VERDICT: A superhero movie with laughs, action, cultural specificity and human-sized stakes — here’s hoping there’s room for this character in the next reboot of the DC Universe.
In bringing Latino superhero Jaime Reyes to the big screen, Warner Bros. isn’t just paying lip service to the character’s heritage.
Over the course of this funny, thrilling, and genuinely heartfelt adventure, screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (the 2019 remake of Miss Bala) works in references to everything from Vicks VapoRub (every abuela’s secret remedy for whatever ails you) and 1970s Mexican superhero-comedy El Chapulín Colorado to the infamous School of the Americas, a symbol of U.S. imperialism in Central and South America.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Blue Beetle is that it gives audiences something more tangible than the fate of the universe to care about and root for; Jaime, first and foremost, wants to protect his family, and as superheroics go, those are all the stakes the movie needs.
Recent college grad Jaime (Xolo Maridueña, Cobra Kai) returns home to the very El Paso–like Palmera City, only to discover that his family is fighting off the forces of gentrification: his father Alberto (Damián Alcázar, Acapulco) has lost his auto shop, and the rest of the family — sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo, Hocus Pocus 2), mom Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), uncle Rudy (George Lopez), and grandmother Nana (Adriana Barraza) — are about to lose the house (and the whole neighborhood) to the expansion plans of Kord Enterprises.
That organization is currently being run by Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), who has nefarious plans for an invention known as OMAC (One-Man Army Corps), an exo-skeleton — exo-spine, really — that will convert anyone who wears it into a super-soldier. To take OMAC to the next level, Victoria needs to unlock the secrets of a scarab jewel that, decades earlier, turned archaeologist Dan Garrett into the original Blue Beetle. (The film pays homage to the character’s lineage in Charlton Comics and DC Comics, but viewers aren’t required to know all this lore going in.)
Victoria’s niece Jenny (Brazilian star Bruna Marquezine) wants to keep the scarab out of her aunt’s clutches, so she passes it off to Jaime — who was just looking for a job at Kord — for safekeeping. He’s not supposed to touch it or even look at it, but his curiosity proves too much; when Jaime holds the scarab in his hand, it chooses him as its host, and a new Blue Beetle is born, even though he’s overwhelmed and terrified by these new abilities to fly, create force fields, and generate blasts from his hands. (Adding to his confusion is the fact that every time the scarab turns Jaime into Blue Beetle, it burns his clothes off, leaving him naked when he switches back to his human identity.)
Blue Beetle is an origin story, and one that climaxes with two computer-generated characters whomping the tar out of each other, but the movie avoids feeling like yet another by-the-numbers superhero tale. The aforementioned specificity of the Reyes family’s heritage certainly helps, but the family itself makes this story special.
“Family is important” is, all too often, a lazy bit of shorthand, usually employed in the service of the male lead rescuing his female love interest or perhaps an adorable child, but the Reyes clan fights for each other; when Victoria Kord captures Jaime, the rest don’t sit idly by. Instead, they plan an attack, using leftover tech from Jenny’s dad (the second Blue Beetle); in the process, Jaime and Milagro discover that Nana has more than just VapoRub in her arsenal. (One of the film’s subtler but no less effective bits of political messaging occurs when Victoria’s shock troops invade the Reyes home; it’s difficult not to think of similarly brutal ICE raids on immigrant neighborhoods in recent years.)
The performances are witty and affectionate, as well; Maridueña brings real empathy and believability to a regular guy who has superpowers thrust upon him, and he and the scene-stealing Escobedo coalesce with legends Barraza, Carrillo, Alcázar, and even the usually-hammy Lopez to form their own brand of super-team. Cheers to Sarandon for totally understanding what movie she’s in and bringing a hissably evil quality to lines like, “Carapax, ready the hook!”
The driving score by The Haxan Cloak (frequent Ari Aster collaborator Bobby Krlic) blends effectively with clever needle-drops from music supervisor Season Kent, who mixes some unexpected Spanish-language covers of well-known originally-in-English pop songs with classics from Selena and Vicente Fernández. And apart from passing references to Superman and The Flash, Blue Beetle carves out its own place in the DC Comics cinematic universe that doesn’t require familiarity with any previous movies.
That universe currently exists in a state of flux, of course, with Warner Bros. bringing in producers James Gunn and Peter Safran to make a clean sweep and full reboot. Blue Beetle is so singularly fresh and fun that Jaime Reyes and his family deserve to be front and center of whatever comes next.