Over the last few years, Hollywood has had something of a long overdue reckoning when it comes to representation in media. While far from perfect, the necessary conversations and actions are underway to ensure that talented artists from all aspects of production are getting the opportunities to tell their stories and share their unique perspectives. This is a universal good, even when the execution isn’t always handled properly on a case by case basis.
The one problem with this new direction is when studios essentially talk out of both sides of their mouths on the issue. They’ll cast minority actors and feature diverse story situations, but often only under the guise of the same formulaic crap they’ve been shoveling down our throats for years on end. On the one hand, any recognition has value, but on the other, the question has to be asked whether or not we’re doing people a disservice by just inserting them into the same generic stories we’ve seen over and over again. In the name of representation, are we indulging in backdoor tokenism?
Obviously, as a CHWG (cis het white guy), I’m probably the wrong person to even pose this question, let alone answer it. But I can’t deny that this feeling lingered at the back of my mind watching Blue Beetle, the latest (and hopefully last) DC Extended Universe film before James Gunn’s reset of the franchise. It’s a fine enough film to be entertaining, though still with myriad flaws. But the biggest, most glaring problem with the whole endeavor is the fact that when you see this film, you’re basically just watching Latino Spider-Man, specifically Tom Holland’s version from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character is an awkward young adult, thrust into the world of superheroes basically against his will thanks to an arthropod-like instrument, and his super suit is nothing more than a piece of high technology that borders on magic, complete with an internal voice (Becky G) communicating with the protagonist to accommodate his every want and need. This film calls it The Scarab, but for all practical purposes, it’s just a blue version of the Iron Spidey Suit.
Not making matters any easier is the complete paint-by-numbers plot, which follows every major beat of every comic book based movie. Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is a recent college grad (Gotham University, because EASTER EGG! EASTER EGG! WE’RE ALL INTERCONNECTED! BE AMAZED!) returning to his home barrio in Palmera City, only to learn that his family is broke and the rapacious Kord Industries, lead by Victoria Kord (a tragically misused Susan Sarandon) is about to evict them from their home as part of a land grab. Desperate for work, Jaime gets a low-level job in hopes of coming up with the money to save his family, even though they constantly embarrass him for no reason. In an act of foolhardy chivalry, Jaime intervenes when Victoria and her lackey Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) threaten Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece, right in front of him. Doing the right thing costs Jaime his employment (along with his sister Milagro, played by Belissa Escobedo), but Jenny takes pity on him and invites him to corporate headquarters for a new gig.
When Jaime arrives the next day, he runs into Jenny, who is absconding with the Scarab, a piece of alien technology (shown in the opening credits to destroy an entire planet just by crashing into it — of course we’ll see nothing like those stakes here) that Victoria wants to use to create an army of autonomous cyborg super soldiers, because of course she does. Jenny gives Jaime the box containing the Scarab and sneaks him out, ordering him not to open it. Once home, with the goading of his family, he instantly disobeys, and the symbiotic artifact attaches to him like a parasite, giving him his armor and flying him around the city in an battery of “calibration tests” that are little more than CGI destruction. Now fused to him, the Scarab can only be removed from Jaime at the cost of his life, so he is now the reluctant Blue Beetle, and it’s up to him to stop Victoria’s nefarious plan, protect Jenny and his family, and learn to use his new powers.
We have literally seen all of this dozens of times before. It’s almost comical how unoriginal it all is. You can almost set your watch by the format and plot structure. You know exactly when Jaime’s going to get his powers, when he’s going to have his first fight, when he’s going to get overconfident, when he’s going to suffer a devastating setback at the end of the second act, when it’s going to look like all is lost, and when some deus ex machina is going to make it so he can win the same vs. same battle at the end that he couldn’t before.
It’s so mind-numbingly pedantic that Victoria doesn’t even really have a villainous motivation. There’s mention that her father passed her over to inherit the company, instead leaving it in the hands of Jenny’s father, Ted (sequel bait), who wanted to take the company in a direction other than producing weaponry (*coughSTARKINDUSTRIEScough*), but that’s it. There’s no real direction to her evil. She’s developing these OMAC (One Man Army Corps) things, but to what end? She never says. She’s already wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, and she makes no mention of world domination or any other grand scheme. She just repeats the line, “Sacrifices must be made for the greater good” to justify her actions, in between bouts of casual racism (the running gag is that she calls her lead scientist, played by Harvey Guillén, “Sanchez,” even though that’s not his name, har-har). She’s just there to be an obstacle, a symbol of any aspect of society that keeps the Reyes family and those like them down. Because of that — and because she’s given the most bland, pointless dialogue imaginable — she never comes off as a legitimate threat. The only question is whether or not she’ll die at the end, but even then, no matter what path the movie takes it won’t be satisfying.
The only thing “new” about this is Jaime’s family, which is meant to represent Mexican immigrant culture. But honestly, apart from the fact that they rag on him all the time (I dated a Mexican for three years, her family did this as well, and she told me it’s perfectly normal), I didn’t see all that much. They’re just a run-of-the-mill family unit in a movie, there to make jokes and wring pathos. Again, it’s a good thing if audiences just see these folks as normal, everyday Americans, but based on the film’s marketing, I don’t think that was the intent.
And for what it’s worth, these are decent characters. Milagro has a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor. Father Alberto (Damián Alcázar) waxes poetic about the American dream. Mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo) dispenses sage wisdom and worries incessantly about Jaime’s wellbeing. Uncle Rudy (George Lopez) is the best character in the entire damn movie thanks to his quick wit and expert comedic timing. Seriously, the fun we have with Rudy almost redeems the entire picture. Jaime’s Nana (Adriana Barraza) has one of the top individual moments in the film during the climax. As a unit, they emphasize perseverance whenever they’re not ripping each other to loving shreds. Regardless of ethnicity, they do feel real. I just wish they were given more daring material worthy of the bond they’re presenting.
All of these things are symptoms of the real disease — laziness. This was an amazing opportunity to take comic movies in new directions, to introduce a relatively new face to the world of fandom (Blue Beetle has existed in some form since the 1930s but Jaime Reyes debuted in comics in 2006), and to strike a blow for true representation, but the film takes the easy way out at every turn, and it shows. Jaime strives to save his family and give them a better life, so why not use the possibilities that the Scarab presents to do exactly that? How amazing would this movie be if he used his newfound powers to improve living conditions in the barrio and expose the criminal element in Kord Industries? Instead we just get the standard confused screaming montage of the suit explaining powers he doesn’t understand. The whole sequence feels like the noise Arthur makes in The Sword in the Stone when he falls down the stairs (wuh-wuh-WOAH!).
The standard second act tragedy is rendered toothless because the characters involved have already had their fates nakedly foreshadowed since the beginning of the film, both good and bad. And even worse, given the way the scene is set up, the moment is ripe to take some risks from a storytelling standpoint. Let Victoria show just how ruthless she is. Let some blood flow. Force Jaime to make a choice that has consequences. Hell, introduce LAW ENFORCEMENT so that there’s some actual weight to the scene. Oh yeah, not to spoil, but Kord advances on the Reyes home with her own personal army and helicopters… in a major metropolitan area… armed to the teeth. And there are no cops? Seriously? How is that just glossed over? Even in the aftermath of the moment we just see a fire truck and some paramedics. Explain to me how a private army can supersede local law enforcement, and then MAYBE this scene will make me feel something, and MAYBE Victoria can be an effective baddie.
And then, of course, there’s the shamefully bad, phoned-in CGI. The Scarab makes uninspired weapons for Jaime to use. The skyline of Palmera City is filled with buildings, all of which have hologram advertising on their façades. What? Milagro gets a weapon late in the movie that is literally the Nintendo Power Glove that projects a shield and a fist depending on which button you press. Are we supposed to be in any way impressed by this?
Even in the more fun moments (including an opening joke where Jaime asks a stranger how he looks in his graduation cap and the man simply mutters, “Like you’re six figures in debt!” — devastating and hilarious), you can’t escape the feeling that you’re just watching Marvel’s non-union Mexican equivalent. It becomes so grating that you come to realize that this isn’t just shoehorned representation for its own sake, it’s the only selling point the movie actually has. The story’s been done. The hero’s been done. The villain’s been done. The family dynamic’s been done. The effects have been done. All of it has been done so many times, and if we’re being honest, it’s been done much better. We’re worn out at this point.
This isn’t a bad film, per se. It’s perfectly fine, in fact. But it’s nothing special, either, no matter how much it panders to our more politically correct angels. It’s derivative to the point of being a pale imitation of far more interesting fare, and in the moments where it has a chance to reach for something more, it actively chooses not to, settling for being aggressively mediocre and resting on every laurel it has. The basic story works, as it does for every cape flick, and the cast for the most part commits to the material, substandard though it is. If this movie had come out 10 years ago, when the craze of comic adaptations was still relatively new, this would probably have been seen as a solid entry. As it is, it’s just the death rattle of an engine that stopped working properly a long time ago. The Blue Beetle may carry his family on his back, but as a piece of cinema, Blue Beetle is barely above rolling dung.
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