Even a little heart goes a long way, and Blue Beetle has more than enough. Based on a DC comic book with origins stretching back to 1939, the film follows Jaime Reyes (the third incarnation of Blue Beetle in the comics), a young Mexican man who returns to his family’s home after college, only to learn his family is losing their house, their auto shop has shut down, and his father is not well. But he’s about to have his life changed even more significantly by the Scarab, a biotechnological alien artifact which can create a powerful exoskeletal armor/flight suit around its user and conjure up energy weapons as well.
Jaime (winningly played by Xolo Maridueña of Cobra Kai fame) is given the Scarab by Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), whose family company, Kord Industries, lords over Palmera City and plans to replace the barrio where Jaime’s family lives with the same expensive, glittering high-rises that have taken over the city’s downtown district. Jenny’s aunt Victoria (Susan Sarandon) runs Kord Industries, and Jenny is horrified by her aunt’s plans to use the Scarab to create an army of tech-infused supersoldiers (called OMAC, for One-Man Army Corps), led by her hulking henchman/guinea pig Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo).
The name Kord, of course, should ring a loud bell for DC fans, as Jenny’s dad, Ted Kord, is the most well-known of the characters to don the Blue Beetle persona. He’s been missing in action for years when the film opens, but his presence is felt throughout (true to the comics, it’s mentioned that he fought crime as Blue Beetle but never accessed superpowers, while the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett, is referenced as well). Jenny notes that Ted would be opposed to everything his sister is plotting and does anything she can to keep the Scarab out of her hands.
The problem, of course, is that the Scarab “chooses” Jaime after he takes possession of it, fusing itself painfully to his body while he is given a crash course in its abilities and powers. At first horrified, Jaime realizes that removing the Scarab will mean his death, and he instead becomes determined to use it to protect his family and stop Victoria and her minions at all costs.
With bits of Iron Man here, parts of Spider-Man there, plus a seasoning of Black Panther and some other socially conscious superhero movies, Blue Beetle does seem overly familiar at times as director Ángel Manuel Soto dutifully yet nimbly goes through the paces of what seems for the most part to be a standard superhero origin story. But Blue Beetle still manages to entertain thanks to its unique protagonist and setting – the first superhero film led by a Latino – its wildly charismatic and appealing lead and fun supporting cast, a killer costume, and visual effects that are for the most part sharper and snazzier than those of recent other films with at least twice the budget.
While the film starts off with the lighter, quippier tone of a Marvel movie – thanks in part to the affectionate interactions between Jaime and his family, especially the scene-stealing George Lopez as his “crazy” Uncle Rudy – things get darker halfway through, especially during a harrowing, ultimately tragic sequence in which Victoria Kord sends her armored security goons crashing into the Reyes house to find Jaime while his family hides in a darkened bedroom.
It’s a tough pivot but Soto handles it well, with the scene unmistakably echoing the terror that immigrant families have no doubt felt for years in this country during the worst raids by brutal government squads like ICE. Soto and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer do not shy away from putting racism and anti-immigrant fervor front and center, even down to Victoria casually referring to a Mexican scientist in her employ (Harvey Guillén) as “Sanchez,” while he repeatedly tells her that’s not his name.
Fortunately, Blue Beetle never gets too heavy-handed, and the shift in tone halfway through the movie manages to imbue its second half with a deeper emotional power and higher stakes. The film also revels in the sheer love among the members of the family, including Jaime’s sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar) and mom Rocio (Elpidia Cafrillo). Watch out especially for Jamie’s abuelita (Adriana Barraza), another delightful scene-stealer with a few surprising tricks up her sleeve.
Sarandon and Trujillo are fairly one-dimensional villains throughout, and some last-minute backstory for both toward the end of the movie doesn’t quite help to make them more than the standard megalomaniac and unstoppable muscle, respectively. In fact, the film’s last act is where Blue Beetle turns most conventional, bowing to what must now be the standard studio mandate to include a frantic, CG-overloaded, borderline incomprehensible battle scene. Some odd editing here doesn’t help either, although there’s enough good will built up by this point to still make the climax satisfying.
Except for that last sequence, Blue Beetle‘s visuals are genuinely crisp, with Soto employing a colorful palette throughout and getting the most of the super cool and canonically faithful Blue Beetle suit. While the characterization of the entity that powers the suit (named Khaji-Da) kind of switches throughout the film to whatever it needs to be, the outfit itself feels tangible and even scary, with Soto presenting its fusion with Jaime in body horror terms. Although the VFX falls short in spots, the movie is a refreshing experience after some of the slop we’ve witnessed recently in other franchises.
Under different circumstances, Blue Beetle might be the beneficiary of the same kind of culture-defining moment that Black Panther and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings both enjoyed. While neither a geopolitical epic like the former nor a globe-spanning martial arts adventure like the latter, Blue Beetle is a long-overdue step forward for the kind of Latino representation on the screen that the comic book genre has spent years, not always successfully, reaching for on the page.
But the movie’s release has not only been hampered by the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which prevents its cast from promoting it, but also the fact that it is one of the last DC movies made under a previous studio regime and is following up the spectacular failures of Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and The Flash. References to the latter hero, as well as Batman, Superman, and Lexcorp, are scattered through the film, and based on that and the Reyes family’s general acceptance of superpowers, we can surmise that the movie is set in some DC universe.
But, unlike other films that have been weighed down in recent years by the burden of moving an entire mythology a few feet further down the road, Blue Beetle is free to be its own animal (no pun intended). While it exists in a sort of netherworld between the old DC universe and the next one, and borrows fairly liberally from what has come before, its sincerity, empathy, and palpable earnestness make it fully enjoyable on its own terms. See it with your family.
Blue Beetle is out in theaters on Aug. 18.