A ‘last gasp’ for superhero films

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Blue Beetle in action

The new Warner Bros’ DC movie should be full of fresh ideas, but it’s “a pale imitation of other, better films”, writes Nicholas Barber.

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Over the past year, Warner Bros’ DC superhero films seem to have suffered a severe case of Kryptonite poisoning. Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash all crashed and burned at the box office, and it’s not likely that their new offering, Blue Beetle, is going to save the day. It was always a long shot, mind you. Compared to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Blue Beetle is a lesser known, fuzzily defined character: his main claim to fame is that he inspired Nite Owl in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel, Watchmen. But if the Blue Beetle film had had enough fresh ideas, its protagonist’s obscurity might not have been an issue. Unfortunately, the average beetle has more fresh ideas than this one.

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The story begins as Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) returns to his hometown, the futuristic, fictional, and horribly fake-looking Palmera City, having studied for a pre-law degree in Gotham. He doesn’t say whether he met Bruce Wayne while he was at university, but things didn’t go well for his family in the meantime. His dad (Damián Alcázar) is recovering from a heart attack, and the family is about to be kicked out of its cosy barrio house by developers from the evil Kord corporation. Nonetheless, Jaime apparently has no qualms about getting a job as a cleaner for the corporation’s villainous CEO, Victoria (Susan Sarandon), or about flirting with Victoria’s non-villainous niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine). For reasons that aren’t clear, Victoria is obsessed with creating cyborg Robocops with the help of a small extra-terrestrial device called The Scarab. But, much to her annoyance, this shiny metal bug chooses Jaime as its host. After it attaches itself to his spine, he is wrapped in an ugly exoskeleton that allows him to fly, blast people with energy beams, and do various other generic super things.

The one distinguishing feature that Blue Beetle has are its Latin elements

So… you’ve got the alien symbiote from Venom, you’ve got the corporate squabbles over high-tech armour from Iron Man, and you’ve got just about everything else from the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man, who, like Jaime, was a gauche youngster in a creepy-crawly-related super-suit with a female AI voice. Blue Beetle is cheerful and competent enough to pass a rainy afternoon during the school holidays, but it’s all too obviously a pale imitation of other, better films. Sarandon is good value as the blithe baddie, a fairy-tale wicked queen who flashes a twinkly smile as she goes about her nefarious business, but few of the other cast-members have more than a fraction of her charisma. Aside from George Lopez, who is energetically wacky as Jaime’s counter-cultural uncle, most of the actors are so bland that they could be the cast of a spin-off TV show which couldn’t afford to pay the stars of the original film.

The one distinguishing feature that Blue Beetle has are its Latin elements. The key members of its creative team have a Latin background, including its Puerto Rican director, Ángel Manuel Soto. There are even some comments in the screenplay about how Mexican people need their own superhero, and how they’re exploited by white Americans. But don’t imagine that the film’s politics are as challenging or as well integrated as, say, those in Black Panther. For every mention of revolutionary direct action, there is a scene with is a stereotypical trope, so I’m not convinced that the film takes a major step forward in terms of representation.

Blue Beetle is both tediously simple and annoyingly confusing

A bigger problem is that Blue Beetle is both tediously simple and annoyingly confusing. There are no clever twists in a plot that consists of Jaime gaining the powers of The Scarab, and Victoria trying to snatch them from him. Victoria’s scar-faced henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) is a grunting nobody, and the dialogue is made up of speeches explaining situations that everyone within earshot would already know about: again, only Sarandon is capable of making these exposition dumps worth hearing.

Blue Beetle

Director: Ángel Manuel Soto

Cast: Xolo Maridueña, Damián Alcázar, Susan Sarandon, Bruna Marquezine, George Lopez

Run time: 2hr 7m

Release date: 18 August

And yet, as rudimentary as the film’s by-the-numbers screenplay might be, it still leaves you scratching your head, because it never tells you where The Scarab came from, why it happens to resemble a beetle, why it bonds with Jaime, or why there was once another superhero called the Blue Beetle who couldn’t activate The Scarab, but who was nonetheless capable of inventing lots of Scarab-like weaponry.

Presumably, the filmmakers were hoping to explore such matters in a sequel or two, but they may have been over-optimistic. James Gunn, the writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, is now masterminding a reboot of DC’s superhero universe, beginning with a Superman film he is directing himself – and Blue Beetle comes across as a relic of the ill-fated pre-Gunn era. Nearly everything about it is stale and derivative, all the way to the teasing extra scenes during and after the end credits. Instead of feeling like the birth of a thrilling new franchise, it feels like the last gasp of a worn-out old one.

★★☆☆☆

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