de facto film reviews 3 stars

The current state of DC films is as troubled as it has ever been. Following a series of commercial flops in Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash, the brand is on course to restructure following the hiring of James Gunn as the overseer of their new direction. So the introduction of a lesser-known hero at this time is most certainly a gamble. And while the latest DC adventure is not without its share of problems, it’s a charming and refreshingly subdued take on the superhero genre.

Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) has just graduated from Gotham Law University and moves back home with his chaotic, but loving family in the technologically-advanced Palmera City. Feeling like he was unable to make anything of himself away at school, Jaime and his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo, Hocus Pocus 2) work as exploited housekeepers for  CEO of Kord Industries, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon in full-villain mode). Kord is developing a high-tech suit designed with the intention of creating a militarized police force, ala Robocop, sourced by the power of an alien scarab. After a run-in with Kord, and her good-hearted niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), Jaime comes in possession of the scarab, which chooses him to be its symbiotic host, granting him a suit of armor with extraordinary abilities. The suit is controlled by an AI system called Khaji-Da (voiced by Becky G) which guides Jaime to his newfound powers.

What helps separate Blue Beetle from the average superhero film is its lively tone, echoing the first Iron Man and even the energetic flair of Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, and it’s insight into Latino Culture, Director Angel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings) puts emphasis on representing our hero’s Latin background with fresh, personable details that help ground the human stakes, as well as the power of family.

There is a scrappy energy to the film, heightened by the energetic breakthrough performance from Xolo Maridueña. Despite the character taking a backseat during several chunks of the runtime, Maridueña is a deeply charismatic screen presence. There’s a wide-eyed sense of joy to the character, which makes the initial transformation scenes, which takes more from body horror than expected, more effective.

Soto, along with Midsommer and Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, finds enough ways to keep the action exciting, without being overwhelming. There’s a fluidity to the set pieces, providing a clarity and energy to the action that this genre tends to fumble. Soto’s camera will often move around the frame freely, creating these energetic bursts of visual creativity. The back-and-forth between Jaime and Khaji-Da, matched with distinct camerawork even takes from Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade.

The emphasis on the character’s socioeconomic surrounding proves there’s more on this films mind than your generic superhero flick. Jaime’s family is at risk of losing their longtime home from their growingly-gentrified neighborhood. The more the film digs into the background the family, and their lifelong struggles, it’s revealed just how much the long-term effects of U.S. imperialism over South and Central America are still felt. Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza is Jaime’s nana, who has a history of being involving with Latin revolutionaries.

Impressively, Soto juggles these themes while maintaining an infectious breezy attitude. The family dynamic is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the film. Despite some forced instances of humor early on, Jaime’s family unit runs away with much of the film. George Lopez’s paranoid conspiracy theorist Uncle Rudy is used as the heavy comedic relief, however, the character is still portrayed with enough depth and nuance to prevent it from feeling one-note.

Blue Beetle is a charming and energetic superhero film that stands out largely due to its human scale. A deft mix of spectacle, comedy and heart, the latest in the DC cannon is a welcome addition to a genre that is showing its wear and tear.

Blue Beetle is now playing in theaters.