Even if it weren’t being positioned as one of the first projects introducing audiences to Warner Bros.’ shiny new cinematic universe of films based on DC Comics characters, director Ángel Manuel Soto’s Blue Beetle movie would still have all the makings of a proper franchise starter. Unlike many of the studio’s superhero features from before James Gunn and Peter Safran came on to lead its efforts, Blue Beetle feels like the end result of a creative team thoughtfully executing a plan to replicate certain elements of what’s made rival studio Marvel’s films so successful — and not just Warner Bros. clumsily trying to play catch-up.
In Blue Beetle and its celebration of Mexican culture, you can plainly see the outsize influence that Marvel’s blockbusters like Black Panther have had on Warner Bros.’ thinking about what makes for a good origin story. But for all the promise Blue Beetle has, it unfolds like such a studied recreation of the hits that have come before it that the movie ends up feeling like an awkward throwback that should have been in theaters a decade ago.
Set in an aggressively neon corner of DC’s multiverse where masked vigilantes don’t seem to be a thing most people regularly think about, Blue Beetle tells the story of how recent college graduate Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) unwittingly becomes a superhero after a chance encounter with a strange bug-like piece of technology that fuses itself to his nervous system.
As the eldest child born to two proud immigrants who upended their lives in Mexico in order to start new futures in the US, Jaime feels a deep obligation to make his entire family proud. Jaime wants his father Alberto (Damián Alcázar) and his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo) to know how much he appreciates everything they’ve done to give him and his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) opportunities to succeed. That love also extends to Jaime’s sewing-obsessed grandmother Nana (Adriana Barraza) and his conspiracy theory-minded uncle Rudy (George Lopez). Even though they all take joy in embarrassing him at every opportunity they get, he’s able to take it in stride because he understands that’s just how his family expresses affection.
Whereas you could usually expect the civilian loved ones of a fledgling hero in the making to recede into the background as this kind of movie’s focus turns toward the fantastic, Blue Beetle pulls the other Reyeses even closer to Jaime as its story kicks into gear. It’s an interesting choice that’s meant to make Jaime’s transformation into the Blue Beetle feel distinct from other superhero movie narratives where young people are whisked away from everything they know while saving the world. It’s also one of the film’s ways of lovingly depicting the Reyeses as the average kind of tight-knit Latino family unit that audiences can recognize and see themselves in.
It’s actually kind of impressive how Blue Beetle manages to frame Jaime’s entire immediate family as his answer to your average superhero’s Guy in the Chair without really feeling like it’s stretching itself too thin by sending them all off to deal with different subplots. But that feat is somewhat undercut by the way that Blue Beetle uses much of its (thankfully breezy) two-hour runtime to tell a tale so rote and by the numbers that it feels like it’s mostly trying to play to younger theatergoers who just haven’t seen all that many of these types of movies yet.
In stark contrast to the Reyes family and the strong performances that bring their novel on-screen dynamic to life, Blue Beetle’s power-hungry villain Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) and her rebellious niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine) are written with a noted lack of depth that leaves neither actor with all that much to sink their teeth into.
Though Blue Beetle brings all of its players together with an action-packed plot that puts Jaime forth as the one person capable of stopping Victoria — a war profiteer whose casual racism is embodied in her dark relationship with a man known as Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) — from becoming a global threat, it does so in a way that feels surprisingly dated.
There’s a lot about Blue Beetle that makes it seem like a well-polished relic from the bygone era of comic book films when Halle Berry was still doing double duty as Catwoman and Storm. The movie’s cheesy sense of humor and its whiz-bang action sequences — which put Jaime in the passenger’s seat as the Blue Beetle suit’s built-in artificial intelligence Khaji Da (Becky G) takes over his body — may delight kids and passionate comic book fans who are just hyped to see their favorite character in live action. But viewers hoping to get a taste of the new and improved approach to telling DC stories that Gunn and company have insisted DC Studios is committed to are likely to find Blue Beetle rather lacking despite all of its heart.
Viewers might be intrigued to see just what all Blue Beetle has to say and tease about the future that Warner Bros. and DC are cooking up for other heroes who, one imagines, Maridueña’s Jaime will end up meeting at some point in the near future. But by the time Blue Beetle’s end credits start rolling ahead of a pretty predictable mid-credits teaser, there’s just as solid a chance you’ll find yourself thinking that it would have been more memorable had Warner Bros. not taken so long to get it into theaters.
Blue Beetle is in theaters on August 18th.