Remember the first Iron Man movie, or the initial Sam Raimi Spider-Man chapters? Long before the narrative overcrowding of cross-pollination, composite timelines and the damn multiverse brought fatigue to the modern comic-book superhero adventure, those movies had freshness and a buoyant sense of fun. They had warmth and humanity, which have gradually been diluted by quippy smugness and a bludgeoning more-is-more aesthetic. DC’s unexpectedly charming Blue Beetle is something of a throwback to that era, bolstered by humor and heart that stem from the Mexican American title character’s love for his tight-knit family, and no less so from their reciprocal support.
In terms of representation, Warners’ late-summer release has the potential to be a breakthrough film for Latino audiences. It should also boost the rep of Puerto Rican director Ángel Manuel Soto, who demonstrates that his affinity for a specific subculture and community in Charm City Kings — in that case, Baltimore dirt-bike riders — can be just as infectious on a much larger scale. And it stands to put Cobra Kai recruit Xolo Maridueña on the map as a captivating young actor with the right spark to carry a new offshoot of the DC Extended Universe.
The Bottom Line A bug worth catching.
Maridueña plays Jaime Reyes, a DC Comics character first encountered in 2006, whose origin story neatly connects in Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s zippy screenplay to earlier incarnations Dan Garret and Ted Kord, dating back to 1939 and 1966, respectively.
Jaime is the first member of his proud family to earn a college degree, but his joyous return to their home in working-class Edge Keys, across the water from the equally fictitious Palmera City, is marred by a wallop of bad news. (Their address, El Paso Street, is a nod to Jaime’s Texan birthplace in the original comics.) The landlord has tripled their rent, forcing them to seek new housing in the rapidly gentrifying area; the family auto shop business has folded, unable to keep up with the competition; and Jaime’s beloved father Alberto (Damían Alcázar) has had a heart attack, though he assures his son that he’s fully recovered.
The affection that the writer, director and cast have poured into the family unit — with one foot in their cultural traditions and another in American life, with all its challenges — gives Blue Beetle vital flesh-and-blood stakes, along with a steady stream of disarming comedy. Rather than just, you know, saving the world from some evil destroyer, the survival of the Reyes folks, and their fearlessness in going up against a corporate malefactor with a full militia at her command, gives the movie a core of deep feeling that pays off throughout.
It also cleverly extends the heroism beyond just one lead character with superhuman capabilities and a cool exoskeleton suit to a fiercely united group of regular mortals who have drawn strength from every obstacle life has thrown at them. In one stirring exchange, Alberto tells Jaime that crossing the border is nothing compared to the decades of hard work and struggle that follow. Watching a heavily armored hit team descend on the Reyes home carries additional weight because it evokes distressing real-life situations of immigrant persecution.
In addition to Alberto, the family includes his pragmatic, salt-of-the-earth wife Rocío (Elpidia Carrillo); Jaime’s straight-talking 17-year-old sister Milagro (Belissa Escobado); their Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), an amateur tech whiz with an epic mullet, a truck lovingly called “The Taco” and a head full of conspiracy theories about corporate and governmental skulduggery; and Alberto and Rudy’s mother Nana (Adriana Barraza), whose revolutionary past is a major eye-opener to her first-generation grandchildren.
I thought I could never see another feisty granny without rolling my eyes until I witnessed Nana wasting an entire Kord kill squad with a hi-tech machine gun, shouting, “Down with the imperialists!”
The foe imperiling the lives of the entire Reyes family is ice queen Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), who took over the family business, Kord Industries, after the mysterious disappearance of her eccentric brother Ted, shifting the company’s focus to weapons technology. Her niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), Ted’s daughter, is resolutely opposed to that move, but Victoria treats her with the same indifference bordering on contempt she directs at her staff.
A prologue shows Victoria, her hulking henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) and the scientist she calls Dr. Sanchez (Harvey Guillén), because she can’t be bothered remembering his name, on the brink of realizing her dream of 15 years — to find the ancient alien biotechnology relic known as the Scarab and harness its limitless powers. (The object’s design seems a reverent nod to Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, Cronos.) Victoria intends to use the artifact’s codes to supersize her revolutionary law-enforcement project, the OMAC, or one-man army corps, for which Carapax is the prototype.
When Jenny unwittingly causes Jaime and Milagro to lose their maintenance jobs at Victoria’s luxe compound, she insists Jaime stop by Kord Industries, where she will help him find employment. But his visit coincides with Jenny’s discovery of the Scarab and her removal of it from a lab. Security systems are triggered before she can get it out of the building so she hands it to Jaime in a takeout burger box, instructing him to guard it with his life, but not to look inside.
Back home, the Reyes family can’t resist taking a peek, which has alarming results when the Scarab attaches itself to Jaime, “choosing” him as its symbiotic host. The relic takes charge of his body while connecting with his mind — a transformation process that’s like a comic-book take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Equipping him with a self-generating iridescent suit complete with antennae and wings, it propels him through the roof and into space as a quick intro to its awesome powers.
Going by its ancient name of Khaji-Da, the Scarab also comes with an internal voice (pop star Becky G), informing Jaime that it’s designed to protect its host at all costs and that it will generate anything he can imagine.
Wide-eyed Jaime is terrified by his sudden superhuman gifts, wanting only to remove the invasive Khaji-Da from his body. Seeking help from Jenny, he learns that the obsession with the Scarab started with her father. Ted Kord’s crumbling estate has been sitting abandoned for 15 years, including a secret underground lab filled with all kinds of tech gadgetry and even a vehicular surprise that comes in handy later on. Uncle Rudy is like a kid in a candy store there. But before they can attempt to extract the Scarab from its host, Victoria targets the family.
There’s a lot of Peter Parker in Jaime, particularly in a parallel to the loss of Uncle Ben, a tragedy that breaks him but ultimately instills him with a weighty sense of responsibility and — in a scene of lingering poignancy — with the certainty that he must accept his destiny. Maridueña plays the emotional rollercoaster of Jaime’s newfound alternate identity with all the requisite shading, from fear and confusion to wonder and delight to burning rage. But he never loses sight of the character’s underlying humanity and devotion to his family.
The supporting cast is appealing across the board, with winning contributions particularly from Escobado as whip-smart Milagro and Marquezine as Jenny, whose longing for the closeness of a loving family draws her to the Reyes clan and fans the gentle flickers of her romance with Jaime. Their chemistry together is lovely. Many of the big laughs come from comedian Lopez, who makes Uncle Rudy a gonzo figure with a lusty approach to life and all its dangers; and from Barraza, whose take-charge attitude gets the family through one of its most heartbreaking blows and galvanizes them to put aside their tears and fight.
Sarandon has played larger-than-life villains effectively, notably in Enchanted. She stays within a more human though no less malevolent realm here, self-righteously grounding Victoria’s ruthlessness in resentment toward the family that handed the company to her brother when their father passed on. The gradually revealed extent of her experimentation on man-machine hybrids, her commodification of human lives and her heartless manipulation of Carapax as a pawn in her grand scheme make Victoria a tech-age war criminal.
Aided by the dynamic cinematography of regular Ari Aster collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski, a pulsing electronic score by Brit musician Bobby Krlic and sturdy effects work, Soto brings an assured hand, balancing action with character-driven scenes and comedy with suspense throughout. The pacing is brisk, infused with youthful energy, but never so frenetic that it doesn’t allow intimate exchanges time to breathe, particularly the touching moments between Jaime and his dad, which resonate right up until the final scenes. It’s the space given to the Reyes family that makes the movie so enjoyable.
The director and writer don’t exactly break the mold of the superhero film, but they do treat the genre with an endearing fondness for retro qualities that have mostly been lost in recent years. That makes Blue Beetle a breath of fresh air, with a clear path forward indicated in a mid-credits sequence. In place of the usual post-credits tease, a sweet homage to Mexican TV superhero parody El Chapulín Colorado (The Red Grasshopper) typifies the film’s love for Latin American culture.