Saturday, March 9, 2024

DCEU Watch: Blue Beetle (2023)

Watched:  03/08/2024
Format:  Max
Viewing:  First
Director:  Angel Manuel Soto
Selection:  Me

I was a reader of the Bwah-Ha-Ha era of Justice League and Justice League International when I got into comics, and had an affinity for Ted Kord as Blue Beetle, perhaps even more than his pal in the title, Booster Gold, who I liked just fine (and I'll read Booster solo stuff from time to time).  But the Blue Beetle of the eponymous film is not Ted, but a Blue Beetle I came to like quite a lot back in the 00's via comics, starting with his Infinite Crisis appearances and then into his own title.  

And, so, Jaime Reyes is probably the last character DC spawned from a big crossover event that has received any traction over the longterm.  Or, possibly, one of the last new characters created by DC to last and carry their own title from time-to-time.  And appear in non-comics media enough to get recognized.

As a plug, the Blue Beetle comics written by John Rogers are phenomenal, and I highly recommend them.

Our version of Blue Beetle here is a recent college grad, who is returning to his family after getting his diploma.  He swiftly learns things are bad at home - the rent went up, they lost the family garage, and Dad recently had a heart-attack.  Plus, it's indicated, he's wildly in debt thanks to student loans.

A chance meeting gets him in front of Jenny Kord, the daughter of the missing Ted Kord, whose aunt, Susan Sarandon, is running the family company - a successful weapons manufacturer.  Jenny hands off a "scarab" to Jaime, getting it away from her aunt.  The scarab merges with Jaime and he gains a sort of super-suit/ AI package that enables him to materialize any weapon he can think of.  And fly and stuff.

The film cherry picks what it wants to use from the comics, twists quite a bit to tell a different story, which I have no problem with, in principle.  At it's core, it keeps the idea that Jaime was maybe a bit of an indecisive kid, but he's surrounded by a loving, working class family.  And that's really what the movie leans into - what if, instead of a superhero being an orphan, they're granted powers while being surrounded by a normal, functioning family, faults and all?  

And, of course, despite the fact this country is massively Latino, has a huge Latino readership and creative talent pool, comics haven't been great about developing Latino and Latina characters.  This, I have never really understood - until I see the comment section on any comics social media.  And, hoo boy, racism.  But Jaime has been a Latino character that's stuck around, and the title has not been about his heritage so much as it takes place in a Latino family and space.  

I'm a boring white guy, but I'm also from Texas, and originally the comics were set in El Paso, which is a fascinating place to set a comic.  You have border politics, a porous border with folks flowing back and forth, and your closest neighbor is Los Alamos.*  I don't know El Paso terribly well, but I do know Texas and basically wrap my head around a pre-Trump concept of how migration works.  And all of that was part of the comics.

The movie is set in some weird mish-mash of what seems to be Miami, and still wants to dabble in some of the border stuff.  It's confusing to say the least.  And maybe unnecessary?  I don't want to wade in too deep on this, I am but a bystanding güero and it's not my place to talk about how others feel about this, but it just felt weird and a little off.  

In a weird way, I think this should have been a TV show instead of a movie.  They want to pack so much in there with legacy of Blue Beetle, with a large cast that gets mostly underutilized, and the story is swinging for some pretty big emotional beats it doesn't quite earn - maybe more time to breathe and get us to know who these people are and why we should care would be good.  I hate to say it, but Jaime Reyes is an incredibly boring lead, and I tie it to the fact that the movie needs to get so much information in and needs for you to care so much about his family, everyone but him gets fleshed out.  His job is to not know what's happening for 90% of the runtime of the film, when we *absolutely* know what's happening.  This isn't exactly inspiring or even fun.

I did hear that this was originally intended to go straight to Max, that WB was considering doing straight-to-Max movies for B and C tier characters, but something got changed up: likely that they saw what they spent on this and even a poor box office was better than assuming this would somehow goose subscription rates to Max.**  You can see how they cheaped out here and there, because the story keeps not allowing Jaime to be fully powered.  So you get the guy in his suit, but he's not able to use it for large stretches of the last reel.  So, no (or minimal) VFX.

What's wild is that the movie also takes a last minute dodge into real-life politics and pulls in Reagan, CIA operations in Central America and the legacy of Cold War politics and proxy wars.  This is still a superhero movie and aimed at 13-year-olds, so god forbid they explain any of this, but there it is.  Again - I think this movie needed to be a multi-part series.

They also toss in a version of the multi-generational history of Blue Beetle, including Dan Garrett and Ted Kord, and from that spins out some great stuff.  But also - kinda makes you sometimes wish you were just watching the Ted Kord movie, because his stuff looks way more fun than the actual Scarab stuff.  I mean, Ted isn't even on screen, and the Bug Ship kind of steals the movie?  

Let's be super clear:  this movie exists solidly in the DCEU where superheroes leave a massive bodycount and no one blinks.  I mean, even if BB and Co. themselves don't, by hand. murder all the faceless baddies on the island at the end, THE ISLAND EXPLODES.  Blue Beetle, who keeps saying he's not a killer, did just take part in the death of dozens of people.  And watched another guy drag Susan Sarandon directly into a fire.

The movie also has weird holes in it like:  Jenny owns a goddamn mega-mansion that's sitting empty, and at the end the Reyes' are literally homeless, but no one says "hey, I have an idea!"  Also, the house that burned down doesn't belong to them?  It's all very confusing.  It sounds like Jenny at age 25ish can wipe out Jaime's debt with a blink.  It's the kind of confusing that tells me the production of this thing was a mess and probably had a lot of reshoots or changes on the fly.  

But this is the only movie not starring JLo where you're going to hear Bidi Bidi Bom Bom, so I can't be too mad at it.

In fact, this movie isn't bad.  My frustrations were in wanting *more* of what they were doing, and feeling hemmed in by plot mechanics and runtime.  It's nowhere near great, and I'll forget half of it in a week, but the jokes are good (George Lopez carries a lot of water in this movie as the crazy uncle, and the actor playing Milagro was weirdly maybe the most natural talent in the film and pretty funny.)  I loved what we got of Grandma.  Harvey Guillén is tragically underutlized - that dude is a talent.  A younger me would be crushing on Bruna Marquezine.  

I was delighted at the true-to-comics design of everything, the bold colors, and the sense of fun this movie seemed to herald.  

Gunn said he had plans for Jaime in the new DC movie universe, and maybe it would be from this movie (it won't be).  I'd like to see them go back to high-school aged Jaime.  Bring in Paco and Brenda.  Bring in the Posse, The Reach, etc... and see if you can't have Ted running around.  

*look at a map.  El Paso (and much of West Texas) is weirdly isolated for a major American city.  It's about a ten-hour drive from Austin to El Paso, and you basically drive through countryside dotted by the occasional town before you get there.

**in ten years we're going to laugh hysterically at the lockdown vs post-lockdown models for streaming

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