Blue Beetle Review: The Greatest Mexican-American Hero

Look at what’s happened to Jaime…he can’t believe it himself! Suddenly he’s on top of the world; should have been somebody else…

Those with long enough memories will recall The Greatest American Hero, that early ’80s TV series about an alien super-suit bestowed upon a meek, hippie-ish schoolteacher named Ralph who promptly loses the instructions. At the time, the silliness of the spandex suit was an extra layer of discomfort for Ralph alongside powers he couldn’t properly control, even with the assistance of a trigger-happy CIA agent who had hoped the suit would be for him instead.

Believe It or Not…

Various attempts to reboot the series either for the big or small screen have faltered over the years, but Blue Beetle now renders them completely unnecessary. Jaime Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) may not be a teacher, but he’s the first college graduate in a family of mostly undocumented immigrants. All he wants to do is work hard and make enough money so that his family never has to worry about home or job security again, but he’s not the type to crave a living super-weapon from outer space. That honor goes to cutthroat CEO Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), who wants to use the alien tech to power her own arsenal for sale to the highest bidder.

Naturally, the alien suit, being intelligent and possessing the voice of Becky G, chooses Jaime instead. And since we’re long past spandex in superhero designs, the discomfort element here comes from the suit being an intrusive body symbiote that burns off all of Jaime’s regular clothes when it emerges. Still, believe it or not, he’s walking on air. And not in control.

Cut the Kord?

Comics fans will recognize the Kord name as belonging to a completely different, previous Blue Beetle who had no powers, but rather an arsenal of beetle-themed gadgets funded from his day job as an eccentric billionaire. It doesn’t take long for the movie to mention him also – the name “Ted Kord” appears in a newspaper headline during the opening credits. But in this reality, he was a hero from a previous generation, long since vanished.

Speaking of this reality, nothing ties Blue Beetle to any particular iteration of the DC Universe. No stars from other movies make cameos. All we know is that Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor exist, but they could just as easily be Michael Keaton, Nicolas Cage, and Gene Hackman as anybody else. The movie’s overall comedic tone and toilet humor match James Gunn‘s style more than Zack Snyder‘s, but a surprisingly dark turn in the third act would feel right at home in the “murder-verse.” (Jaime doesn’t kill, but his loved ones apparently have no such qualms.)

The timeline, however, does suggest that Batman basically ripped off the senior Blue Beetle’s style, while admittedly improving on the concept. In comics, the very first Blue Beetle (a.k.a. Dan Garret) and Batman debuted the same year, but Bruce Wayne would have to be older than Ben Affleck to be a contemporary of this Kord.

City, Slicker?

Blue Beetle takes place in the fictional Palmera City, which features an “El Paso Street” and “Edge Keys” neighborhood just so we’re clear which real-life places it’s based on. Divided by water, the city on one side features shining skyscrapers projecting neon logos – the other is where most of the Latino community lives. Airport ads cheerfully tout the city as having the best tax breaks for corporations, and Kord Industries has evidently taken advantage of that, becoming ruthless for-profit landlords and war profiteers. Their current project is a form of cyber-soldier named OMAC, which will be a familiar name to DC fans, albeit with an altered origin story.

It’s refreshing to see a DC movie with smaller stakes – the larger world won’t care if a ruthless industrialist gets her magic alien bug back from a poor local family, but the Reyes family very much does. Like Shazam, Blue Beetle leans heavily on the joys and difficulties of having a large family, but after drawing down the viewer’s defenses with humor, does go to darker places. Who would have guessed that Reagan-era policy in Central America would factor into the villain’s origin story, or that the insurgent-training School of the Americas would be name-checked? (It still operates, now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC – look it up!) Sarandon, a political activist since the ’80s, might have taken the role because of these aspects – it certainly wasn’t because the part was good, as she mostly spouts villain cliches like, “Don’t get in my way!”

Make El Chapulin Colorado Proud

If Blue Beetle encourages viewers to look into the real history behind the references, it could potentially do more good than any other DC movie. That’s not what most will take away from it, though. It’s also loaded with Mexican pop-culture references — a refreshing change from the same old American ones in every movie — and even features telenovela star Bruna Marquezine as Jenny, Ted Kord’s daughter and Jaime’s love interest. Amid longtime character actors like Damian Alacazar as Jaime’s dad and George Lopez as his conspiracy-loving uncle, Hocus Pocus 2‘s Belissa Escobedo makes the biggest impression as Jaime’s sister Milagro (aka Milly). Like the best friend in every rom-com, her quirks help balance out a blander hero. Not that Mariduena’s bad by any means, but straight-arrow characters tend to be inherently less compelling.

Having the main family be Mexican changes the shorthand of some character traits. If this were a Southern white family, we might make certain assumptions about a gun-nut grandma or a conspiracy theorist building signal jammers in his basement. Here, those archetypes get turned on their heads, much like Jaime when the suit’s AI takes control. And precisely because of the hardship the family went through to get to America, Dad’s advice to live in the moment and see life as a journey feels less like a cliché and more like earned wisdom. The movie overall may be a relatively light-hearted installment in the larger DC movie picture, but in the moments where it does go deep, it lays down roots.

Grade: 3/5