Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Microreview: Blue Beetle

Family bonds are stronger than corporations—try telling that to Warner Brothers

Writing about Blue Beetle, I can’t help but paraphrase Porfirio Díaz to describe the film: “So far from God, so close to the DCEU.” This film is currently tumbling in the box office due to a combination of the consistently sub-optimal decisions made by Warner Brothers, the ominous pallor of Zack Snyder, and the bewildering variety of misdeeds of Ezra Miller. It is such a shame, I thought as I walked out of the theater, because it’s a far better movie than its regrettable IP companions would merit.

I’ll be the first to admit that in raw storytelling it isn’t the most original; it follows the established beats of many superhero origin movies, perhaps being the most similar to Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie. George Lucas once said: “Don’t avoid the clichés—they’re clichés because they work!” And the result is a film that works. The CGI is good, the action is good, and overall it is an enjoyable experience.

What is the most innovative and interesting aspect of the film is its portrayal of family. All too often, family in superhero stories is an act of fridging, like Uncle Ben or Thomas and Martha Wayne; or exile, like that of Kal-El from Krypton, or abduction, like that of Peter Quill. Here, to the film's benefit, the family of Jaime Reyes, the titular superhero, is fully involved in the story from the beginning. Jaime has greatness thrust upon him in the presence of his entire family, three generations living in a single house.

That family is Mexican-American, and it feels fitting that a superhero from a culture not beholden to the stultifying individualism of white America would have a much more communal plotline. Family matters in this movie, each member is fully fleshed out, and they feel like a real family. This is bolstered by how unapologetically Mexican-American they are, with their culture taking center stage. A striking example of this is the scene where Jaime first sees himself in his suit in the reflection of the glass covering an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The idea here is that the ‘superhero,’ so often portrayed as a Christ figure, becomes Mexican in the way that Our Lady of Guadalupe represents Christianity becoming Mexican.

It is in this clear and proud revelry in its Mexican heritage that Blue Beetle shows again what Black Panther and Shang-Chi showed, that diversity in superhero films is something worth fighting for. There’s plenty of moral reasons to do it, but there’s a narrative one I want to highlight. I am neither Mexican nor Black nor Chinese; my father is a white American and my mother is Filipina, but I found the protagonists in all these films to feel more real, in some way, than many white superhero film protagonists, and that’s because these films make a big deal out of heritage. The typical white male superhero is portrayed as a (white) everyman, someone who could be anyone, and in doing so, doesn’t feel like anyone real (it’s Magneto's strong grounding in real history that makes him such a compelling character to me). Real people have heritages, cultural backgrounds. Jaime therefore feels like somebody, rather than anybody, and in that specificity he is more relatable to me.

(Also—I love his grandmother. She’s great and has surprising depths, some of which I wish were given more specificity.)

The film is clearly trying to give a counterpoint to the Reyes family in the villains, as there are some family connections among them. However, it is nowhere nearly as well developed as that of Jaime’s. Sure, they didn’t need nearly as much, but it could have been fleshed out better, especially given that one of them is purported to have Brazilian ancestry like the actress who plays her, Bruna Marquezine. There could have been a stronger statement about how, to quote Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I ended Blue Beetle wishing that the Reyes family were my own. It’s striking that a superhero movie would make me feel this way, given how individualist the genre can be. It’s so human, so wholesome, even when confronted with alien technology and malicious corporations. It is a film that deserved so much better than it did, and a better company behind it.

Highlights: Great family dynamic, especially the grandmother.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.