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‘Blue Beetle’ Would Have Been Great 20 Years Ago
And no, "superhero fatigue" has not arrived. The scarcity mentality has faded.
(I’ll keep the spoilers minimal, but read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)
I feel bad for Blue Beetle. It’s a solidly entertaining, competent movie that has the misfortune of following so many years of quality superhero films.
Blue Beetle sticks to the established formula of superhero origin movies without providing enough of its own special flair. It comes close at times, though, and it does a lot right.
Xolo Maridueña is perfectly cast as Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle. He brings the same highly likable good-kid energy that he’s successfully brought to Cobra Kai for several seasons. (He and his character are both 22, so maybe he’s not a kid anymore, but still a very young adult.)
The focus on family works in the movie’s favor, and Blue Beetle takes things a step further than most by fully involving Jaime’s family in the action. (The Shazam! movies also had a strong family focus, though it played out in a different way.) This is where the movie had the best opportunity to distinguish itself, but it falls slightly short.
Each family member fits into a standard role: the loving parents, the comically tough grandmother, the nutty uncle, and the wisecracking sister. The nutty uncle, Rudy (George Lopez), gets the most development, and they’re all a fun bunch who work great as an ensemble. They just feel a tad too cartoony at times. If this were a television or streaming series, they all might have received sufficient development over the course of a season. Short seasons of big-budget television may be a better fit for superheroes generally, as episodes of TV are closer to issues of comic books and can better balance smaller and bigger stories (like Buffy and Veronica Mars did in their best seasons).
Blue Beetle also creates a nice sense of history. As comic book readers know, Jaime is the third guy to become the Blue Beetle. And in the world of this movie, he’s also the third. We don’t meet Dan Garrett or Ted Kord, but it’s clear that they were both previously active as Blue Beetles, and that past affects this present.
Ted becomes an off-screen character of sorts, and the hints of how his Blue Beetle operated got me wishing I was watching a movie about him instead. To be fair, I’m biased since Ted Kord was the Blue Beetle when I started reading comics.
This brings me to the final major win: No multiverse shenanigans. Establishing previous versions of a superhero identity helps build the world, laying a solid foundation of firm, immutable history. Introducing alternate-reality versions of a superhero coats the world with a no-stick cooking spray. Though sometimes fun, it’s slippery, and it can quickly spiral out of control and render the characters disposable.
Blue Beetle’s main weakness is the same one that early Marvel Cinematic Universe movies had—an uninteresting main villain. Susan Sarandon plays the role well, but Victoria Kord is written as purely evil. There’s some attempt to create a smidgen of sympathy for her, but her character and motivations never quite gel. Pure evil can work if the script goes all in on it and creates a scenery-chewing, larger-than-life villain, but the movie doesn’t give her that either. She’s too human to be that evil, and too evil to be that human.
The secondary villain, Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), works better. The movie doesn’t quite have enough time to give him the attention he needs, but he’s clearly got a more compelling backstory.
And while Jaime is a never-kill superhero (as he should be), his family doesn’t share those scruples. This creates an awkward situation in which only the main villains’ lives are worth sparing, but those faceless henchmen? Eh, who cares about them, right? In the word of the imitable John McLaughlin: Wrong!
Then there’s the issue of masks. This Blue Beetle wears a full-face mask, the sort that works great in comic books but creates problems in live-action movies. Even back when Tobey Maguire was playing Spider-Man, they kept needing to contrive reasons for his mask to come off so the actor could actually act. Same thing with Iron Man’s helmet, though they also figured out an effective way to repeatedly peek behind the helmet and see Robert Downey Jr.’s whole face while Tony Stark was operating the suit. The exception is Deadpool—Ryan Reynolds plays him as a live-action cartoon anyway, so the full-face mask enhances the intended effect.
Here, whenever Xolo Maridueña’s face is completely covered up as the Blue Beetle, the movie suffers for it. Maridueña is a guy you can easily root for, but his humanity gets smothered beneath the effects. Trujillo is in the same boat, and when the two fight, it’s like watching two video game characters duke it out.
Still, these flaws would have been more excusable back when we had seen fewer good superhero movies. Now, the standards are higher and the viewing options are greater, so the flaws become more noticeable.
Entertainment pundits have been salivating at the chance to declare official “superhero fatigue” since 2007 or so. I don’t think there will ever truly be superhero fatigue, at least not more so than any other genre. Yes, you as an individual might experience it on and off, but not the bulk of the moviegoing public all at the same time. If the quality becomes consistently mediocre or worse, then people will tune out, but the interest in seeing a good superhero movie will generally persist.
No genre is to everyone’s tastes. I’ve read and enjoyed a few thrillers, but I’ve had my fill of those for a while. Even as thrillers continue to dominate bookshelves, would anyone say I have “thriller fatigue”? But I have been reading superhero comics for decades, and plenty of people have been reading them for even longer. When done right, there’s a special magic in the concept. Superheroes can appeal to all ages. They present a fun, stylized reality and remind us that we can always be better.
But as the options increase, the impulse to see everything decreases. Back in the ’90s, I thought the straight-to-VHS Captain America movie was the only live-action Cap we were ever going to get, so by gosh and by golly, I watched the heck out of that thing. (Blue Beetle is Casablanca compared to that one.)
The scarcity mentality is long gone. These days, there are only so many movies and TV shows we can keep up with. Some will have to be skippable, so anything that appears middling or too familiar will likely be skipped. And any new or new-to-you character will need to work that much harder to get your attention.
The Blue Beetle is new to most people. Even I had never gotten into the Jaime Reyes version. That character was introduced in 2006, when I was already reading too many comics and spending too much money on them. I simply never got around to giving that book a shot, and I was therefore in no hurry to see this movie.
When I first started reading comics, though, the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle was a member of the Justice League, so I developed a soft spot for that character early on. He was never a favorite, but I always liked him. I remember digging through the quarter bins at a flea market when I was 9 or 10 and happily discovering that Ted had a short-lived solo series in the late ’80s. He was like a Batman type, but with more of a down-to-earth Spider-Man persona.
Any movie or TV show featuring that Blue Beetle would have caught my attention, provided it appeared reasonably faithful to the source material. Granted, other people might be familiar primarily with the Jaime Reyes version and would have had no desire to see a movie about the Ted Kord version.
I saw Blue Beetle in a packed theater, which was probably due to Regal Cinemas offering $4 tickets that day. Nevertheless, the audience sounded like they were into the movie. They laughed, they reacted, they applauded. They had a good time. The interest was there, and Blue Beetle delivered. If the movie underperforms, it’s probably because the marketing failed to address three key questions: Who is the Blue Beetle? Why should I bother if DC is about to reboot its movies anyway? And what sets this movie apart from the superhero origin movies I’ve already seen?
There will always be an audience for a good superhero movie. Some viewers will come and go, and anyone might want the occasional break from any particular type of movie. Most people, including me, won’t feel the need to see absolutely everything. But a dedicated fanbase, also including me, will remain curious to see what’s next.
Declaring “superhero fatigue” can easily become an excuse to stop trying harder. Don’t blame the audience if a movie doesn’t succeed.
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