Thursday, December 28, 2023

He was like Superman for Metropolis or the Flash for Central City, just maybe not as good


Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto
Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer

Spoilers: moderate

Blue Beetle
 has one thing, almost literally the one thing, going for it, which is Xolo Maridueña.  I have always been, since becoming acquainted with the young actor, a fan.  He's certainly got at least the potential for leading man screen presence (Blue Beetle even almost gets him there, despite providing the unsteadiest possible foundation); more importantly than that, he's naturally great at a strain of comedy that unfortunately doesn't get recognized more often as requiring talent, the less-common subtype of straight man who isn't superior to the comedy happening to and around him, but is more affably and amusingly perplexed, which in its most basic form would find him standing in physical proximity to idiots and expressing confusion over whatever insane tangent they've taken.  So, yeah, he should be perfect for this interpretation of Jaime Reyes, the young man who took on the legacy mantle of DC Comics' Blue Beetle, and whose film likewise requires him to spend most of its runtime standing in physical proximity to idiots and being confused.  I suppose I've even implied he is perfectI think the movie would be even worse without himbut of course all it ever accomplishes with Maridueña is making me think of his TV show, Cobra Kai, and how I would rather be watching Cobra Kai, or writing about Cobra Kai, or looking at a poster for Cobra Kai for 128 straight minutes, the runtime of this movie.

More than that, then, it will make you angry at Blue Beetle for the narrowness of its conception: for if you're casting Xolo Maridueña as Jaime Reyes, then that means you've seen Cobra Kai, and if you've seen Cobra Kai, and you have this script for Blue Beetle in your hands, then you send it back immediately for re-development, because over three great seasons and two semi-pointless but entertaining ones, Cobra Kai has already mapped out, with rather shocking fidelity, how you might go about telling a very nice story about the origin of the third Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes, and his whole deal, that incorporates the second Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, and his whole deal, even in very nice ways that DC, due to what I would probably describe as a series of missteps, didn't have available to them back when they did it in the comics.  The show, as the title indicates, is a distant sequel to the Karate Kids, but it has Justice League International vibe; partly that's because their source materials came out of (somewhat) the same cultural moment, but mostly it's because it's basically Blue Beetle vs. Booster Gold, and once you have Maridueña, I am going to be reminded constantly how little meaningful intergenerational exchange there is here and, also, how much Blue Beetle needs a Booster Gold.  Cobra Kai's characters are not identical to the characters from JLI, or Jaime's much-later vol. 7 of Blue Beetle (is it worth pointing out that Blue Beetle has never been a popular character since the largely-irrelevant first Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett?).  But they do combine for a dynamic that, while in its own idiom, would be pretty much exactly what you'd want out of JLI if you revisited their dynamic thirty years down the line, with a cast suggesting that our hypothetical Warners executive ought to have declared a full-scale raid on Cobra Kai's ensemble: a middle-aged brunet square who's still pretty goofy on the inside; a blond of the same age who thinks he's cool because he never grew up and is goofy as shit on the outside and the inside; and the Latin kid who bounces between these two mentors, who learn as much from him as he does from them, while he kicks various asses and expresses polite, funny confusion over their antics.

Instead, it's kind of like "what if Spider-Man" that barely manages to add a "but if" to that (and more aggravatingly, "what if Spider-Man: Homecoming, specifically," where the "but if" is "it was amazingly worse").  However, to go ahead and address one question/complaint you might've raised earlier, "wait, isn't this movie about a Mexican-American guy? who the fuck is Ted Kord and why should I care?", which I will happily concede is a most reasonable thing to ask, especially if you're younger than 50 and are not fairly deep into actual comic book superhero history.  Yet Blue Beetle makes some astonishing assumptions about its audience in this regard, to the extent it winds up feeling like some legacy sequel to a 90s superhero movie that never existed, with the shadow of Ted Kord permeating the whole film in incredibly weird, incredibly unsuccessful ways.  The villain is Ted Kord's sister.  The plot revolves around the governance of his corporation.  The love interest is his daughter.  His secret hideout is treated with the reverence one would have accorded the discovery of Troy.  His legacy gear gets used in a way that anticipates a whole theater full of fist-pumping "YEAHS" coming out of an audience from an alternate dimension, though in the one we live in I think the very best you could expect out of any normal person would be that they could, conceivably, recognize the similarities to Nite Owl's stuff in Watchmen, though it would not likewise be fair to expect them to know why these similarities exist.  In the end, his voice is heard during a mid-credits sequence that wants you to get real, real excited for the next Blue Beetle, which, due to this Blue Beetle's extremely poor box office performance, is very unlikely to ever exist.  Blue Beetle is a movie that made me ask, "who the fuck is Ted Kord and why should I care?", and as those two incredibly inaccessible opening paragraphs comparing Justice League International to Cobra Kai demonstrate, I'm even in the barely-existent niche they're targeting with this.

And as for Jaime Reyes, and who the fuck he is and why, theoretically, we should care, he's a recent college grad in "pre-law"not to the best of my knowledge a real degree (it's barely even a real focus, like pre-med is)and he's just now come back home to Palmera City in what is undeniably Florida, though I do always find the DC Universe's reluctance to explicitly pin itself down geographically charming.  On his return, he finds his familydad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), mom Rocio (Elipidia Carillo), sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), grandmom "Nana" (Adriana Barraza), and uncle Rudy (George Lopez)are in some dire economic straits, and, though presumably intent on law school, he dutifully takes the first, bad job he can get to help out, working as a servile at the mansion of one Victoria Kord (a possibly-never-worse Susan Sarandon, startlingly curious casting for such a Latin-forward movie considering this Jill Stein shill materially helped get Donald Trump elected, something I might not bring up if she weren't so perfunctory and lousy).

He keeps this job for approximately half a workday, however, thanks to interceding in a family argument between his billionaress boss and her billionairess niece, Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), but he leaves enough of an impression on Jenny that she invites him to seek her out at Kord HQ where she can maybe set him up with something.  Unfortunately, this only puts Jaime there on the day that Jenny makes a bold move against her aunt, for the sound reason that Jenny knows that Victoria is out to create a legion of superpowered soldiers out of alien technology and has therefore committed to stealing the key to Victoria's evil scheme, the scarab-shaped artifact we previously saw her and her taciturn henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) acquire after years of search in some half-forgotten corner of the world.  In her desperation, Jenny entrusts the package containing it to an oblivious Jaime.  She tells him not to open it.  But, obviously, he does, and before his family's eyes he's grotesquely transformed into a superbeing who'll naturally earn the title "Blue Beetle," and once he sort of gets control of it, he and his family, especially his anti-establishment uncle Rudy, join forces with an apologetic Jenny to keep Victoria and Carapax from getting their hands on Jaime and sucking his super juices out for their own malign ends.

That's not the worst bones, but they're definitely not terribly exciting bones, and one of the obvious problems with Blue Beetle is, holy God, what ass-numbingly dull supervillainy this isVictoria Kord's entire contribution to the film beyond her brutish plot function is to be irritatingly racist to her other henchman, not actually named Sanchez but that's what she calls him, and golly-gee, that's fascinating (Harvey Guillén), and I guess I should note somewhere that Blue Beetle is one of those movies that's so drearily calculated in its racial dynamics that you can predict with deadening accuracy exactly how its antagonists' character trajectories will work out by holding a sheet of typing paper up to the screen, something it seems for a minute it might be avoiding with Victoria and Carapax, before committing to the most boring version of their relationship possible.  (As it is also nominally a comedy, if it runs out of comedic ideas, as it often does, it will fall back on white people doin' a racism as a nominal joke.  Mostly this is by way of Sarandon, who lets what I guess you'd have to call the "karenness" of the role define her whole performance; but it's not above wedging it in with a thudding lack of natural set-up, because this screenplay does understand, on a frightened, instinctual level, when a scene isn't "doing" anything, and, hey, "Jaime faces nonsensical racist microaggressions from a receptionist" is "something" though I'm not sure it's actually comedic.)  Anyway, Carapax eventually gets powered up into a very clunkily-designed, color-swapped, more-angular version of Blue Beetle (he's an "OMAC," a Jack Kirby concept run through multiple meatgrinders), so that at its maximum setting, Blue Beetle's supervillainy is just a lackluster version of the "evil mirror image" thing that I thought people, even the most unimaginative studio executives, all got tired of years back, and we're usually operating well below this maximum setting, with Trujillo mandated to spit out utter [villain dialogue] placeholders like "YOUR LOVE FOR YOUR FAMILY IS YOUR WEAKNESS," completely unprompted by anything Jaime has said or done, and which still might land slightly better if Carapax had any idea Jaime had a family, let alone an outsized love for them, at this point in the story.

But Blue Beetle is at least as bad at superheroism, which is worse, since you can kind of sort of get away with hyper-generic villains if your movie is actually about establishing a fun character who might go on to have more interesting adventures later.  An enormous part of the problem is that this movie spends a really long portion of its runtime with Jaime not meaningfully being the Blue Beetle.  I don't mean "he's not in costume," which isn't necessarily a sin in this case anyway (the Blue Beetle III togs are a sweet piece of design on the page, but Blue Beetle doesn't make the best argument for their translation to live-action).  I mean he's literally not being the Blue Beetle.

This is where the "like Spider-Man: Homecoming" part comes in, with Jaime spending an inordinate amount of time effectively being ridden by "the Blue Beetle," which is to say the space parasite thing that gives him his powers but whose personality only ever manifests as a droning, flat digital assistant voice on the soundtrack (Becky G).  So we can't have that getting dangerous and being interesting either (this is the "worse than Spider-Man: Homecoming" part, insofar as at least in that movie Peter Parker was riding the Spider-armor rather than the other way around, and it provided insight into his relationship with Tony Stark).  Said digital assistant is even supposed to be enough of "a character" that it gets a "character arc" of its own, which like all the character arcs in Blue Beetle means, in practice, "the beginning and the end of one."  Well, this one concerns whether Jaime and/or the scarab is a killer, and its beginning and its end is separated by an hour and a half of screenplay where it's not brought up again.  Of course, in the meantime you'll have to suspend your disbelief a bit to accept that Blue Beetle hasn't already killed a score of faceless corporate paramilitary guys during the movie's endless-feeling, hallway-bound, martial-arts-as-CGI sequences, which I don't suppose were designed to reinforce how little Jaime there is to the Blue Beetle, though this is what they do.  And it's not great shakes when Jaime is "meaningfully" the Blue Beetle, anyway, as the hero is undercut by a pretty unengaging concept that amounts to basically nothing besides an arsenal of glowy-blue alien weapons the scarab conjures up, which do one of two things, being guns or being swords.  This and the "generic megacorp villainy" has the further effect of situating this character completely within science fiction, so that the best scene in the movieby I don't even know how big a marginfalls largely flat, throwing us into a mystical experience that isn't really part of this movie's worldview.

This is all pretty painful and pitiful, just a real mess (I'm not even sure I've fully conveyed how low-key ramshackle it is on the level of cause-and-effect plotting, though it's pretty terrible, and requires most everyone in it to be kind of an idiot throughout in order to progress to the next scene).  But maybe it's not altogether deadly, not the kind of thing that prompts "worst superhero movie ever*?" interrogations. It's Blue Beetle's bid at actual noveltytantamount to the movie's whole justification for itselfthat completely torpedoes it.  And that sucks, because I would like to like it; this is the more "Spider-Man, but if" part and the "but if," not to be snarky about it now, is "but if he had a big family who all learned immediately that he was Spider-Man."  That is a new idea.  It's an idea that, in this execution, emphasizes the hell out of why superhero narratives traditionally don't do this.  The danger would be stripping out the dramatic usefulness of supporting characters, and the possibility of a sense of wonder in the revelation of identity (very much akin, in fact, to the same danger inherent to "Blue Beetle is actually an alien who makes all the tactical decisions for its host"), and I also just remembered the MCU's take on Spider-Man already features a version of this idea, but let's press on: the Reyes family doesn't rise to the level of meeting this danger.  They practically don't react, certainly in no way consonant with "a miraculous yet awe-inspiring and even terrifying thing has happened to our boy."  Like, I'm not sure at this point if they manage to go the whole scene of Jaime being transmogrified into an alien battledroid by way of body horror without practically turning to the audience to make a joke.  But by the time he gets back, they're making jokes about Jaime's dick being out andI honestly can't believe thisits size ("it's cold!"), and, just... no?

It's one thing for the Reyeses to individually represent one-note comic relief, though it's true that not all of them have one note; it's even one thing for them to be annoying, which is true of most of them most of the time, and there's a tendency to merge into a buzzing noise on the soundtrack (there's literally one actual good joke in the movie, which incidentally involves Rudy, but it relies exclusively upon Maridueña handling an awkward romantic moment with strong timing).  But the deep, abiding unseriousness with which they relate to this horror, and with which they treat the life-and-death stakes of the plot (until they get thrust into overborne drama that now can't be anything but a freakish tonal whiplash on the way into it and on the way out), means Blue Beetle starts out in a deep hole, and it's not like anything else here was going to pull it up.  The action is bad, pewy-pewy and tedious and at best involving two ugly action figures being smacked together, whereas Pawel Pogorzelski has made it onto my shortlist for the year's worst cinematography thanks to the hideous color grading in the daytime exteriors that's going for "hot, sultry, Latin or whatever, right?" and winds up with "a robot's pee," which is on top of the hideous color grading in the homey interiors that make the Reyes family's faces the same color as their walls, which itself is on top of the airy Kord building, lurching as far away from everything else as possible while still being punitively digital about it, so it could honestly be a real building that he's merely managed to make look like bad CGI.  (Though I guess Pogorzelski can't be blamed for director Ángel Manuel Soto's insistence on a garish colorfulness that makes every other scene in the film look like baby's first neon lighting.  The best you can ever say about Blue Beetle is that it looks bad deliberately, rather than just the result of the factory spitting it out that way like with a Marvel movie.)  And then it ends, on another joke about Jaime's dick, when it has perfect access to a nice, even halfway-sexy joke about how Jaime always loses his clothes when he transforms into the Blue Beetle.  Except I think the screenplay actually forgot about that, which at this point came as no surprise at all.

Score: 3/10

*Of the major (that is, Disney or Warners) efforts of the modern era, though, Spider-Man: No Way Home is still the one to beat.  And there's always Fantastic Four.

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