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'Blue Beetle' offers a 3-step cure for superhero fatigue

Blue Beetle (Xolo Maridueña) looks to the future. So does the movie he's in.
Warner Bros.
Blue Beetle (Xolo Maridueña) looks to the future. So does the movie he's in.

Modern superhero cinema, if we agree to carbon-date it to the premiere of Iron Man in 2008, is now a sullen, disaffected 15-year-old. The promise it once displayed as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic youngster has decayed into something sour and resentful. It stalks through the house and hurls itself performatively across the furniture with a wet sigh; it has somehow managed to convince itself that the world revolves around it even as it keeps whining that no one really appreciates everything it's done.

Don't blame the little jerk; it's not entirely wrong. Over the past 15 years, superhero films have assumed primacy of place in the box office and in the wider culture. Given such unrelenting omnipresence, even the backlash they've managed to generate can't help but feel like old news. In 2023, complaining about "superhero fatigue" has itself become fatiguing, given how blithely the term gets tossed around whenever a superhero film fails to meet popular, critical and/or box office expectations.

The Flash underperforms? Superhero fatigue!

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has a gangbusters opening weekend, but critics dismiss it? Superhero fatigue!

Shazam: Fury of the Gods inspires a collective cultural shrug? Superhero fatigue!

Black Adam effectively shutters the Snyderverse? Superhero fatigue!

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is a criticaland box office success? Superhero fatigue, somehow! Give us a minute to think about it! We'll make it work!

It's not that superhero fatigue doesn't exist; it's that the term gets applied too eagerly and broadly for it to retain any useful, practical meaning. There's nothing unique to superheroes about the phenomenon, for one thing. After all, the superhero film is a genre, and genres have built-in conventions that recur. Given enough time and repeated exposure, these conventions inevitably calcify into cliché.

Once any given film genre becomes popular enough to saturate the box office for a period of time, fatigue become inevitable. Gangster films had their moment, and then that moment ended. So did Westerns. So did erotic thrillers, legal thrillers and Rob Schneider movies.

The answer that's a non-answer

A deeper look at the current state of superhero cinema reveals a more complicated reality. Matt Reeves' The Batman was wildly popular with audiences and critics, even though it was still yet another retelling of one particular superhero story now so numbingly familiar it has become cultural wallpaper — which is exactly what those given to cry "superhero fatigue" rail against.

The difference, of course, was how that familiar tale got told.

Execution matters hugely. Of course it does; it always has, it always will. Which is why the loudest critics of cinematic superhero sameness feel justified in offering up glib, self-satisfied non-solutions like, "The answer to superhero fatigue is simply to make better movies."

It's not that simple. Or at least, the "make better movies" platitude isn't a practical answer, because "better" is far too subjective to be either useful nor measurable. If we're to find our collective way out of the current glut of superhero tropes and tired formulas, we need a practical, actionable strategy.

Which is why it's so fortunate that the latest DC superhero film, about a D-list, deep-bench character who boasts only a brief comics history and the tiniest of footprints in the popular imagination, provides such a clear blueprint, such a discrete, actionable set of criteria for the way forward.

How 'Blue Beetle' scuttled under the radar

No one expected Blue Beetle to offer up the solution to superhero fatigue that it does. It wasn't even supposed to find its way into theaters, having been conceived as part of a since-abandoned strategy to make a series of small, low-budget films about various lesser-known DC characters and slot them straight to streaming. The thinking was to save theatrical release for major tentpole characters like Batman and Wonder Woman, and let (what was then called) HBO Max take up the JV squad — Blue Beetle, Batgirl and the like.

Then there was the comic book character of Blue Beetle himself. Created in 2006 by Keith Giffen, John Rogers and Cully Hammer, Blue Beetle was a modern riff on two DC heroes who shared the same name. The twist: this new Blue Beetle was a Mexican-American kid who stumbled across alien biotech that outfitted him with sentient military armor capable of mass destruction. But our doughty young hero Jaime had a big heart and loving family, two traits that helped him channel the armor's violent purpose into doing good.

As origin stories go, it's a good deal more abstract, less immediate, less viscerally palpable than, say, a one-man war against crime inspired by the murder of one's parents. Plus, there was Jaime himself — brown, skinny and slight where most heroes were white, square-jawed and jacked. Factor in Blue Beetle's name recognition — or more accurately, the utter lack of it — and it was clear that a film about him was never gonna do the numbers that another Batman reboot could. But by tucking it away on HBO Max, DC could point to it as representative of a commitment to diversity and inclusion in the DCEU.

But then that plan changed, and Blue Beetle made its way to theaters. And on its way it quietly and unassumedly adopted a three-part approach with the real potential to save superhero cinema.

Step One: Move the center

Superhero films have historically centered white characters. People of color showed up, sure — as sidekicks and possible love interests and the occasional villain. But the combination of that default whiteness with familiar narrative structures that have been processed through the rigid demands of IP lawyers and then focus-grouped within an inch of their lives has left critics and audiences with the impression that these films get made by an algorithm.

We get old stories, slightly retweaked and retooled every few years, not because those stories ache to be told, but because the studios need to keep the rights alive, or because the shareholders need a good fiscal quarter.

What's so striking about Blue Beetle is not that it eschews the hoariest, most formulaic elements of superhero storytelling, because it very much does not: Jaime, played by Xolo Maridueña, is a Reluctant HeroTM whose Heroic TrialsTM include a Training MontageTM and a Tragic LossTM that places him into a CGI-Driven Third-Act ShowdownTM with a Villain Who Is An Evil Version of Our HeroTM.

No, what Blue Beetle knows is that when you center a superhero narrative on people and cultures that have not historically been centered in one, even the most familiar storytelling beats get invigorated and innovated, steeped as they suddenly are in new voices and new perspectives. It's an approach that engenders the one thing that everyone, jaded critic and ardent superhero fan alike, agrees that the genre so desperately needs now, more than ever: New stories.

For members of the cultural community freshly featured in any given superhero film it's a win, because they finally get to see heroes who look like them onscreen, in exactly the way that white people have forever. But for those outside of the community it's a win as well — the punishingly familiar gets inflected in ways that offer legitimate surprise and intrigue. We get to watch as the most leaden clichés get taken apart and made new. (This is a big reason that Black Panther worked as well as it did, and the Spider-Verse films as well.)

Step Two: Widen the center

Jaime's the title character of Blue Beetle, but in many ways, he's not its hero. At least, not its sole hero.

That's because the film internalizes both Jaime's love for his own family specifically, and the centrality of family in Latinx culture. It's striking how much of Blue Beetle's running time features Jaime sharing the screen with his sister (Belissa Escobedo), his grandmother (Adriana Barazza), his mother (Elpidia Carrillo), his potential love interest (Bruna Marquezine), his father (Damían Alcázar) and/or his uncle (George Lopez).

He's chosen by the alien mech-suit, yes, but he's anything but yet another Chosen One hero. He's not some lone figure charged with carrying the weight of responsibility on his own — he's part of a collective that offers him support and strength and moral guidance. He's not a Superman who floats above us, he's an Everyman who's one of us — because he doesn't simply protect those he loves, he entirely depends on them as well. And they, in turn, take extraordinary steps to save him when he's in danger, a neat inversion of the classic hero/sidekick relationship. His family members are not his sidekicks — they're all members of a team or, to put it another way: a community.

For 15 years, superhero cinema has been dominated by the cliché of the lone, stoic hero: Long suffering, self-sacrificing, self-reliant. If superheroes were a uniquely American creation, it makes sense that they were brewed in the uniquely American myth of rugged individualism. What Blue Beetle humbly and intriguingly suggests is that perhaps we've had our fill of the same old grimdark loners who suffer in silence on their ceaseless vigils. Maybe the moment is better suited to characters who readily join their loved ones in the light, whose purpose is not to hoard their powers from the safe remove of some dark rooftop, but to fully embrace their own humanity and share their power with those they love.

Step Three: Ditch the focus group; just stay focused

Here I'll mention that I watched Blue Beetle sitting next to my husband, a Cuban-American man who absolutely ate it up, from start to finish. Gasped, guffawed and sniffled in turn, just exactly when the film directed him to.

There's a moment early on in the film, for instance, when Jaime is recovering from an extended bout of body horror during which the alien mech-suit bonds with his flesh and sends him caroming through the air and hurtling to the earth. He's lying on a couch in his family's home, bruised, battered, with a creepy alien insect fused to his spine.

We see his unconscious face in close-up. From the bottom of the screen, his grandmother's hand slowly enters, holding something round. We're looking down at it from above — a blue circle with some kind of white goopy substance inside. It looks like...Is it?

It is.

It's a jar of Vick's Vap-o-Rub.

The bark-laugh of recognition that erupted from my husband at that moment startled the woman seated in front of him so much she spilled her popcorn.

It's a joke about Latinx culture, a knowing one. (I should point that at no point do we see the label of the jar in question — it's a visual joke that depends entirely upon recognizing what it is, without ever being told what it is.)

That moment is firmly rooted in an organic, from-the-ground-up cultural specificity; the movie's full of them. I fully believe that there exists a universe in which a lazier, cheaper, broader version of this film was made, where the Latinx jokes were sprinkled over top, or added in post, and then run past a series of test audiences to make sure they'd land with absolutely everyone.

That film wouldn't work; the jokes would feel cynical, cheap, made-by-committee. It would play like a hedged bet, an extended exercise in risk-aversion. Which is to say: It would land on audiences and critics like any one of the interchangeable superhero movies that have led us to this current cultural moment, to superhero fatigue.

But thanks to its three-part, innovative strategy, Blue Beetle isn't yet another entry in the barrage of anodyne super slug-fests. It differs in approach, if not in subject. Like Black Panther before it, it uses grounded cultural touchstones to carve out a story that's at once both highly specific and distinctly universal. In the process, it ends up being something — bizarrely, incongruously, and really kind of astonishingly — new.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.