A funny thing happened on the way to the Cineplex this summer movie season…
While Warner Bros. was making great hay out of the big screen version of THE FLASH and crowning James Gunn (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, THE SUICIDE SQUAD) as the new creative bigwig in charge of the DC Comic adaptations, the film version of BLUE BEETLE squeaks in at the tail end of the summer and quietly proves to be the best DC adaptation since WONDER WOMAN in 2017.
The uniqueness of this one starts with its main character, a Mexican-American protagonist named Jaime Reyes, a recent college grad who will soon become a reluctant superhero. The fact that he’s a normal Joe, as well as a kid close to his immigrant family, are two additional factors that give this one some genuine novelty. Jaime’s tight-knit Mexican family is living in the States, fighting for their piece of the American dream, but finding it hard to get higher in the caste system. Such a position allows for a lot of warm, character-driven humor as they quip about their lot, as well as some very sly and pointed socio-economic commentary on how they’re viewed in this age of such ostracization of immigrants.
Equally fresh and new here are the film’s efficiencies of storytelling and its economical use of time. BLUE BEETLE clocks in at a mere 127 minutes, and that’s even with the elongated end credits listing all of its multitude of CGI artists, not to mention a post-credit teaser that is a smart one too. The brief add-on scene adds quite a lot to what we just saw in a matter of seconds, promising a great jumping-off point for a potential sequel. Cliffhangers have started to wear out their welcome in such actioners these days but this one earned its inclusion.
Also nifty is the largely unknown cast making up the roster of players here. Sure, everyone knows George Lopez who plays Jaime’s comic relief uncle Rudy, not to mention Oscar-winning Susan Sarandon, having fun playing the droll villain Victoria Kord, but the rest are hardly household names. Xolo Mariduena headlines the cast and does well blending both confidence and vulnerability in the lead role. Close to his family, Jaime wants to make them proud but realizes that there’s not a lot one can do with a pre-law degree. Thus, he joins his tart-tonged sister Milagro (a scene-stealing Belissa Escobedo) at her country club employer to work for the summer.
There, he runs afoul of corporate big-wig Victoria Kord whom he catches berating her adult niece Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine) over the direction of their manufacturing company. Jenny wants Kord Industries to concentrate on helping humanity with modern goods that better communities. (Yay!) Victoria, on the other hand, wants to produce state-of-the-art war machines. (Boo! Hiss!) When Jaime interferes and instructs Victoria to back off before things get violent, she promptly fires him, along with Milagro.
Still, Jenny is wholly impressed and promises Jaime a job in their company. But then, when Jaime shows up to her offices for an interview, Jenny promptly asks him to help her smuggle out a blue, alien scarab that she stole from Victoria’s lab. It was being used to develop super-soldier armor, which will come in handy in a few reels when Jaime suddenly suits up as an action hero.
Jaime arrives home with the scarab which promptly chooses him as its vessel, burrowing itself into his back and latching onto his brain and body parts, grafting an exoskeleton onto him. This melding of man and machine now gives Jaime all sorts of superpowers: he can fly, lift tons, and create weapons at his fingertips with his imagination. It’s like he’s Spider-Man, Superman, and The Green Lantern all rolled into one. And leaning even heavier into Spidey, the scarab and the ensuing armor it creates for Jaime take on the appearance of an indigo beetle.
The scenes where Jaime discovers his powers are as funny as they are action-packed, with his family’s reactions making for a lot of laughter. As shocked and thrilled as he is, so too are his sis, uncle, dad (Damian Alcazar), mom (Elpidia Carrillo), and Nana (Adriana Barraza). Additionally, the suit comes with a computer foil that serves as both his instructor and conscience. (Shades of J.A.R.V.I.S. from IRON MAN, for those keeping track of the derivations.)
Of course, it isn’t long before Victoria’s henchmen swing by the Reyes home to retrieve the scarab and they’re none-too-happy that it’s already fixated on Jaime. From there, the rest of the film becomes a series of action set-pieces with fighting about the control of the scarab. Their beats may be predictable, but they’re very well-executed from top to bottom, and director Angel Manuel Soto and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer find ways to surprise and delight throughout the narrative. They add a lot of fun twists, a host of pithy retorts, and some heartfelt moments between family members too as they’re all called into action to fight.
The stakes are concerning, of course, considering it’s dealing with weapons of mass destruction, but it’s smart that the film concentrates more on how the plot affects Jaime’s family. Equally as refreshing is Victoria’s henchman Ignacio (Raoul Max Trujillo), a formidable threat to Jaime, true, but not a one-note brute. He gets a backstory filled with pathos too, and it’s one of the better surprises in the third act. Sarandon doesn’t overplay her part, and Lopez is disciplined enough to not make his often silly character too cartoonish.
Soto shoots all of the action clearly and makes most of the CGI believable. The filmmaker also knows when to end a sequence too, be it action or comedy. It’s deftly made, never wearing out its welcome, and how many superhero films can you say that about these days?
This may be the season of “Barbenheimer,” but it’s also been one chock full of notable event films like the fifth Indiana Jones film and the seventh MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE feature. And even with all that, along comes BLUE BEETLE, proving to be the little actioner that could. Who knew that the waning days of August would find such a fine, fitting end to the summer?