Xolo Maridueña is incredibly charming. That is the big takeaway from his superhero debut, Blue Beetle, in which he plays Jaime Reyes, a recent college grad who can’t get a job to help support his family. At home in the neon lighted, Miami-esque Palmera City, Jaime’s family is up against rising rents and gentrification, their working class Latine neighborhood threatened by these real-world elements that immediately make Jaime and his conflict understandable and sympathetic.
Even though Blue Beetle—written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and directed by Ángel Manuel Soto—is steeped in Latine/Chicane culture, with references ranging from Guillermo Del Toro and Gregory Nava to telenovela María la del Barrio, the palpable warmth of familial love and a family who prioritizes each other over anything else is broadly appealing. It’s not unlike a sitcom, combining specific humor and comforting warmth, though, less adorably, a TV set cheapness that unfortunately drags the visuals down. (Blue Beetle was originally conceived as a streaming exclusive for HBO Max, and it shows in a certain smallness of frame when it comes to setting and action.)
Once resettled at home, Jaime quickly finds himself enmeshed with “the Scarab”, a piece of sentient alien tech that gives him a blue, insect-like exoskeleton and numerous superpowers. Jaime undergoes the obligatory training montage and boom, he’s the Blue Beetle. He’s up against the Kords, who feel the Scarab is theirs as it was first utilized by their family member, Ted Kord (the original Blue Beetle in the comics). Daughter Jenny (Bruna Marquezine) just wants the Scarab back to keep it safe from her exploitative aunt, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), who wants to use it to build an army of super soldiers (don’t they always). Sarandon is so far past hamming it up here, she is straight up in spamming it up territory. Every time she says “the Scarab” it gets funnier and (unintentionally) funnier.
While Blue Beetle excels when it’s focused on Jaime and his family, it unfortunately echoes too many other superhero movies. The Blue Beetle POV is too much like Iron Man; the Scarab has a robotic female voice—provided by Becky G—that is too much like FRIDAY; there’s a sequence with a bus that is too much like Shang-Chi; Jaime’s relationship with his younger sister, Milagro (scene stealer Belissa Escobedo), is too much like Shaun’s dynamic with the similarly slacking Katy in Shang-Chi; the family antics feel a little bit too much like the earlier, family-focused Ant-Man films, albeit floated by the Reyes family’s cultural specificity and cheerfulness in the face of looming supervillainy and disaster. Like Ms. Marvel, Blue Beetle is a superhero tale that is buoyed by loving family dynamics, but the overall effect of all these similarities is that despite Blue Beetle being the first superhero movie starring a Latine character, it feels like a rehash of a dozen other films.
And the climactic fight certainly doesn’t help. The finale commits all the usual superhero movie sins—a dark, dull CG-punch fest set at night to cover shoddy VFX, with the hero fighting a baddie in a bigger version of his own superhero suit, just in a different color. To be fair, even Black Panther commits this sin, but it is a letdown to see it here, yet again, on top of all the other commonalities Blue Beetle has with so many other superhero movies. The only fresh sequence is a raid on the Reyes home that evokes ICE raids on immigrant communities, easily the boldest and cleverest set piece in the whole film.
But it’s not a total loss. Xolo Maridueña is genuinely fun to watch, even when forced to go through the motions of the superhero origin story checklist. And the Reyes family, particularly Milagro, Nana (Adriana Barraza), and Uncle Rudy (George Lopez), make for a strong supporting ensemble. And it is refreshing to see a DC film that, other than a few offhand references to bigger, better-known heroes, is blissfully free of torturous, interconnected plotting. You don’t have to know twelve other movies to enjoy this one, though you probably won’t be able to escape the echoes of all those other, previous superhero movies that reverberate here. But even if it is the cinematic equivalent of microwaved leftovers, Blue Beetle is generally a good time, largely thanks to Xolo Maridueña.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Blue Beetle is now playing exclusively in theaters.