‘Blue Beetle’: DC’s Latino Superhero Wins With a High-Energy, Heartfelt Debut 

By now the formula of superhero franchises is so familiar that a hired director walks in knowing the assignment by heart. So it’s much appreciated when the filmmakers make a sincere attempt at maneuvering around what’s expected by commercial demands to add some real heart and thought. Director Angel Manuel Soto pulls it off with “Blue Beetle,” an entertaining DC entry that is really an endearing Latino parable suited up as a superhero romp. It marks Warner Bros’ first step in departing from everything that has made their comic book universe lag behind Marvel, with James Gunn now running the DC department. Soto’s movie follows the usual patterns of these CGI popcorn escapes, with predictable climaxes and twists, but takes advantage to make a colorful, sincere film about Latino working class characters and even geopolitics.

It all begins with the villain, Victoria (Susan Sarandon), head of Kord Industries. She’s eagerly searching for a blue scarab from outer space that holds particular powers. Cut to the fictional Palmera City, where Mexican-American Jamie Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) is returning home from college where he majored in pre-law. He’s eagerly welcomed home by his family, dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), mom Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) and grandma Nana (Adriana Barraza). There’s also Uncle Rudy Reyes (George Lopez), a paranoiac always on alert for government conspiracies. Economic uncertainty hangs in the air because Alberto had to close up the family auto shop and they might lose the house, as Kord carries out a gentrification push into the mostly working class Latino neighborhood. For Jamie the degree is suddenly not enough and while working with Milagro at a resort owned by Kord, he meets the CEO’s niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine). When she tries to help him get a better job at the company, it all takes a sudden turn and instead, she drops into his hands the coveted blue scarab. A symbiotic process begins, giving Jaime a killer suit, the power to fly and hopefully stop Victoria’s plans.

It’s standard superhero stuff, but done with a joyful, visually fun energy that’s been missing from the usually dour DCU movies. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski (“Midsommar,” “Beau is Afraid”) is a glossy throwback to the ‘90s, while the electronic-driven score by the Haxan Cloak recalls Tangerine Dream or Giorgio Moroder. Soto’s previous film was the underrated “Charm City Kings,” which gave the West Baltimore dirt bike racing scene a mythic feel. Now with a bigger budget, Soto still refuses to turn this into an over-bloated extravaganza. The characters and their world become much more appealing than the cosmic stakes. Soto doesn’t pay lip service to Latino representation but truly celebrates it. We see references to Guillermo Del Toro’s “Cronos” (which might also be an influence on makeup and production design here) or those classic shows so many Latino households have held as standards like Don Francisco’s “Sábado Gigante” and “El Chapulín Colorado.” When Jaime seems to have found a rich girlfriend with Jenny, his family swoon to the idea that it’s a replay of the telenovela “María la del Barrio.” The soundtrack rings true with tracks from artists like Celso Piña. The cast is itself a strong overview of important Latino talent. Elpidia Carrillo made her name in films like Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” “Predator” and Salvador Carrasco’s “The Other Conquest.” Before working in the U.S., Adriana Barraza appeared in notable Mexican films like “Amores Perros.” 

Soto’s efforts go beyond pop cultural references. He and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer also bring in important political commentary and winks. The best comic books and film adaptations have always been smarter than they get credit for. Victoria’s main henchman, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), decked in a super soldier armored suit, is a product of the right-wing death squads trained by the U.S. in Guatemala during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. We also learn that Kord has an island base the company purchased long ago from Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator who ruled Cuba before the revolution. Soto also openly mentions the infamous School of the Americas, where the U.S. has trained some of the region’s most infamous dictators and armies. Not everything Uncle Rudy suspects the government of is off. Filmmakers should be commended when they add such sly references to history rarely discussed into pop entertainment. It also shows they take Latin America seriously as a backdrop. It seamlessly gets weaved into an endearing story that rises above the premise by focusing on themes about family, but without getting unconvincingly corny. 

The Reyes family is written with a wonderful sincerity where they truly feel like a tight unit suddenly overtaken by wild events. We genuinely care for them and so moments of peril punch harder. Jaime’s concerns are real to viewers from any background trying to get by in this economy. He has the degree but the doors of opportunity don’t just magically open, especially in a low-income neighborhood where in the distance, Jaime can see the glistening neon side of the city where the rich live. None of the young people are desperate to get away from home, first because it’s a good family and second, because the economics are cruel. Having the beetle suit with its cool features might also mean new problems, like the government targeting the whole family. It is material you don’t ponder in other DCU movies like “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” or “Man of Steel.” It’s also key to enjoying what otherwise would feel like recycled forays into territory explored by every other costumed adventure. Secret lairs are revealed, with nods at the original Blue Beetle character from 1939, furnished with a giant beetle craft essential to flying out for rescues. Jaime’s costume has a hilariously deadpan voice (Becky G) that eventually learns Latino slang. 

What these superhero movies can never escape is the narrative familiarity that sets in by the third act when it is required that the hero and key villain have a climactic showdown involving larger explosions, brushes with death and someone staring down at you, flames in the background, while aiming some massive weapon at your face. Even during such moments, Soto throws in fresh comedy and sly one-liners (“death to the imperialists!”). Despite the ongoing talk about superhero fatigue setting in, “Blue Beetle” is very enjoyable by doing what it’s supposed to but with new, smarter approaches. If you take away its unique character and deeper points, then yes, it would just be another recyclable DCU throwaway. The cast is full of life, the images pop and there’s just enough teenage hormones raging around as well. As “Barbie” also proved, what matters is that real thought be put into the eye candy. “Blue Beetle” leaves us wanting to see more of the characters and the world they inhabit, while keeping the special effects as backup.

Blue Beetle” releases Aug. 18 in theaters nationwide.