This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Blue Beetle, the newest entry in Warner Bros. and DC’s “DC Extended Universe” (or is it the first film in the “DC Universe?”), plays the requisite beats of any superhero origin story and does so reasonably well. The film is also clearly invested in the responsibility of being the first superhero blockbuster with a Latino lead and takes care to emphasize cultural specificity.
But that cultural specificity also plays into the film’s greatest flaw: a barrage of mixed messages that raise several questions throughout.
Is Killing Wrong or Funny?
Early on, protagonist Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), having been fused with the eponymous alien technology that corporate leader Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) wants to get her hands on, stops his exo-suit from making a fatal blow against one of Victoria’s henchmen. The suit, named Khaji-Da (voiced by Becky G), urges Jaime to eliminate the threat. But Jaime insists he won't kill. It’s a classic superhero moral conundrum and one that Maridueña brings to life in a moment of great stress.
But just an hour or so later, Blue Beetle has other heroic characters delighting in the murder of faceless henchmen. Multiple enemies get killed in moments meant to play for laughs, whether it’s a beetle-shaped vehicle stomping on them or Jaime’s grandmother (referred to as “Nana” and played by Adriana Barraza) mowing enemies down with a minigun. Moments like this would land as funny if the film hadn’t already taken a stance on the immorality of murder. But because it has, that leads to an uncomfortable dissonance at the center of the film’s final action scenes.
Political Revolution: A Joke or Necessary?
Nana’s ability with a minigun isn’t just a one-time joke, though. The film reveals that she once served as a revolutionary without diving into specifics. That plays the revelation as a joke itself. That notion of radical politics as a silly endeavor pops up multiple times in the film, mostly from Jaime’s uncle Cesar “Rudy” Reyes (George Lopez). These jokes undermine the film's ostensible interest in addressing serious social and political evils.
Early on, Jaime and his sister Milagro (a scene-stealing Belissa Escobedo) discuss the massive class divide and gentrification in their fictional hometown of Palmera City. They have already lost their auto shop because of Kord Industries’ monopolistic practices and fear losing their home. One scene evokes violent deportation. A statue of Christopher Columbus gets spotlighted and then destroyed in an action scene. The movie also reveals that Victoria Kord plucked the physical big bad, Ignacio Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), from a far-right, anti-communist army in Guatemala, which further muddies the political messages here.
Blue Beetle seems to want to highlight the real wrongs perpetrated against Latin Americans while laughing at the radical politics that seek to combat those wrongs. It follows a current trend that wants kudos for acknowledging social ills without taking a stand that might upset some viewers.
Can One Good Rich Person Fix Everything?
The most glaring instance of that empty virtue signaling comes from the relationship between the film’s wealthy, weapons-manufacturing villain and wealthy, pacifistic love interest. Victoria’s niece Jennifer Kord (Bruna Marquezine) plays a pivotal role in Jaime’s transformation into the eponymous superhero when she steals the technology from her aunt. Jennifer doesn’t want their family company to create weapons, and at the end of the film, she pledges to rebuild destroyed homes in Jaime’s neighborhood.
The two Kords exemplify the problem of the films’ desire to indict income inequality and gentrification without upsetting the status quo. It’s not obscene wealth that is bad, says Blue Beetle; it’s how plutocrats use their money that matters. Because the movie obsesses over the concept of systemic failure leading to inequality, the movie undermines its characters.
Bright Spots in the Mess
Amid the frustrating and confusing moral and political messages the film espouses, a few bright spots keep Blue Beetle somewhat entertaining. Sarandon relishes playing such an evil character. Maridueña and Marquezine have sweet romantic chemistry. And the scenes of the Reyes family together feel real in a way that invites viewers into this loving family dynamic. Blue Beetle develops nearly every family member; mom Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo) is sadly underutilized.
The combination of practical and computer effects for the exo-suit looks good, and the initial transformation scene delivers a genuinely shocking body horror sequence. The action sequences play well too. Still, there’s a sense that these scenes could be much more exciting and visceral with an action director at the helm rather than director Ángel Manuel Soto, whose talents lie in the drama.
Blue Beetle is a mess, but these dramatic moments lay a foundation for sequels that might know what they want to say and deliver the action that feels like a waste of potential here.
Rating: 5/10 SPECS
Blue Beetle releases in theaters nationwide on August 18.
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Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Screen Anarchy, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Kyle has an MA in philosophy from Boston College, is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, and along with writing, organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.