinks to ask it any questions about where it's from or what it might be for.) The film doesn't bother to explain much of anything: It knows we'll grasp the concept of the talking super-suit from Iron Man and Spider-Man movies, just as it knows we'll follow the love story because there are two beautiful young people on-screen together, just as it knows we'll recognize the villain because she's an evil White corporate industrialist played by Susan Sarandon. All of this is as rote as rote can be, which comes to feel less like a weakness of the film and more like a series of highly efficient narrative shortcuts.

Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Xolo Maridueña, Belissa Escobedo, and Damián Alcázar in Blue Beetle (2023)

Because the considerable charms of Blue Beetle lie elsewhere. The action sequences are not mind-blowingly original, but they are clear, playfully executed, and—a novelty for superhero movies lately—brightly lit. (The genre's aversion to color is baffling, but that's not a problem Blue Beetle has.) And though the movie's thematic focus (on the importance of family) is no more novel than any other element, there is something fresh in the way it rallies the multi-generational Reyes clan around Jaime—including mom Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), wacky Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), and the surprisingly capable Nana (Adriana Barraza), who's an old-hand at fighting imperialists—making Blue Beetle not so much a superhero movie but a new kind of super-team movie. The characters are admittedly thin, particularly the two young leads, who are given little in the way of personality besides being pretty and earnest. But everyone is likable, and there is a lovely attention to detail, and genuine warmth, in the family dynamics. (Marvel should take notes for their forthcoming third attempt at making a good Fantastic Four movie.)

This depiction of this Mexican American family and community is slightly idealized and occasionally cartoonish—this is still a superhero movie, after all—but there is specificity that makes the cultural texture feel authentic, integral, and heartfelt. And this includes gestures towards darker elements of the Latin American experience, from the economic inequities threatening the family, through a harrowing attack on the Reyes home evocative of an ICE raid, to a backstory about Victoria's henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) that touches on White exploitation and the U.S. military's imperialist shadow wars in Central America.

None of this, to be sure, is particularly deep, profound, or satirically sophisticated. (Representation is great and all, but this is still a $120 million action film from a major studio, and both its cultural notes and its political points are kept carefully palatable for its default audience of emotionally immature White American males. This is probably not the place to look for serious critiques of White power structures and American capitalism, but the fact that these themes get in there at all is remarkable.)

So your experience with Blue Beetle may depend largely on the realism of your expectations. As I've said, I don't expect a lot of narrative originality at this point, and—as I've discussed before—I think there's a hard limit to the amount of sophisticated political commentary we can or should expect from a genre that was never built to discuss serious issues. Blue Beetle is no action masterpiece, and as a stealth exploration of serious cultural themes it is nowhere near as successful as something like Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. But that's okay: It's a light, fun, formulaic, deeply silly mainstream superhero movie—neither much better or worse than scores of such films we've seen before—but one with a fresh, underrepresented perspective, likable characters, and a few serious thoughts on its mind. That may sound like a qualified recommendation, but it's a recommendation nonetheless.


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