On the Screen: ‘Blue Beetle’ is fun, but offers little new

A new superhero film needs to be great to earn attention

There are a lot of superhero movies. At this point around a half dozen hit theaters each year, and they’ve been increasingly spilling out into television offerings as well. With no shortage of computer-effects heavy heroics to choose from, good films can and will get lost in the shuffle — a new superhero film needs to be great to earn attention.

“Blue Beetle,” the latest DC Comics superhero film, falls prey to that quandary. Had it been released a decade ago, it would have been a standout. Today, it offers little that audiences haven’t already seen.

The film follows Jaime Reyes, played by “Cobra Kai” star Xolo Maridueña. He recently graduated from college and returned to fictional Palmera City — seemingly inspired by Miami, Florida. Through a set of circumstances that gently push the limits of disbelief, he finds himself exposed to a sentient alien artifact that selects him as a host and transforms him into the Blue Beetle, a superhero that can fly, produce force fields, and generate weaponry — “anything you can imagine, I can create.”

“Blue Beetle” is fun and functional, an origin story that sticks to the exact formula that rival Marvel Studios used for well over a decade to build a cast of characters who were each destined for greater things. In many ways, it stands head and shoulders above many of the letdowns that have characterized the DC Extended Universe — which is set to be thrown out entirely next year.

The core cast breathe life into the film in almost every scene. The film stars and centers Latino actors — this is the first superhero film led by that culture in a way that feels reminiscent of the refreshing representation seen in 2017’s “Black Panther.”

Maridueña’s Jaime and the other members of his family deliver performances far stronger than the film they’re in. Each member of that supporting cast makes a strong impression, especially Belissa Escobedo as Jaime’s younger sister, Milagro, and George Lopez as his weird uncle, Rudy. In these characters, the film comes to life — even as it explores well-trod themes of family.

That unique identity fails to ring through in the film’s story and especially in its action. Sequences feel like they’ve been pulled from other films, rather than taking advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by the characters and the setting.

Everything to do with the villains is uninteresting. Susan Sarandon’s performance is bizarre, her relationships to the characters around her nonsensical. Her plan is to make an army of evil, red, Blue Beetles, which fails to compel. A climactic final battle is less interesting when the enemy Jaime is fighting has the exact same power set as him — but in red. That “mirror match” third act problem isn’t unique to “Blue Beetle,” it’s been an issue bizarrely plaguing superhero origin films since the mid-2000s.

Though imperfect, “Blue Beetle” is good, elevated greatly by charming characters. I had fun in the theater, I laughed and I cried. The film just never manages to feel quite as novel as it ought to, especially for a film plainly and excitingly breaking new ground in the genre for Latino representation.

This isn’t an exciting creative step forward for a genre struggling to prove its worth in a difficult entertainment landscape — it’s just another dart thrown at the wall to see what sticks. I hope that what sticks is Maridueña’s Jaime and his family — who are more than worth a sophomore outing.

“Blue Beetle” will be playing this weekend at Homer Theatre. Check showtimes at www.homertheatre.com.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.