Moving Pictures
Aug 18, 2023, 06:26AM

Disney's Blue Bump

Blue Beetle is a pleasant surprise.

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It hasn’t been a great last year or so for the DC Extended Universe of superhero films. It released a pair of dire films, Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which weren’t only bad on their own merits, but felt the need to shoehorn in other superhero characters in telling a story that its corporate parent had moved on from.

The Flash, earlier this summer, was better, but was also a huge mess, with a pariah of a star, Ezra Miller, who’d been accused of numerous terrible crimes. All three of those films were noted flops, featuring characters that seem unlikely to have any place in the next big Warner Bros/DC reboot. Amid signs that the superhero bubble might finally be bursting, DC has had an especially rough go of it.

The latest DC movie, Blue Beetle, arrives with low expectations. But the film is a pleasant surprise. It tells a self-contained story that doesn’t have Batman or Wonder Woman show up to overshadow its star. It also has the advantage of not looking like crap—far from a foregone conclusion in today’s action filmmaking—while approaching the material with a point of view. It drags in the third act, but Blue Beetle is the most enjoyable recent DC movie. It’s buoyed by a winning lead performance and a coherent story that doesn’t get bogged down.

Directed by the Puerto Rican filmmaker Ángel Manuel Soto, who made 2020’s well-received Baltimore drama Charm CIty Kings, the film recalls elements of the Spider-Man and Iron Man mythologies, while its villains are an evil corporation that’s straight out of RoboCop. The film is set in the fictional Palmera City, which resembles Frances Suarez’s business-friendly Miami, although it was filmed in Texas and Georgia. The hero is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Mariduena, from the Cobra Kai TV show), a recent college graduate who returns home to an uncertain future, once again living with his extended Mexican-American family.

Jaime stumbles into a battle within the fascist Kord corporation, led by villain Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon, who’d twirl her mustache if she had one). Seemingly inspired by the notion that Omni Consumer Products from RoboCop had the right idea but didn’t go far enough, Kord too is working on a line of cyborg cops with a specific mission of protecting the company’s business interests.

But company scion Jenny (Brazilian actress Bruna Marquezine) wants to move the company away from weapons of mass destruction, so she passes the company’s secret weapon off to Jaime—a piece of alien technology that allows him to turn into the titular superhero, with a suit that slowly merges with his human body. What really works in the movie is the colorful family, which includes Jaime’s parents, his wisecracking sister (Belissa Escobedo), his grandmother with surprising skills (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu regular Adriana Barraza), and his tech-savvy uncle Rudy (comedian George Lopez, making the most of a rare big movie role).

There are the usual explosions and action scenes, most of which pit Jaime against the top Kord cyborg (Raoul Max Trujillo, the villain from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto). It’s mostly CGI crashing into other CGI, although it’s rendered in a mostly clear and visibly coherent way. It’s worth noting that Blue Beetle features surprisingly strident leftist politics, but not the ethnic representation or the usual Hollywood material denounced as “woke.”

Sarandon’s evil corporation is techno-fascist—in a world with no apparent government or law enforcement—while one of the heroes, it’s implied, was once part of the Cuban revolution. Paul Verhoeven’s Reagan-era RoboCop was anti-fascist, even if it was once denounced as “fascism for liberals,” and so is Blue Beetle.

Will many people see this movie? After the recent DC stumbles, I’m not sure. It may not end up a part of the DC Universe going forward, but Blue Beetle remains the best part of its present.


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