24 Lies a Second: Bugs and Features

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Bugs and Features

I expect giving the green light to production on Angel Manuel Soto's Blue Beetle probably seemed like a reasonably good decision at the time. The film only (only!) has a budget just north of $100m, which isn't really exceptional these days, and it's an extension of a known piece of IP in a commercially sound genre. Or it was, back in 2018 when production on the project started; these days mean-spirited individuals are queueing up to do the happy dance on the presumed grave of the superhero movie – particularly the Marvel Studios superhero movie. (Even if this turns out to be true, what exactly do they think, in this, the summer of Barbie, is going to replace it as the dominant force in cinema? It's not going to be subtle and complex films about the cognitive dissonance of life in western civilisation. Hasbro have Play-Doh: The Movie in development. Oh, how much better the coming world will be.)

Even if the superhero genre isn't in the dire straits that the schadenfreude dance crew would have us all believe it is, we should bear in mind that this is a DC Comics movie. Now, while Marvel, at the top of their form, could probably do a movie about Squirrel Girl or Rubbermaid and make a healthy profit, DC's movie project has often struggled to meet expectations even when making movies about the most iconic characters in the genre. Even the Blue Beetle film acknowledges that Blue Beetle is a second- or third-string character, most significant for being the basis of Nite Owl, one of the Watchmen characters. You have to wonder, why do a film about Blue Beetle ahead of Animal Man or Martian Manhunter or Aztek the Ultimate Man? (Let's not get onto DC's continuing issues with a Green Lantern adaptation.)

Oh well. Hero of the film is Jamie Reyes, a young man who flies back to his family home in Palmera City (one of those DC made-up places) after studying law in Gotham. But all is not well with the family finances and, rather than starting his legal career, he ends up doing blue-collar domestic work, cleaning the mansion of tech tycoon Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon in panto villain mode). He makes the acquaintance of her niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), who has issues with the direction of the family firm, Kord Industries – Victoria is using a mysterious alien scarab device to accelerate her work on a cybernetic weapons programme (this is another version of OMAC, one of comics titan Jack Kirby's weirder creations). Rich people, eh?

Jenny ends up nicking the scarab from her auntie's lab and giving it to Jamie to hold for her. Of course, things never go that simply in superhero world and the scarab wakes up and symbiotically bonds with Jamie on a molecular level (it looks very much like it achieves this by crawling up his bottom, though he denies it). Instantly he is transformed into a flying armoured warrior with more weapons than he knows what to do with. But Victoria Kord is determined to learn the secret of the scarab and it looks very much like the Reyes family is going to be in the firing line of her attempts to get it back. . .

For a genre fuelled by imagination, it's rather off-putting to realise you can now have a superhero movie which really doesn't have a single original idea of its own going on. Blue Beetle is certainly a functional fantasy adventure film – all the correct beats are there, in more or less the right places, along with some decent jokes and character moments; it's true that the plot probably doesn't quite make sense, and that the closing battle – sort of CGI action-figure lucha libre on this occasion – is about 15% too long, but these are practically genre conventions by this point. But every step it takes away from being a smoothly generic piece of product forces one to raise an eyebrow.

I'm going to come back to the whole 'why Blue Beetle?' question here, I'm afraid. I have such a big comics collection the attic floorboards are buckling under the weight of it and even I only know Blue Beetle for two things – being in the comedy version of Justice League from the late 1980s (this tonal quirk probably concluded when he got his head rammed through a gasometer by Doomsday just before Superman died), and later being shot in the head by a version of Pedro Pascal's character from Wonder Woman 1984. Of the three different versions of Blue Beetle, this is the 'famous' one, mainly because of the Watchmen connection; the other two are even more obscure, but the back-story of the character is somewhat tangled and involves them all. So the film is obliged to find a way of incorporating (even in passing) all three different versions of a character most people have never heard of. It does this about as well as one might hope, but it's still an odd choice.

Actually, the reason for focusing on the Jamie Reyes incarnation rather than the higher-profile Ted Kord version is fairly clear – DC are marketing this film as the first Latino-focused superhero film, possibly copying the Marvel playbook for Black Panther. Which is fair enough. It does give the film its own flavour, especially in the way that Blue Beetle is invariably surrounded by various members of his extended family. There are a lot of these people, and they are noisy. They act as a kind of Greek chorus a lot of the time, and they don't just have the usual comic relief role either. When Blue Beetle goes off on one of his superhero missions, they invariably end up going along with him, even his octogenarian grandmother. It's another interesting departure from the norm, and I suppose the director deserves some credit for not letting the whole thing collapse into self-parody as a result. It's still a notably light-toned, neon-hued movie, though.

And in the end it's okay. It does everything you expect, a few things that you don't, nothing very exceptional. It's slick and polished and occasionally quite amusing. But it's not going to set the world on fire, I think, and it's interesting that they've made the choice not to explicitly link it to the other DC movies beyond the odd reference to Superman or Gotham City – there's no sign of a Gal Gadot cameo here, for instance. With DC's plans currently in a state of flux and new head honcho James Gunn apparently still deciding which characters to keep and which to axe, there's every chance this could be Blue Beetle's one and only moment in the spotlight. This isn't a bad film, but it does feel like a load of repurposed bits from Iron Man, Venom, and various other movies from the last fifteen years. Future installments feel very non-essential at this point.

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