‘Blue Beetle’ Review: A Hero Story That’s All in the Family

The plot is boilerplate and the superhero is not particularly compelling. At least his family members steal the show.

By Maya Phillips

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Here’s what Warner Bros. and DC think we need: another superhero movie about an earnest young man suddenly forced to shoulder responsibility and fight for justice.

Here’s what we actually need: A superhero movie about a badass nana with a secret revolutionary past. Guess which movie “Blue Beetle,” premiering in theaters Friday, delivers?

However, credit must be given for including a rebel grandmother, who, though not the movie’s titular superhero, is one-fifth of the lovable Mexican family that enlivens this paint-by-numbers superhero film, directed by Ángel Manuel Soto and written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.

The actual protagonist is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a fresh-faced college graduate who arrives home to find his family struggling financially. Reyes is fruitlessly casting around for a job until he meets Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the chic heiress of Kord Industries, a colossal tech company run by her great-aunt, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). When Jenny hands Jaime a stolen scarab hidden in a fast-food box, Jaime discovers the beetle is a sentient piece of ancient alien tech that has a mind of its own. It fuses with Jaime, protecting him and granting him the ability to fly, heal quickly and create any weapon he imagines. As Victoria aims to recover the beetle to create armies of destruction, Jaime must prevent her from getting it and keep his family — and the world — safe.

“Blue Beetle” offers a formulaic narrative — so predictable, in fact, that you can catch the tragic death in Jaime’s hero origin story coming from three counties away. Other superhero benchmarks are also at play: the young man thrashing around while adjusting to his new powers; clunky battles that look like a big-screen re-creation of a 5-year-old’s BattleBots; hard-won moral lessons that are really clichés. (During a fight, Victoria’s brutal bodyguard declares, “The love you feel for your family makes you weak”; turns out Jaime’s familial love actually empowers him — who knew?) This unremarkable story, along with cheap-looking visual effects and Soto’s colorless direction, is a prime example of somnambulist filmmaking that lulls the audience into a mindless stupor.

At least the Reyes family is a force to be reckoned with; their chaotic ensemble scenes are the most delightful, and truly unexpected, of the movie. Jaime’s parents (Damían Alcázar, Elpidia Carrillo) buttress the hero’s emotional journey with mawkish dialogue, but there’s more to mine in Jaime’s sassy, blunt younger sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), and her quips about the family’s race, class and social status. Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), with a beard recalling a raccoon tail, is a wild-card tech genius with enviable one-liners that Lopez delivers with perfect comic timing. (“Is that the new Tamagotchi?” he asks when the beetle first awakens.) And Nana, played by Adriana Barraza, is ready to steal the film.

Maridueña, as the hero, doesn’t have the same charisma or humor; a baby face, puppy-dog eyes and an impressive Stamos-esque sweep of black curly hair don’t make up for an actual personality. And he and Marquezine, smartly dressed in business casual suits, have the romantic chemistry of a pickle and a jar of mayonnaise.

But perhaps the most frustrating characteristic of “Blue Beetle” is its attempt to bolster its rote narrative with the most rudimentary touch of politics. Early in the film Milagro tells her brother that their superpower is invisibility to those of the richer class, like the Kords. The Reyes family lives in the poor part of a fictional Palmera City, a kind of neo-Miami in the same universe as Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham City. Jaime swallows racial microaggressions, like a snooty secretary who insists on calling him “Jay-me” instead of “Hi-me.”

A few call-outs to Latin culture, including a cameo of “El Chapulín Colorado,” a Mexican superhero TV series, are more successful in communicating a particular cultural experience than blatant nods to the precarious positions so many immigrant families are forced into. Jaime’s bildungsroman becomes an extension of his family’s immigration story and a not-so-subtle metaphor about tenacity and endurance, all wrapped up with a conflict that serves as a critique of militarism and the profits of war.

Taken alongside a swarm of other entomological superheroes, including spiders, ants and wasps, this blue beetle — mandibles or no mandibles — lacks bite.

Blue Beetle
Rated PG-13 for sassy innuendos and violently squashed villains. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.

Blue Beetle

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Maya Phillips is a critic at large. She is the author of “Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse” and the poetry collection “Erou.” More about Maya Phillips

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