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‘Blue Beetle’ review: New face, old formula

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Blue Beetle’ review: New face, old formula

BLUE BEETLES. Xolo Maridueña stars in the DC superhero film.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

While ‘Blue Beetle’ may not introduce anything novel to the comic book genre, its hero's connection to a tightly-knit, lovable Latino family stands as its greatest asset

This is a spoiler-free review.

It’s a shame that in light of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, fueled by the studios’ stubborn refusal to negotiate a fair deal, a film like Blue Beetle is unlikely going to garner its cultural moment.

With a primary focus on Latin American talent both in front of and behind the camera, DC’s first Latino superhero origin reflects the character’s rich but often ignored history. It should stand as a landmark moment, comparable to the cultural waves made by Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther.

But, studio incompetence, marred by the twin disappointments of The Flash and Shazam 2, coupled with the cast’s inability to maintain a constant presence in marketing for the film has laid down a challenging array of barriers. It’s gotten so bad that fans (lovingly called the Blue Beetle Battalion) have taken the reins, launching grassroots marketing campaigns for the film. The campaign stems from a deep affection for the character and an understanding of the Latino hero’s importance and real-world impact, seemingly more so than the studios themselves realize.

But, the legacy of the film might end up just being the one Warner Bros. reluctantly had to release in theaters even though they wanted to put it in Max, formerly HBO Max (such a dumb name change). The film undeniably showcases a heartfelt tone, plot ideas worth exploring, and a creative desire to pay tribute to Mexican film and culture. While Blue Beetle may not introduce anything novel to the comic book genre, its hero’s connection to a tightly-knit, lovable Latino family stands as its greatest asset.

Blue Beetle opens with the hunt for the scarab, a power that the villainous Victoria Kord (an underutilized Susan Surandon) wants to exploit for military purposes. Her niece, Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine) is adamant that their family corporation, Kord Industries, remain out of the weapons business, and does her utmost best to enact change from within. This leads her to meet Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), an unemployed fresh grad desperate for a job (same, Jaime, same).

Their unexpected meet-up leads to a tangle of circumstances, as Jaime appears to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, accidentally acquiring the scarab and facing the daunting task of protecting it with his life. The situation is further complicated by his energetic and somewhat overbearing but nonetheless charming family. There is the hilarious Uncle Rudy (George Lopez) and the relatable teen sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo). The down-on-their-luck, but unfailingly supportive father and mother, Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo) and Alberto (Damián Alcázar). And of course, the spotlight-stealing grandma, Nana Reyes (Adriana Barraza).

Together, the Reyes family uncovers the scarab’s strange abilities, including its shape-shifting and biology-altering powers, jettisoning Jaime into the skies and destroying just about every household item and public infrastructure possible. It’s revealed that the scarab acts as a symbiote, and even has a voice of its own (played by Becky G, but voiced by Filipina content creator Inka Magnaye in the Philippine version). Initially reluctant, Jaime grows throughout the film, gradually understanding what it means to be a hero.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the film is how familiar it all seems. The superhero landscape is way too saturated now and finding new ways to interpret age-old stories is few and far between. For instance, Jaime gets pep talks from father and uncle mentors that don’t really provide as much impact, probably due to the weak writing, but also because it is tinged by the sickness of “we’ve seen this before.”

I constantly go back to Across the Spider-Verse because of how well it upends common comic-book tropes. Miles isn’t your typical Spider-Man both on a canonical and meta-textual level, which inadvertently creates a new relationship with the character and the web-crawler’s mythos as a whole. Blue Beetle is a Latino hero with a unique design and boasts a truckload of inventive powers, yes, but the film never attempts to differentiate him, opting for more business-friendly, studio-approved superhero story beats. 

An audible groan escaped me when a scene came up that closely resembled a moment from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. In another moment, seeing a hero fumble through their first flight and go on an unfettered rampage downtown, all for a “comedic bit,” left me unmoved; if only The Flash didn’t already obnoxiously do that. Khaji-da, the scarab, converses with Jaime throughout, but the interaction lacks the captivating chemistry found between heroes like Spider-Man and Venom and their voiceover sidekicks.

What was special about this film, though, is the tenderness of the Reyes family. They both inform and cultivate Jaime’s heroism in meaningful ways that should be more prevalent in films intrinsically tied with culture and community like this one. Their interactions at the dinner table are, by far, my favorite, leading to the film’s best comedic bits. These interactions also elevate other characters like Jenny, making them more interesting just by proximity (Susan Sarandon never interacting with this family is such a missed opportunity).

Then, there’s the case of the villains. Sarandon performs ably but seems present in spirit just for a paycheck. In contrast, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), Kord’s cybernetically enhanced muscle, drew me in with a backstory unveiled only in the final act. Though the film hinted at this, more early screen time would have been welcome. His story arc, defining his villainous ways, outshines the corporate slug of Sarandon’s character

The romance between Jaime and Jenny was genuinely engaging, offering a delightful reverse-play on the Maria Mercedes and María la del Barrio telenovela theme of a poor woman falling in love with a rich Mexican guy. Furthermore, the lively exchanges between Jaime and her sister Milagro provide the right mix of disarray and affection, aptly reflecting a typical sibling relationship.

The action in the film is inconsistent, with an overreliance on CGI that’s blatantly apparent in most scenes. Still, credit must be given to the crew for fully committing and providing Blue Beetle with an actual physical suit in several scenes (a surprising rarity these days). At times, it seemed the film could have been more visually striking if animated. The images of a futuristic Palmera City, with its contemporary structures and bright neon signs, never truly shine, as they’re either hidden in the background or absent from the ground-level scenes.

Nonetheless, my curiosity about Blue Beetle is piqued, despite still lacking a full understanding of the character. The boundaries and restrictions of his powers are yet to be defined and I’m unclear as to how he fits in a world already littered with super-powered individuals. I’m also intrigued to learn how Jaime’s hero status is recognized within the extensive Latino community, rather than solely among his immediate family. It’s why Blue Beetle should still be featured in future installments (ideally in a post-strike era), instead of being lost in an expanded universe, only to be remembered by 2029. –

“Blue Beetle” is now showing in Philippine cinemas

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.