When your bar is Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and The Flash, it's easy to stand out. Luckily, DC's latest, Blue Beetle, does so tenfold. And while it serves as a fine introduction for its titular hero, it makes the same critical mistakes as the first Shazam! film.
Blue Beetle review
I guess it's not specific to Shazam!, per se, as so many comic book movies emphasize its heroes and fail to have interesting villains. What makes Blue Beetle so similar to Shazam! is it features a lovely family story at its core. Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is a recent college graduate — one who looks “$100,o00 in debt,” as one lovely man puts it. He returns home to Palmera City with the type of wide-eyed ambition that all college graduates sport. He believes that he can single-handedly turn his family's fortune around (they're in danger of losing their house and his father had a heart attack).
It's that family bond that ties Blue Beetle together. After all, it's the only emotional note the film has. It starts with Adriana Barraza, who plays Jaime's grandmother and gets her time to shine late in the film. Damián Alcázar and Elpidia Carrillo play Jaime's parents, and Belissa Escobedo plays Milagro, his quick-witted sister. George Lopez shines above the rest as Rudy Reyes, Jaime's uncle. Like the foster family in Shazam!, the Reyes family shares a charming bond.
Palmera City is run by the Kord family. The tech company has the city in the palm of its hand. Upon a chance run-in with Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), Jaime meets Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria's niece and daughter of Ted Kord (a different iteration of the Blue Beetle). Jaime gets fired from his job, but Jenny promises to land him a new gig at Kord enterprises (or whatever their company is called). After she steals the Scarab, she hands it off to Jaime to “protect with his life.”
Of course, he opens it and this is ultimately what makes him the titular hero. But like any tech billionaire, Victoria is hell-bent on retrieving what is hers.
“The Scarab may have chose you, but it belongs to me,” she says to him.
A villain that's all bark, no bite
Unfortunately, Blue Beetle's villain is a mere inconvenience for both the titular hero and the audience and feels like an obligation rather than something the viewer should care about. “Let's cast Susan Sarandon!” some writer likely excitedly thought (perhaps this was around the time they decided to cast Helen Mirren in the Shazam! sequel). Unfortunately, the Oscar winner never feels like she's doing anything more than collecting a paycheck.
It's very reminiscent of the likes of Mark Strong in Shazam! and Corey Stoll in Ant-Man. In both cases, the more-than-capable actors are written as menacing corporate suits with less personality than what the superhero movie genre has become. Sarandon is simply barking orders at her bodyguard and menacingly threatening her niece. Acting snippy or menacing isn't exploring much of her range, and it doesn't help that the 76-year-old actress also isn't going to get into a suit and fight Jaime herself. Fair enough, but all of her dirty work is handled by Conrad Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), her tortured bodyguard.
And maybe we're just at a point where the superhero genre is oversaturated, as Blue Beetle feels way too familiar. A basic story is excusable, but remnants of Ant-Man, Iron Man 2's Justin Hammer, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3's Rocket arc, and Tom Holland's Peter Parker seep through the cracks. I mean, how many more tech billionaires unaware of the harm they're causing can we watch?
Blue Beetle hits all the beats you expect in a superhero origin story, but it loses focus in its second half. Once Jaime gets the powers and Jenny finds out, it feels like a mad dash to the climactic battle. There's one sequence where Jaime attempts to find Jenny, happens to come across her in the street, and picks her up as she's running from Victoria's henchmen with guns. You'd think that they'd chase her both on foot and in cars, but apparently not as the scene just cuts after she gets in the car.
Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer's script does do a good job of getting some political undertones in there — there are plenty of passive-aggressive racist remarks made toward the Reyes family that drive the point home without beating you over the head. It loses that subtlety later in the film, but in terms of the politics, Dunnet-Alcocer does a solid job.
I love Holland's Spider-Man as much as the next guy, but every under-25-year-old superhero utilizes the same gawky, “I'm just happy to be here” energy that Holland does. That's not to say that Xolo Mandueña isn't good as Jaime Reyes — he just lacks a distinguished identity the second he puts on the Blue Beetle armor. He even has his own HUD and Jarvis-like voice (voiced by Becky G). Mandueña plays the part slightly less awkward than a Peter Parker or Barry Allen, which enhances the performance.
To its credit, Blue Beetle looks better than its budget would suggest. Granted, some visuals are a bit wonky — Palmera City looks straight out of the Star Wars prequel trilogy — but you have to bear in mind that this was initially a straight-to-HBO Max project. There's never a shot as weird as the babies in The Flash, and most of DC's films look horrendous in the third act. While Blue Beetle still indulges in a CGI-heavy third act battle, it takes place in a very dark setting, so it somewhat masks anything that'd go viral on social media. It's not always the best solution, but Blue Beetle makes it work enough.
Should you see Blue Beetle?
The superhero genre is in deep need of new faces. As the DC franchise heads into a new regime, they need younger, fresh faces to take over. Xolo Mandueña can certainly be a face of the franchise, but future Blue Beetle appearances will need to double down on its family themes. This is what makes it unique — not the suit, story, or villains (all of which felt borrowed from other successful movies).
Yes, there's a formula that has made the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. a ton of cash, but like Shazam!, Blue Beetle suffers from a lack of a threatening villain. The first hour of family-focused story is as charming as a superhero movie can be. Beyond that, it's the same meal, different sauces.
Blue Beetle will be released on August 18.