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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Blue Beetle - a surprisingly warm, family-centric, if formulaic superhero film that avoids politics

3 out of 5

One of the more frustrating things about the experience of marginalised people in modern culture is how rarely you can say what is actually on your mind. In spite of the constant calls to elevate marginalised voices, those calls often come with the unspoken requirement that those voices be polite, and that they don’t make anyone uncomfortable. This is a wildly annoying contradiction, one that asks people of colour or anyone who doesn’t conform to gender norms to take any number of small indignities in their stride, educate the so-called majority, and do it in a way that makes the offenders feel good about themselves. This brings us to our first Latino superhero film, following the likes of Black Panther and the recent animated Spiderman films.

I have to confess, I went into this film not knowing much, if anything about Blue Beetle. I had no idea that DC Comics’ hero Blue Beetle was created in 1939 by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski. He was reimagined and given new identities several times over, until Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner redefined him as a Mexican American kid in 2006. In this, his first blockbuster film, we get the character’s 2006 incarnation. Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), is a recent college graduate who encounters, and bonds with, an alien artifact called the Scarab. The Scarab, which contains the essence of an entity known as Khaji Da, grants Jaime incredible powers, an indestructible carapace, and the ability to form polymorphic weaponry on demand. He’s like Iron Man by way of David Cronenberg with a bit of (gasp!) Green Lantern.

Blue Beetle is a charming romp of a film. It's laudable that following on the heels of Black Panther, we have a Latino superhero film set within a Latino/Mexican frame but it’s desperately trying to punch above its weight, peppering its story with constant nods to the Latin American experience, while also delivering the action and comic book Easter eggs expected of superhero cinema. It nods at characters’ anti-imperialist roots without naming the imperials they rebelled against. Via news clips, the movie shows the environmental destruction that Latin America suffers to fuel Silicon Valley innovation. But these weighty topics are only mentioned in passing. Blue Beetle mostly aims to be inoffensive, fun, and digestible. It avoids politics

I do not believe director Ángel Manuel Soto or writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer set out to make a film for a default-white audience. They bring a careful eye toward authenticity to Blue Beetle, sincerely attempting to ground Jaime Reyes’ story in a recognizably Mexican American setting with pan-Latino flavour. Jaime’s family is loud, nosy, and affectionately contentious. The soundtrack is full of contemporary urbano and classics like Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” And never in a million years would I have expected a DC superhero movie to directly reference Roberto Gómez Bolaños’ campy superhero satire El Chapulín Colorado. Kudos.

Having given those kudos, Blue Beetle’s actual story is mired in clichés that make all of this wonderful texture lack weight. White characters regularly mispronounce the names of Latin characters and use Spanish in insulting ways. The Reyes family, by contrast, is characterised by resilience, presented as if it were a general moral virtue, not a survival tactic developed after generations of imperialist pillage. And the Reyeses are all wholly, ineffably good, “model immigrants.” It’s impossible to imagine not rooting for them.

In spite of the buckets of charm Maridueña brings to the role, Jaime is not terribly well defined beyond being a Good Person, and also Mexican American. The film begins with him arriving home after being the first in his family to graduate college, but his degree gets mentioned many times before anyone brings up what he graduated in. Turns out he’s a pre-law student, but Jaime never comes across as someone who’s interested in the criminal justice system — or anything, really, except hooking up with love interest Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the villain’s niece.

The main antagonist is Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), a cyborg super-soldier in the employ of the villainous Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). Victoria wants Jaime’s scarab to power her new line of military exoskeletons, the One Man Army Corps, or OMAC (a delightful little nod to DC Comics lore). As her first and only successful experiment thus far, Carapax is the villain Jaime interacts with most, and a foil for his belief in family. Carapax, by contrast, believes in no one.

And when the film pauses to show why — because his life was defined by civil war and violence fuelled by U.S. interventionism and industry — Blue Beetle offers a striking glimpse at the specificity its hero lacks.

Carapax’s flashback makes the rest of the film feel hollow, because it’s a moment about a specific experience that shows how shallow the film’s by-the-numbers superhero plot is by comparison. The depth of meaning that Carapax’s story adds to the film isn’t enough to elevate it, but it is a good illustration of what may be Blue Beetle’s primary problem. The filmmakers were trying to achieve too many disparate things with this movie, so many that they forgot to tell a story about a person.

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