It’s rare for a superhero film to include “down with imperialists!” not just as a punchline, but as a seemingly sincere expression of a key theme or idea. But as of today, that’s exactly what moviegoers can and should expect from the end-of-summer release Blue Beetle, an adaptation of DC Comics’s legacy character (the third to bear that name and/or costume). Though as always with intellectual property, that anti-corporate, anti-gentrification message is somewhat offset by a contrasting, contradictory message: Not all billionaires are bad, just the bitter, sociopathic ones who can be defeated and removed from power.
More importantly, though, Blue Beetle represents the first live-action DC film to centre on a Latino family, beginning with the soon-to-be title character, Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña). Jaime is a recent college grad who returns to his hometown and his loving, welcoming family to bad news: The family’s fortunes have taken a nosedive in his absence, beginning with the loss of his father’s auto-body shape and continuing through the eventual foreclosure of the family home and with it, eviction of the family’s worldly possessions and decades-long memories.
It’s not as bleak as all that, of course. Warner Bros. has a family-oriented comedy-drama with a superhero gloss to sell, so the Reyes family, emblematic of the resilient immigrant families that have given their absolute all for a small slice of the so-called American Dream, remain ever optimistic that future prospects will be so bright they’ll need sunglasses at night. That might be far from their truth, but it keeps them going, and with Jaime, an inveterate dreamer of the good life that awaits all hard-working Americans, there’s only one direction and it is up.
For Jaime, “up” becomes literal as he inadvertently links symbiotically with the Blue Scarab, an alien artifact of unknown origin equipped with an AI, Khaji-Da (Becky G), and a super-suit that envelops Jaime at the first — and sometimes last — sign of physical danger. Acquiring the Blue Scarab and, in turn, becoming the titular superhero, puts Jaime firmly in the sights of Kord Industries’s CEO, Victoria Kord (Oscar winner Susan Sarandon), an unscrupulous corporate supervillain who’s dedicated her personal and professional life to greed and power, the latter through a super-secret super-soldier program, OMAC (One Man Army Corps). To perfect her prototype, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), Victoria needs the Blue Scarab’s alien tech.
Once linked to a sympathetic host, though, the Blue Scarab isn’t easily removed, but that doesn’t stop Victoria from sending waves of henchmen along with Carapax after Jaime and his family: Parents Alberto (Damián Alcázar) and Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), his younger sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), his grandmother, Nana (Adriana Barraza), and his slacker uncle, Rudy (George Lopez). Only Jaime himself, his new, AI-powered super-suit, and Victoria’s earnest, well-intentioned niece Jennifer “Jenny” Kord (Bruna Marquezine), stand the barest glimmer of a chance against Victoria and the might of her corporation.
Unsurprisingly, the stark contrast between the (super) heroes and (super) villains in Blue Beetle makes it a not atypical underdog story. It’s one we’ve seen before, albeit in different iterations. Created in 2006 by the triumvirate of Keith Giffen, John Rodgers, and Cully Hamner, DC’s Blue Beetle drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including but not limited to Spider-Man (teen superhero with teen problems), The Greatest American Hero (Jaime’s initial, halting acclimation to the super-suit), DC’s own Green Lantern character (the scarab chooses Jaime as its host and equips him with thought-based weaponry), and wrapping it up in layered, authentically generated family dynamics.
This new on-screen version of the Blue Beetle also draws from familiar big-screen sources, most notably Iron Man (corporate CEO, AI) and RoboCop (gentrification, military-style pacification) while also grounding said elements with real-world analogs (i.e., the Latino immigrant experience). Remarkably, the director, Ángel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings), and the screenwriter, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala), go even further, adding not just a pointed anti-imperialist sentiment regarding the United States and its meddlesome foreign policy toward Latin America, but cite-checking the infamous School of the Americas, the U.S.-led military training of Latin American dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in anti-humanitarian tactics (and that’s putting it mildly).
Ultimately, though, Blue Beetle reverts back to the tried-and-true superhero template, pitting a superpowered Jaime and his support team against the win-at-all-costs Victoria Kord and her henchmen. Might eventually makes right, neatly lining up Jaime’s powers with the rightness and correctness of his actions. If only the real world worked in a similar fashion. It doesn’t, but at least for Blue Beetle’s two-hour and seven-minute running time, we can pretend it does.
Blue Beetle opens in theatres on Friday, August 18.