Lately, to consume superhero movies is to get lost in the land of Oz. Senseless stories scripted by simpleton Scarecrows, formerly rebellious directors made Cowardly Lions by the Marvel movie machine, time and successive subpar attempts at cinema stealing away Kevin Feige’s (“Secret Invasion”) curtain — with only the odd miracle to keep it from falling. And now, filmmaker James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”) has entered into the management of the DC Extended Universe, with Ángel Manuel Soto’s (“The Farm”) “Blue Beetle” giving genesis to DC’s troubled new cinematic universe, much like what “Iron Man” did for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What crashes in Soto’s Oz is not a house, but the Scarab Khaji-Da (Becky G, “Power Rangers”) — also the sun-rolling Egyptian god Khepri’s symbol of rebirth, but in this case an interstellar artifact — sending its shooting star across space in the opening credits, crashing through planet after planet until it alights itself on Earth. It crawls through history as it creates heroes, from pharaohs, to archaeologists to billionaire prodigy philanthropist Ted Kord. It’s hard not to compare the eponymous Blue Beetle to every character that comes before: the symbiote of the Venom series, the bug-based battle suit of (Iron) Spider–Man and the billionaire-owned mechanized suit of Tony Stark. However, the Blue Beetle actually precedes these cross-universal characters, having its first appearance in 1939, from the archeologist Dan Garrett to the aforementioned Ted. This isn’t their story, though. The mantle of “Blue Beetle” belongs to Jaime (pronounced hai-may, don’t you dare get it wrong) Reyes (Xolo Maridueña, “Cobra Kai”).
As Jaime flies back to aid his family with a newly acquired bachelor’s degree in hand, the stale CGI beset on so many superhero movies instead synthesizes the Emerald metropolis of Palmera City as a futuristic, gentrifying force upon his home in the Edge Keys. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. What’s essential about “Blue Beetle” swarms so many of its scenes: wide pans of Jaime’s immigrant-enlivened neighborhood, quick cuts through his house showcasing the sheer density of Mexican American cultural keepsakes and scene after scene centering his family as what is nearest and dearest to Jaime. Oh, and there’s also the superhero stuff.
As Jaime’s face is reflected in one of several portraits of the Virgen María when The Scarab first takes control of his body, it indicates he now contains something beyond this world. At the request of Ted’s daughter, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine, “Women in Love”), The Scarab was taken from Ted’s sister, Kord Industries CEO Victoria (Susan Sarandon, “Thelma & Louise”), and her personal guard Ignacio Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo, “Apocalypto”). Jaime’s first transformation into the Blue Beetle amongst his family is played almost as a horror sequence: Insect legs jut out of his back and pierce his semiconscious body through the ceiling, a sable symbiotic substance flooding out his orifices. These sequences become obviously less spine-tingling and a bit more silly until Jaime is fully realized as a hero. But since it’s committed to creating a fully practical suit before the now-necessary CG superpower additions and crisp action compositions that so clearly prioritize empowering their immigrant characters that I don’t even cringe when I say they’re epic, “Blue Beetle” and Jaime achieve their metamorphosis past the recent visually and character-lacking superhero schlock.
And then there’s what beats underneath the suit, what Jaime asserts as the source of his strength: his wise padre Alberto (Damiàn Alcàzar, “Narcos”), passionate madre Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo, “Predator”), smart-ass hermana Milagro (Belissa Escobedo, “The Baker and the Beauty”), fearsome abuela Nana (Adriana Barraza, “Babel”) and savant tío Rudy (George Lopez, “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D”). Each member of the family demands attention in every one of their scenes, whether it’s Alcàzar’s gentle fatherly monologues, Escobedo’s often entertaining one-liners or Lopez’s surprising emotional depth on top of his famous comedic chops. Maridueña embodies every aspect of Jaime’s journey — from the frantic anxiety of removing the priceless Scarab from his body before Kord’s cops descend on his family, to the captivating and tranquil chemistry he has with his loved ones, to his anguish over their suffering.
The hero’s journey to the mantle of the Blue Beetle isn’t paved with yellow bricks but with blood and tears. Victoria stops at nothing to snatch her brother’s Scarab away from Jaime out of entitlement and avarice, and desiring to use the symbiotic technology to engineer the perfect private police force. Sarandon channels an evil white woman energy so vile that they could have named her character Karen Kord. The family’s confrontations with the Kord cops lead to suspenseful sequences that evoke more anxiety than the pseudo-horror suit-up due to the real-life xenophobia and police brutality they depict. That tension then makes it all the more satisfying when Jaime and his family are able to finally take down the Wicked Witch Victoria’s wingless monkeys — Nana taking exceptional enjoyment in speaking of imperialist devils and making them disappear — which they spend more of the film doing than facing the big, bad, similarly super-suited Ignacio.
Ignacio isn’t allowed to be a one-note antagonist, instead serving as a necessary foil to test Jaime’s devotion to family. It’s put into question if Ignacio is as much of a victim of Victoria as the Reyes family is by slowly revealing how he was drafted into Victoria’s war. Jenny — as another relative of the original Blue Beetle — serves her parallel to her aunt by doing everything in her power to honor the legacy of her hero father, while also giving Jaime a little unnecessary but adorable romance, including providing the Reyes family access to her family estate that contains Ted’s Blue Beetle cave filled with his own memorabilia and gadgets.
These legacies bring our heroes together, whether it’s the Reyes’s ofrenda, Ted’s Blue Beetle cave or nearly a century of modern superhero media with the Blue Beetle appearing only a few years after its inception. It’s the legacy that Soto and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (“Contrapelo”) honor by making “Blue Beetle” “a love letter to (their) ancestors.” The mantle they inherit is exhibited through the little details, like the seamless switches to Spanglish throughout the script and the scoring carefully syncopated to story beats. Every sequence not synced to Bobby Krlic’s (“Midsommar”) score of traditional superhero orchestration and sci-fi synths in symbiosis is instead flooded with every wave and genre from Latin artists, from golden oldies like Vicente Fernandez to modern Urban Latin star Alvaro Díaz to even iconic Mexican-American fronted band Mӧtley Crüe. Legacies also conflict with each other: inherited imperialism and capitalism clash with the ancestral ascendancy of The Scarab and the Reyes family. It’s a superhero movie originally set for exclusively streaming service release taking on the weight of rolling an entirely new cinematic universe into existence while telling the tried, true and possibly tired origin story of how the hero defeats the villain. But it’s the execution that makes “Blue Beetle” incredible. What do you do with a failing structure, a dying universe? Do you multiply that universe into a multiverse? Do you extend it, taking the related films and confusingly curtail the actually artful attempts at adaptation away? Or do you burn it to the ground?
“Blue Beetle” burns it all away. Burn every bit that’s able to catch: burn away the needless darkness, burn away what never made sense, burn away even some of the good with the bad and see what you’re left with. Khepri rolls his star back into the sky, and a new world is born — with a new hero worthy of his mantle. “Blue Beetle” isn’t exactly “Iron Man,” the comparison only functioning off how effective this kick-off of a new cinematic universe is — not with cameos, not with pause-for-audience-applause moments, not with unnecessary promises of a world much bigger than the film needs. “Blue Beetle” has instead finally found what we’ve been searching for in Oz as the DCU’s Tin Man: heart.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.