Director: Angel Manuel Soto
Cast: Xolo Maridueña, Bruna Marquezine, Becky G, Damián Alcázar, George Lopez, Adriana Barraza, Belissa Escobedo, Elpidia Carrillo, Harvey Guillén, Raoul Max Trujillo and Susan Sarandon
Release: 18th August 2023
Without comparing it to the machine juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe has been a troubled affair. In the ten years since its birth, there were gems in its arsenal – James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, to name a few. However, puzzling boardroom decisions, senior management changes and inconsistent releases (and extended cuts) would mean years of setbacks, wasted potential with actors, and a bar lowered enough to summarise that DC lost its way.
It’s too early to tell whether James Gunn and Peter Safran, the new co-CEOs of DC Studios, will be able to change the franchise’s beleaguered fortunes. After all, they’re still charting the rebuild whilst managing old fragments of films that don’t fit their new vision. The Flash’s less-than-forgiving box office run (despite WB Discovery’s David Zaslav’s desperate claim it is the best superhero movie he has ever seen) didn’t fill anyone with confidence.
It’s a stark contrast to Angel Manuel Soto’s Blue Beetle, originally a straight-to-HBO Max release but made the jump to cinemas (lucky in comparison to what happened with Batgirl). Yet, it sits within that awkward transitional phase between DC’s past and re-evaluated future. After seeing it in action, while the film is far from perfect, it’s clear Warner backed the wrong horse.
Soto’s Blue Beetle is a throwback to a not-so-long-ago era in superhero culture, far removed from the cynical approach to IP that has become an excuse for studios to throw in endless cameos and fan service. Some would argue it’s too much recoil into the past, made too late for a genre that has shifted our expectations and wishful desires. However, knowing me, I would argue differently! Blue Beetle doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to its storytelling. It’s an honest, by-the-books, coming-of-age superhero adventure with Latino culture at its heart. In going back to basics by investing in its characters (and caring about them), not getting distracted by the bigger multiversal picture, and confidently existing in its self-contained world, Blue Beetle is a positive reminder of what the DCEU can do when it tells a simple story well. Something as straightforward as that – a simple story with a strong identity – feels like a faith rewarded.
It makes a huge difference when a film rocks in the energy of its culture, especially when the key personnel are from a Latin heritage. Every frame incorporates a lived experience thanks to Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s playful and heartfelt script. From the telenovelas to the integration of Damian Castroviejo’s Será Que No Me Amas (a cover version of The Jacksons Blame it on the Boogie), there’s plenty of warmth it brings to the screen that’s immediately inviting. And the elements complement Bobby Krlic’s 80s synth score and Soto’s slick direction well.
But when it’s not referencing The Matrix, Manga-esque fight scenes or its fun ode to Ridley Scott’s Alien as the Scarab ‘facehugs’ Jaime into a body horror-esque transformation in front of his family, Alcocer’s script is not afraid of documenting the immigrant experience. Gentrification, classism, exploitation, racism (where Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) calls Harvey Guillén’s character “Sanchez” when that’s not his name), to one scene depicting the countless stories experienced by immigrants when ICE enforcement officers invade their homes – are all reminders of the painful struggles communities face and endure from an immoral society.
The fact that Jaime Reyes’ family is front and centre makes for a refreshing change. From the get-go, the Reyes family are involved in Jaime’s growth and eventual acceptance as the Blue Beetle, abandoning the classic superhero convention of dual identities. “Maybe it’s time we get our own hero”, Uncle Rudy (George Lopez) states – a sincerity and value brought to the table when Hollywood has been slow to recognise diverse talent and voices. This film is about family, and that sets Blue Beetle apart.
The shining star of the film is Xolo Maridueña. In playing the reluctant hero chosen by alien Scarab Khaji-Da (Becky G), the charm and innocence Jaime possesses is always brought to the forefront, echoing similar coming-of-age stories from Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Ms Marvel. Alongside the amazing chemistry he forms with his on-set familia, George Lopez is another standout, and you can tell he was having the time of his life as the film’s eccentric uncle.
When a film places all its weight on its family (and deservedly so), naturally, there are a few drawbacks. Sarandon, as Victoria Kord, gives it her all in playing an evil CEO whose entire attitude is about eating world domination for breakfast. Masked in her deluded white saviour mindset for thinking more power will make the world a better place, ultimately, her character suffers from that ‘copy and paste’ quality from other B-movie villains – bad people we know we have to hate but never goes beyond the surface level material. The same goes for her sidekick Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), a character steeped in a tragic backstory but left far too late in the movie to build enough emotional empathy within its slightly overstuffed third act. But it doesn’t take anything away from the film’s overall satisfaction.
With plenty of heart and fun, DC’s Blue Beetle ushers in an exciting new hero for the big screen, and if this is a sign of things to come in DC’s new chapter, then it’s a step in the right direction.
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