‘Blue Beetle’ Is One Superhero Movie Actually Worth Seeing
Over the weekend, the new DC Universe superhero film Blue Beetle grossed just over $25 million at the North American box office, barely edging out Barbie (also from Warner Bros), which had held the top spot every week since its release. That may sound like some kind of bragging right, and I suppose it is. But in a broader context, Blue Beetle’s debut was a fizzle.
Superhero movies are supposed to make more than that on their opening weekends, even ones as limply marketed and (it seems) modestly budgeted as Blue Beetle. Here is yet another example of the genre’s declining effectiveness, another chapter at the end of a story that began, with so much fanfare, 15 years ago. (Or, arguably, 20 plus years ago, with the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies—depends on how you measure these things.)
On the one hand, this may be a positive development. As discussed before in these very pages, the superhero genre has become stale and repetitive and uninspiring. Only a few glimmers of ingenuity have, of late, added dashes of brightness to what is otherwise a moribund, tiresome form, one ready to be put out to pasture for another few decades. So, sure: bring on the decline of comic book crusaders. It’s time for a shakeup, an exploration of new shapes and structures that studios can mine for profits while, hopefully, entertaining as many people as possible.
But in the singular case of Blue Beetle, directed by Ángel Manuel Soto and written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, it would have been nice to see the movie find a larger audience. Because it’s actually pretty good, a fresh and lively divergence from all the sameness. I caught the film at one of the first public screenings last week, a mostly empty multiplex showing in a lonely corner of downtown Manhattan on a glum and humid day at the end of a stressful week. Maybe that solitary experience made me too susceptible to Blue Beetle’s onslaught—or, maybe, it’s just a charming movie.
The film is set in Palmera City, a sprawling metropolis styled like Miami with even more Caribbean flair, particularly in the outskirt island neighborhoods of the “Edge Keys.” That’s where the film’s hero, Jaime (Xolo Maridueña), has returned from college at the start of the story. He’s dismayed to learn that the family’s auto body shop has closed, and that they are going to lose their home after an inhumane rent hike.
Quickly, Blue Beetle sets up its themes. This is a movie about economic disparity and the long history of mistreatment suffered by Latinos at the hands of American economic and military imperialism. Blue Beetle is not the first superhero movie to consider the terrible overreach of the military-industrial complex, but it’s a rare one that does so thoughtfully, with a specific political consciousness. Its argument is damning and mordantly funny, a shout of merry defiance to join a newly invigorated chorus.
Inasmuch as a studio film like this can have a revolutionary edge, Blue Beetle does, in a way palatable—but not unmoving—to younger audiences who may not exactly grok the references to, say, the sinister legacy of the School of the Americas, but can certainly understand the relentless crush and manipulations of warmongering capitalism. The film does, annoyingly, locate a noble hero billionaire in the end, because superhero stories are obsessed with billionaires. But in many other instances throughout, Blue Beetle feels like a movie for the people—again, as much as a franchise film released by a major corporation can be.
Those deeper impulses are well complemented by the film’s lighter touches. While many of its jokes could have benefited from more honing, Blue Beetle unfolds at a lively patter, balancing genuine drama with the delightful discovery of sudden new powers. The film borrows heavily from Spider-Man, but cleverly shifts that appropriated framework from a lonely puberty allegory into a boisterous family affair. Among Jaime’s nattering clan are his hippie-ish, conspiracy theorist uncle, Rudy (George Lopez), and his kindly Nana (Adriana Barraza), both of whom get their due in a way Aunt May usually doesn’t.
Susan Sarandon is a hoot as the film’s chief villain, the murderous industrialist Victoria Kord, though I wish she had one extra moment of badness—some kind of motivation-defining monologue, perhaps. Still, Sarandon seems to relish the opportunity to make some of her personal politics manifest in such grandiose fashion.
All of this is washed Soto’s vibrant neon hues, set to Bobby Krilc’s persuasively pulsing, synth-heavy score. Blue Beetle is both scrappy and tailored, poignant and breezily amusing. Pitched from a new angle—this is the first Latino superhero character to get a major film like this—and guided by talented hands, Blue Beetle is a rarity in these superhero end-times: a genuine pleasure to watch, reviving tired old formula with brio.
And, thus, it’s a shame that the movie didn’t connect at the box office this weekend, though I’d imagine it will have a happy second life whenever it ends up on Max. That’s not the most ideal outcome for a superhero movie that is actually doing something interesting. But if it does go bust in theaters, sweet little Blue Beetle could help bring about the end of an era that has worn out its welcome. Maybe it must die in theaters so that different movies—ones far afield of laser beams and mech suits—can live.
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