After the catastrophe that was “The Flash,” DC needed a win
After over a decade of record-breaking success in the box office, the superhero flick as a concept is uniquely situated in the current cultural milieu. Phase 5 of the MCU has been pretty mid so far, from Secret Invasion to a lack of hype for Loki, while the DCU put out a money-burning train wreck in the form of The Flash. With the exception of Spider-Man: ITSV and ATSV (which were amazing), we expect superhero films to just…look the same as the others. The market is saturated. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.
It’s hard to be a superhero flick-enjoyer in a media landscape like this. Let’s cut the cynicism and say that superhero movies tend to be formulaic, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like following a recipe—if the formula is good, as long as you follow the steps, you’ll get something enjoyable.
And so the narrative beats play out as follows: Jaime Reyes (played by Xolo Maridueña) returns from college with a dream to support his family and help lift them from borderline poverty. A crazy turn of events gets him mixed up in a Kord Industries military project to mass-produce cyborg police, and Reyes bonds with Khaji Da, a blue, scarab-shaped superweapon that grants its host incredible powers. With the help of his family, Jaime must take down Kord Industries and do what all arthropod-themed superheroes do, which is to learn that with great power comes great responsibility. You get the idea.
Blue Beetle follows the formula, and here’s the thing: it follows the formula well. Blue Beetle is a perfectly-paced popcorn flick that hits all the right beats of the hero’s journey monomyth. Add to that some gorgeous special effects and a character with a rich history, and you’ve got a movie that’s bound to smash. Worthwhile to mention that Inka Magnaye does an excellent job voicing Khaji Da for the Philippine theatrical release.
Casual moviegoers might be surprised by the “character with a rich history” part—Blue Beetle isn’t one of the DC universe’s heavy-hitters. But it’s about damn time he got the spotlight. (I’ve personally loved him since Young Justice.) Blue Beetle happens to be a Mexican-American superhero, and the movie joyously celebrates his heritage, from the Mexican hip-hop-inspired scoring to Reyes’ unique dynamics with his family, which demonstrate a specific kind of POC closeness absent in other superhero films.
Without giving too much away, there’s even a scene that references the villain’s connection to anti-Communist war efforts, and a side character’s revolutionary past. Sure, superhero films like to flirt with revolutionary themes without committing, but it was a pleasant surprise to see Blue Beetle take the ways Imperialist powers enact their will on the Global South, and actually weave those themes into the story. Directors like Ryan Coogler or Guillermo del Toro could hash out these messages more explicitly, but it’s good to see the film mention revolution at all.
So in matters of pacing and spectacle, Blue Beetle soars. The film even boasts surprisingly creative fight choreography in the third act—you can really feel the weight behind each punch, which is more than I can say for even 2019’s Shazam, or even 2013’s Man of Steel.
Still, because Blue Beetle gets the formula just right, it suffers the same flaws you expect it to. A tad too many drone-cameras-overlooking-the-metropolis shots make for a lame first act. Xolo Maridueña’s otherwise competent acting is otherwise impeded by stilted dialogue that tries way too hard to quip. Jenny Kord, played by Bruna Marquezine, feels so underwritten that her fate as a beautiful love interest feels tragically convenient. The narrative knuckle-drags from one beat to the next. When Blue Beetle struggles with his power, we’re expected to laugh a certain way. When Blue Beetle masters his power, we’re expected to cheer a certain way. It’s tacky.
Maybe tacky’s fine. It’s fine. Blue Beetle’s fine. A trick to watching Blue Beetle is—as you walk into the theater—to pretend it’s 2013. If Blue Beetle was released during that time, guaranteed, it’d be remembered as one of the greats. But for now, it feels like a movie produced by a boardroom of executives that took 10 years to figure out what the kids liked 10 years ago. Honestly, an achievement for DCU. They needed a win after The Flash.
Words Jam Pascual
Art Matthew Fetalver