There’s a sense here, in November 2023, that we’re at the end of an era.
Superheroes and intellectual property originated from comic books have dominated the box office and corresponding cultural conversation for more than a decade. But the cracks have formed in that foundation over the last few months (and many would say the last few years), and it’s clear that a turning is occurring. What that looks like … well, I’m not really sure.
Go online and you’ll see a million different guesses. You’ll find just as many hypotheses about what went wrong with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the entire business model it created. I’m not here to litigate either question — maybe in my forthcoming review of The Marvels — but just sort of stand in wonder at the last 15 years, where one of my particular passions somehow became so central to American popular culture that I enjoyed a reasonably constant stream of content that directly catered to my personal tastes and whims.
It was an era where superhero stories became so numerous and well-financed that — even in a year with enormous, genre-sinking stinkers like The Flash or Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, we sometimes got strange, smaller, interesting work like Blue Beetle, a film that feels like the last triumphant example of just how good these movies could be at their best and is now available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray.
I’m not terribly familiar with the Blue Beetle character, having not engaged with DC’s wider array of characters in more than a decade. Thankfully, that doesn’t really matter much for understanding director Ángel Manuel Soto’s delightful take on the character’s origin as a family story told with an authentic cultural perspective.
Our hero is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a Latino kid in his early 20s returning home from college to his close-knit family. He quickly learns they’re on the verge of losing their home and that his father, Alberto (Damián Alcázar), recently survived a heart attack. Jaime immediately sets out to help them by getting a job with his sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), as a worker at a mansion owned by weapons magnate Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). The two are quickly fired, but in the process, Jaime meets Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece, who wants to bring down her aunt and her evil ways.
A meeting with Jenny results in Jaime being chosen by the Scarab, an alien device that imbues him with incredible technological powers — a device desperately sought by Victoria, who needs it to power her fleet of new wearable armors, the OMACs (One Man Army Corps). Jaime’s relationship with the Scarab puts him and his family on a collision course with Victoria, a desperately and openly racist monster who doesn’t mind killing an entire family just to get her hands on a weapon.
Blue Beetle started production as a lower-budget, straight-to-streaming film, and it got a financial boost when the new regime at Warner Bros. Discovery decided to repurpose it into a theatrical release. That doesn’t change the very noticeable fact that the movie was built around more than just action set-pieces and showy visual effects. Although as fast-paced and visceral as one would expect from superhero fare, it also spends more time giving Jaime’s extended family real character and parts to play in the story. His uncle, Rudy (George Lopez), provides some heavy comic relief; his mother, Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), and grandmother (Adriana Barraza) do, too, with the latter revealing a secret history that ties well into the film’s light-but-effective cultural commentary.
Jaime’s aforementioned father has a very clear role to play (as his heart attack is a narrative ticking time bomb), but the emotional beats he shares with Jaime are quite effective. Even the “struggling with legacy” stuff given to Jenny works thanks to the time Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s script spends with the two characters. None of the film’s beats is especially original, but the general allocation of time dedicated to character within the movie’s two-hour runtime feels differently modulated than films budgeted to make a billion dollars or more at the box office.
None of it would matter, of course, if the film wasn’t led by an instantly likable and charismatic face. Maridueña really has the goods as Jaime — heroic, funny, charming, handsome and, in the movie’s best moments, absolutely terrified. James Gunn has claimed his new DC projects will continue Jaime’s story even without a direct sequel to Blue Beetle (which seems profoundly unlikely given its box-office results); it will be nice to see more of the character, wherever he appears. He’ll be a boon to whatever story features him.
Corporations realized long ago that they can get free advertising by boosting the voices of minority directors and marketing their films with the language of social issues. That’s not meant to disparage the work done on films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman — only to say there’s a natural instinct to question when a major corporation markets a film on representation. Does the film actually say something? Is there a perspective here or is a corporation just trying to get itself advertised positively?
For what it’s worth, Blue Beetle really feels like it comes from a genuine perspective. The story is motivated by Jaime and his family’s experiences, and their foe plays into that thematic realm in multiple ways. The ultimate payoff — and most overtly political statement — comes at the end of the film, when the origin of Kord’s henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) is revealed. There could’ve been more to his story, but it’s a profoundly effective beat, made better by the strangeness of his relationship with Kord. In a performance that feels genuinely checked out, Sarandon does something unique with her character’s relationship to her henchman, and it all pays off quite wonderfully at the end.
It’s been a good long while since the superhero genre finally figured out how to make costumes look visually appealing onscreen — so long, in fact, that many of the biggest-budget movies now rely on entirely computer-generated creations that actually look worse than the partially practical uniforms seen almost a decade ago. The Blue Beetle suit is a mixture of the two, and my god, it’s fantastic. The sleek, armored uniform is dazzling to watch while standing stationary or in motion, and its variety of summoned weapons are a lot of fun to watch as they form. I don’t own many DC toys, but I’m definitely looking for a seven-inch one of these to go on my shelf.
Like I said: I don’t know where popular culture goes from here. Are movies just old hat now in a world of YouTube videos and TikTok clips? I have friends who haven’t set down and read an actual book since junior high; I have just as many who can’t sit still for a two-hour movie. I worry about my children’s ability to focus on anything. God knows my mind is endlessly fractured. What does entertainment look like in five years, 10 years? All I know right now is that this era of superhero dominance is already off the cliff and falling fast into the dirt. But I’m not sad because it’s over. I’m just happy it happened, and I’m glad a film like Blue Beetle got to bring up the rear, telling a heartwarming family story with good performers, sprinkled with a cool-ass suit, good action and a nice dose of pointed social commentary for good measure.
If audiences still want movies as an art form a few years from now, and we end up with an inevitable wave of nostalgia for superhero films, it seems clear to me this one will be quickly reclaimed as an unsung classic of the genre. It’s not one of the best, but it’s still pretty damn great.
Special features include: Generations: Blue Beetle, a four-part documentary that explores Blue Beetle‘s journey to the big screen; Nana Knows Best, a featurette focusing on Barraza’s character; and Scarab Vision, a two-part featurette hosted by Maridueña that showcases how the Scarab works.