The modern live-action superhero flick often suffers from a weightlessness problem. These spectacular behemoths dazzle with their cornucopia of digital pleasures, yet the further our popular cinema teeters into sedating CGI fantasy, the clearer it becomes what major studios have sacrificed on the altar in the name of the next hit. Genuine human drama, the magic of seeing our wants, hopes, and fears reflected back to us, is too often sidelined, and any dimensionalizing of the characters is frequently perfunctory at best. Action and destruction can’t fill every minute of a film’s runtime — our heroes still require what can pass as an arc to satisfy the prerequisites of narrative craft. But this approach reduces the poignancy of the stories we tell. It diminishes the heart and soul into a means to an end. That human essence is just an ingredient sprinkled in to achieve the safe blockbuster formula Hollywood executives have been pitching us as the Holy Grail for our multiplex experiences.
The latest superhero film of the week, Blue Beetle kicks off in a way that at first makes it appear to be pretty standard superhero fare. The big bad, businesswoman Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) and her loyal henchman, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), stalk through an encampment in the snowy tundra. Her minions have located the alien MacGuffin that is key to her nefarious designs. Then the focus shifts to our plucky protagonist, Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), beaming with optimism and searching for purpose. We meet his loved ones, learn about his home life, and enjoy some comedic tiffs. Through a chance encounter, he ends up in possession of said MacGuffin, an empowered Blue Beetle scarab, which bonds with him and grants him superhuman abilities. He’ll have to master his powers, defeat the villain, and come into his own as a hero. It’s classic origin story stuff.
But what director Ángel Manuel Soto and company achieve with this installment in the DC Extended Universe should not be minimized to the film’s admittedly formulaic trappings. What distinguishes it from the overarching franchise’s recent outings is its ability to integrate a genuinely tender and nuanced approach to character within its genre-required thrills. It’s smart without ever becoming overly didactic, and the streamlined narrative keeps the pace lively, settling into quieter moments not to add filler, but to allow space for solemnity. It even sneakily becomes an ensemble film, providing supporting characters opportunities to affect the plot and perspectives that enhance the story. It earns its triumphant notes come the film’s conclusion, having coalesced into a roundly moving experience more than a mere accumulation of parts.
That’s not to say Blue Beetle doesn’t deliver the superhero goods — come to Blue Beetle for the action, and leave contented. No one here is invincible, and blows land with force. Hand-to-hand combat sequences benefit from slick choreography and an elegantly executed marriage of practical and CGI effects that ground the mayhem with a sense of real threat. Sure, the climactic confrontation consists of, once again, the main hero duking it out with a foe who mirrors his design and moveset. But as in some other superhero movies that invoke this cliché — think Iron Man, Black Panther, or Logan — this mirror-image matchup ends up holding thematic significance; in this case, a diasporic linkage that connects the opponents through imperialism-inflicted trauma.
This nuance extends to the script at large, which filters social commentary through the Reyes family’s lived experiences. Allusions to gentrification, the fraught status of undocumented immigrants, and even revolutionary resistance never conspicuously occupy the spotlight, but instead add texture to the character dynamics and actions. These threads position the Reyeses as sympathetic underdogs who, already familiar with adversity, will unite against all odds in the name of family and community. Saving the planet is never any of their primary motivations; love, self-determined pride, and moral fortitude are ultimately what drive their collective heroics.
Thankfully, the connective tissue to the wider DCEU remains in the background. A glimpse of a LexCorp tower and a passing jab at Batman are about the extent of our reminders that this story is but a division of a cultural juggernaut. Refreshingly, any intertextual nods instead reinforce the creators’ love for movies and Latin American media culture, as seen in a brief shot of a scene from Cronos that presages the del Toro-inspired infusions of body horror and grotesque violence. Elsewhere, the family equips themselves with retro gadgetry reminiscent of the tech from an early Spy Kids movie, while appearances of El Chapulín Colorado and its goofy lead adds some levity to the hijinks. Which is to say, while Blue Beetle is a studio project through and through, it also boasts a clear love of craft that, when it’s not tugging at your heartstrings, makes for a refreshingly fun slice of superhero cinema.
DIRECTOR: Ángel Manuel Soto; CAST: Xolo Maridueña, Adriana Barraza, George Lopez, Becky G; DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros.; IN THEATERS: August 18; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 7 min.