It’s not new news that DC Comics cinematic ventures haven’t been all smooth sailing over the last decade. A smorgasbord of critical flops, box office winners, fan favourite characters, and a mixture of toxic and passionate fandoms have led to DC having one of the more divisive cinematic universes. And at this point in time, as the new heads of DC Films, James Gunn and Peter Safran, wade through their infancy stage of rebooting the franchise, films like Blue Beetle that were in production before Gunn and Safran came on board, are left in an odd limbo of confusion as to whether this character is a part of the old DC guard, or the beginning of a new age.
James Gunn came out with a video earlier this year explaining that Jaime Reyes (Xolo Mariduena, Cobra Kai) would be hitting screens as Blue Beetle as the first character of the new DCU, but with the film Blue Beetle not entirely being the launching pad for the new DCU. And from that point the excitement built, along with the news that the initial Max streaming service release of the film had been scrapped in favour of an exclusive theatrical release, it seemed that DC’s first Latino superhero was going to be a shining light emerging for the superhero genre.
The story follows Jamie Reyes (Mariduena), a college law graduate who returns to his home of Palmera City and sadly learns that the family home that has housed generations of Reyes’ is in jeopardy due to the family’s financial difficulties. Dedicated to finding a job to help his family avoid eviction, Jamie is approached for a job interview by Kord Industries, a conglomerate tech company run by CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon).
However, Kord Industries isn’t all they appear to be on the outside, when the discovery of an ancient alien scarab holding immense superpowers leads to Victoria Kord using the weapon in her plan to create a one-man army. When Victoria’s niece, and Kord Industries employee, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine) gets wind of Victoria’s intentions, she steals the weapon and uses an unassuming Jaime to sneak it out of the building. But the curiosity of Jaime’s family gets the better of them, revealing the scarab’s true powers, bestowing Jaime with a suit of armour that turns him into the superhero, Blue Beetle.
Blue Beetle kicks off with the electric energy that the restart of the DCU needs to draw in audiences who may have been tapering off. Director Angel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings) has breathed so much life into Palmera City (a fictional city that was created for the movie itself in order to give Blue Beetle his own home in the DCU). The vibrancy of Puerto Rico, or downtown Miami, serve as inspiration for Palmera City, and Soto’s love for this area and culture explode colourfully onto the screen. And the way Soto helms the action scenes (which are sadly somewhat few and far between in this film) also carry an electric energy that propels the first act of the film.
Though predominantly, that energy is sourced from the charismatic and energetic performance of Xolo Mariduena, who steals every single moment he is on screen. This is truly a star-making performance for Mariduena, who manages to capture a similar youthful energy to that of Tom Holland as Spider-Man, while also carrying the film’s more dramatically weighted moments on his shoulders too. Mariduena simply just understood the assignment – have fun being an early-20s superhero. His shining moment comes during Jaime’s first transformation into Blue Beetle, with Mariduena’s physical comedy and convincingly horrified reaction capping off a fantastic, darkly funny, body-horror adjacent scene.
Mariduena’s performance is strongly supported by the Reyes family, particularly George Lopez as Uncle Rudy, who easily draws a laugh anytime he opens his mouth. The relationship that drives the heart of the film is between Jaime and his father, Alberto (Damian Alcazar), featuring some engaging conversations between the two about manhood, growing up, and as every superhero learns to live with, newfound responsibilities. There is an authenticity to both Mariduena and Alcazar’s performances in these scenes that show the genuine heart that Blue Beetle has at its core, compared to more surface level attempts seen in the genre, preceding DC films included. Blue Beetle is about the power and importance of family, something that is so culturally relevant in the Latino community, and it’s portrayed so genuinely in this film.
The odd cast member out in Blue Beetle is Susan Sarandon as the film’s primary villain, who unfortunately, doesn’t feel that villainous. While the film itself has an energetic fun to it, Sarandon’s performance has an odd campiness to it that just doesn’t quite feel right. The depth to Victoria Kord as a character can also be attributed to the screenplay, which doesn’t do much more than play Kord out as a one-dimensional villain who will do “evil things” to “take over the world” with her “one man army”, but Sarandon’s coy performance doesn’t add any more substance to Kord, often lacking the same energy the movie kicked off with.
And this is where Blue Beetle begins to falter, as it slowly begins to delve into ‘CW’ territory by becoming a movie where the stakes feel eradicated and the dynamic direction and acting of the first half fizzle out. The second half of Blue Beetle almost makes a decent case of reasoning as to why it was going to be a direct to streaming film. Even with Xolo Marideuna giving his all, and with a great moment in which he fully assimilates with the scarab to reach his full potential as Blue Beetle, the focus on Sarandon’s Kord (along with another completely underdeveloped villain) and the films surprising lack of action, don’t sustain the engagement all the way until end. The film falling off like this noticeably makes the first hour great, but the second hour a slog to get through, tainting its overall experience.
Despite Soto’s attempt to have a bombastic and explosive finale, the pacing and vibe of the third act ebbs and flows between an awesome, but very quick moment of Blue Beetle action, to more exposition about the villains and the scarab, elements of the film that should have been made clear earlier in the film.
Blue Beetle has so much energy and charm, thanks to a star-making performance from Xolo Mariduena. But outside the excitement, there is also a strong, heart-driven message about the importance of family, gelled with authentic Latino representation. Even though the film loses that excitement halfway through, leading to a lacklustre finale, there is still enough fun to be had with Jaime Reyes’ introduction to the new DCU, and we can’t wait to see where he takes us next.
Blue Beetle is in Australian cinemas September 14.
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