You can call the DC superhero movies a lot of things, but “consistent” isn’t one of them. Even the intentionally interconnected films of the DC Extended Universe vary wildly and unpredictably in quality, with instant classics like “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!” followed up by giant misfires like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (and those were from the same filmmakers).
So after “The Flash” turned out be a historic disaster on many levels, you could be forgiven for wanting give up on this mixed bag of a franchise as-is and wait patiently for the next reboot. Or, failing that, the next-next reboot, because if there’s one thing DC loves it’s completely redoing a superhero universe, over and over again in every medium.
But that’s a pretty rotten state of mind with which to enter a theater showing “Blue Beetle,” which is a delightful and satisfying superhero origin story if I’ve ever seen one. Tucked safely away from most of the cinematic universe shenanigans, “Blue Beetle” is a self-contained and smartly crafted film that ranks among the DCEU’s very best. Even though, admittedly, that doesn’t say nearly as much as it ought to.
“Blue Beetle” stars Xolo Maridueña (“Cobra Kai”) is Jaime Reyes, the first member of his immigrant family to graduate from college, who comes home and learns that his father’s business has collapsed, they’re about to lose their house, and his dad had a heart attack. (You half expect the family to start running the old riff from “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and tell Jaime his dog got run over, his goldfish was eaten by the cat, and the cat choked on the goldfish.)
Drowning in student loan debt and willing to do anything to take care of his family, Jaime takes a job with his sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo, “Hocus Pocus 2”), cleaning the house of billionaire Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). Victoria is developing a new weapons system called the OMAC, “The One-Man Army Corps,” that will turn soldiers into deadly Iron Man-types. To complete it she needs a piece of alien technology called The Scarab.
Victoria’s niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine, “Maldivas”), is appalled by Victoria’s scheme and steals The Scarab, entrusting it to her new acquaintance, Jaime, who Victoria just fired because he tried to do something nice. Jenny makes him promise not to open the fast food box its hidden in — and kudos to everyone who resisted the urge to make that an excuse for insufferable product placement — but Jaime’s family made no such promises, and before long he’s writhing in agony on their kitchen floor while alien machinery worms its way into his body, transforming him into a weapon of mass destruction while everyone he loves screams.
It should be horrifying, and I suppose to Jaime’s family it is, but instead it’s kind of adorable. So many superheroes try to keep their families separate from their dangerous life but Jaime never has that option. All his weird adventures take place right in the middle of his family unit, where nothing he does looks cool, and every thing he does has unexpected consequences.
Now, Jaime has the voice of an alien weapon in his head (voiced by singer Becky G). His Uncle Rudy (George Lopez) keeps shouting conspiracy theories, his sister won’t stop snarking at him, his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo, “Euphoria”) won’t stop worrying, his saintly father Alberto (Damián Alcázar, “The Mighty Victoria”) struggles to keep their family strong, and Jaime’s grandmother Nana (Adriana Barraza, “We Can Be Heroes”) seems a little out of it most of the time but has some big secrets. Again, it’d all be annoying if it wasn’t completely charming.
It sounds complicated, but it’s the most natural thing in the world: “Blue Beetle” isn’t a film about Jaime Reyes, it’s a film about the whole Reyes clan. And while we’re at it, it’s a film about the fractured Kord family. Jenny’s despicable, racist, fascist aunt wields her wealth and power like a mad king, and her father — who comic fans know as the previous Blue Beetle (technically he was the second Blue Beetle, but that’s long and complicated and let’s not get into it now) — went missing years ago, so just being in close proximity to the Reyeses is having a life-changing effect on her.
Jaime has to master his newfound abilities — a suit with a mind of its own that can make any kind of weapon — while fighting Victoria Kord’s deadly henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo, “Cold Pursuit”), and exploring the history of The Scarab. Along the way, Jaime and his family discover resilience and strength that, frankly, they always knew they had but it’s a pleasant surprise to discover how awesome they are from our vantage point in the audience.
It takes a long time to describe the plot of “Blue Beetle,” which is a little ironic since a lot of this origin story is familiar. He’s an underdog learning how to use his powers and it’s funny when they don’t work the way he wants them to. The bad guys are a big corporation in a giant tower trying to create an army of super-soldiers. Even the alien voice in his head is old hat in this genre by now and occasionally makes “Blue Beetle” play out like a family-friendly (and more heterosexual) version of the “Venom” movies.
Still, we don’t call it a “formula” because it doesn’t work. After so many years of increasingly elaborate superhero films that get caught up in crossovers and setting the stage for bigger sequels, it’s refreshing to get back to basics and tell a familiar story in a fresh and exciting way. The cast that director Angel Manuel Soto (“Charm City Kings”) has assembled breathes new life into some of the old clichés, and the memorable retrowave electronic score by Bobby Krlic (“Midsommar”) goes a long way towards giving “Blue Beetle” its distinct personality.
It’s important to remember that while familiarity can breed contempt, it doesn’t have to. Familiarity can also build a family and “Blue Beetle” invites us to join a wonderful one. The script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (“Miss Bala”) centers the Reyeses as a sublime group of people who have overcome many struggles — financial, political, legal, etc. — and emerged stronger for the journey.
That their problems now include alien robot suits is new and weird for them, but they don’t let it destroy what they’ve built. We’re so used to our superheroes trying to inspire us that it’s delightful to watch a film that focuses so heavily on the people who, instead, inspire them. The Reyes family hangs on to their dignity, their sense of humor, their decency, even when faced with oppression from rich racist a-holes and the society they’ve built up specifically to keep everyone like the Reyeses down.
“Blue Beetle” may not reshape the whole superhero concept but it reminds us why this concept works, and why it doesn’t need to be trussed up with bells and whistles and lifelong commitments. Jaime Reyes is a hero worth looking up to, and so is everyone else in his family, whether they kick butt or not. It may or may not be important to the DC franchise moving forward, but who cares? “Blue Beetle” is a cure for the superhero movie blues.
“Blue Beetle” is in theaters August 18.