DC’s latest addition to superhero cinema, Blue Beetle (★★☆☆☆), seems to thread together two disparate films that the makers struggle mightily to fuse into a satisfying, cohesive whole.
At its most successful, the movie, directed by Ángel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings), introduces Mexican college grad Jaime Reyes, played by Cobra Kai’s Xolo Maridueña, along with Jaime’s loving, but financially imperiled family.
Dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), mom Rocio (Elpidio Carrillo), younger sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), crazy conspiracy theory-addled uncle Rudy (George Lopez), and feisty matriarch Nana (Adriana Barraza, who almost steals the show) all rally around Jaime when a mysterious sapphire-blue scarab latches onto his body and consciousness, making him an unwilling host to a “world-destroying weapon.”
Time spent with Jaime and the Reyes family, steeped in authentic Latino culture, humor, and relationships, plays like the warmly comic pilot episode of a sitcom I’d gladly binge.
Each episode could include a flashback to the adventures of Nana Reyes, which, based on the hints she drops, would be as thrilling and dangerous as anything Jaime encounters in his new scarab-assisted superhero form as Blue Beetle.
That brings us to the other, less successful counterpart to the Meet the Reyes Family sitcom: the relatively lame-ass origin story of another DC Comics hero that’s so clearly intended as a setup for future appearances that it fails to do anything interesting with the character’s big-screen debut.
Drawing heavily on Blue Beetle’s comic book origins, which stretch back to 1939 — long before alter ego Jaime Reyes was introduced in 2006 — the script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer sketches the scarab’s history with broad strokes familiar from a dozen other superhero movies.
The scarab’s previous host was a maverick scientist named Ted Kord, whose unexplained death left his global tech corporation, Kord Industries, in the hands of evil sister Victoria, this movie’s main villain.
As Victoria, who’d twirl her mustache if she had one, Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon does not divert from the evil weapons manufacturer playbook of, say, Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, or Sam Rockwell in Iron Man II, or Guy Pearce in Iron Man III.
Victoria wants to weaponize the scarab’s capabilities on a mass scale, and she doesn’t care who has to suffer or die so that she can rule the world selling OMACs, or the One Man Army Corps.
But first, she needs the computer code embedded in the scarab. So she and her henchmen hunt for the scarab, learn that it’s attached to Jaime, and then hunt down Jaime. The Reyes family joins him to fight back and rescue anyone in the principal cast who gets taken. There’s not a lot of texture to that plot, especially compared to the dramatic depth Maridueña, Barrazza and family are able to evoke in a few emotional Reyes scenes.
There isn’t much texture to the superhero action, either — though the pulsing electronica score by Bobby Krlic, a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak, rocks like a Tangerine Dream. But the fight scenes look choppy and grainy, and, for a story filled with folks in pursuit, the movie doesn’t expend much creativity devising chases. Blue Beetle’s CGI-assisted, omni-powered armor, highlighted with fluorescent blue light, looks great standing still, but too often gets lost in motion against dark, nighttime backgrounds.
His crimson-armored foe Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) doesn’t have that problem — but that character, rendered pretty faithfully to its comics iteration, still resembles a stiffer Iron Man with a bucket on his head. The man inside the bucket, Victoria’s lead henchman, is treated as a more or less generic sneering goon until a flashback montage in the movie’s late-going attempts to paint a deeper picture of his past and motives.
The move comes too late to turn Carapax into a truly compelling nemesis. He’s just a game-round before Blue Beetle levels up to the next opponent or next adventure, hinted at in the standard mid-credits sequence.
All of the energy and easter eggs to set up sequels and crossovers and universes of premium superhero IP, and the best thing this movie does is get us primed for the return of Nana Reyes. We’ll be seated for that.
Blue Beetle is rated PG-13, and is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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