‘Blue Beetle,’ the superhero movie that nobody expects to succeed (even if the critics like it)

DC’s latest project for Warner has been released after the studio’s many course changes and a practically nonexistent commercial campaign

Xolo Maridueña
Actor Xolo Maridueña in a still image from ‘Blue Beetle.’Warner Bros (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)

The Blue Beetle is not one of DC’s most famous characters, and it is not clear if its popularity will particularly grow after its recently released film adaptation, as has been the case of other superheroes. Not that there’s a problem with the movie itself: it is a proper enough origin story, with a solid lead actor (Xolo Maridueña, star of Cobra Kai) which embraces the Mexican background of the hero in a fun, entertaining way. Blue Beetle, however, arrives in theaters after a tepid advertising campaign, not very typical of a production with an estimated budget of $120 million; without a doubt, it is a far cry from the mobilization we witnessed just a couple of months ago with The Flash, Warner’s previous superhero film.

The link between the film, directed by Puerto Rican Ángel Manuel Soto, and the rest of the DC extended universe, was not made explicit in the publicity, and the reason is that it is not very clear. Blue Beetle contains some passing references to Superman and a joke about Batman, but it is the viewers who, for now, will have to decide what faces they picture on these superheroes: if those of Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck, the main actors in the canceled Justice League saga, that of the Superman that will be released in 2025, officially kicking off the new universe, or that of George Clooney from Batman & Robin (1997), who reappeared as a comic twist in The Flash. For now, filmmaker James Gunn, creative head of DC Studios since late 2022, has explained that the film is officially disconnected from the rest of the cinematic universe and that Blue Beetle is actually the first character in a new series, although, as confusing as it may be, this does not make the production the first episode of that saga.

Blue Beetle
The hero is half human, half alien beetle. Warner Bros (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)

The low profile of the promotion of this movie did upset some fans, especially among the Hispanic-American community, as Jaime Reyes — the boy who receives the powers of the Blue Beetle — is DC’s first Latin American hero. They reacted to the lack of marketing by promoting a meme themselves, “Blue Beetle August 18 only in theaters” on social media, to turn the release into an event, something that Warner did not do.

Meanwhile, other memes joke about the low online ticket pre-sales to mock the lack of interest in the million-dollar production. It would seem that we are facing a surefire flop, but the unpredictable evolution followed by DC’s movies invites us to be cautious and make as few predictions as possible. The first surprise is that Blue Beetle has already received — unlike previous efforts from the studio — a positive reception from critics. If it ends up having a decent performance at the box office, or if its generous nods to Latin American culture turn it into a community phenomenon, it is not clear whether that would be taken as a well-received success or as the millionth headache for the studio in the face of its complex plans for the future.

Creating a universe

“I think that DC rushed; they were impatient and excessively ambitious as soon as they started their cinematographic universe,” says comic book artist Rodrigo Zayas. Starting with Man of Steel (2013), the so-called DC Extended Universe already pitted its two most iconic heroes against each other in the second installment, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). “The Marvel Universe began after Iron Man [2008] added, almost as a joke, a post-credits scene with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, just to see what happened,” continues Zayas. “The move paid off, so they kept growing. It took them years to get to Avengers: Infinity War [2018] or Endgame [2019]. DC wanted to reach Marvel’s success quickly; they wanted the same results in half the time, thinking that, as the subgenre was already well established, they could skip the previous steps. But in the end, narrative codes are what they are. Everything has its own rhythm, and the audience wants to see the characters evolve.”

James Gunn, the creative head of DC Studios, at the ‘Blue Beetle’ premiere on August 15, in Los Angeles.
James Gunn, the creative head of DC Studios, at the ‘Blue Beetle’ premiere on August 15, in Los Angeles.Nina Prommer (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)

For the illustrator, another significant factor in the troubled composition of the DC universe has to do with the director who was at the helm for years. “The audiovisual and aesthetic proposal of DC was marked by the personality of Zack Snyder, which was extremely different from what Marvel was doing,” he explains. “I personally found it very interesting, but it clashed with the preferences of the audience that usually consumes this type of film.” The disappointing box office performance of Batman v Superman motivated a change of course in 2016 with Suicide Squad. Then, the maneuver to turn the DC universe into something more likeable was consummated in Justice League (2017), a film started by Snyder, who left the project as a result of his daughter’s suicide, and rebuilt by Joss Whedon, the director of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012).

That was the breaking point between DC and the bulk of its fans. The followers of Zack Snyder, whose commercial weight was in question but who knew how to harness the power of social media, pushed Warner to release the original director’s version of Justice League, a victory they finally won, via HBO Max, in 2021. Snyder was later accused of using bots to pressure Warner and threatening to organize a boycott. Meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson, whose Black Adam (2022) assumed the responsibility of restoring order to the DC universe, pleased that fan base by including Henry Cavill, the former Superman, in a final scene. Still, that did not translate into a good box office performance.

“The hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change.” This is the hasty phrase that Johnson pronounced before the premiere of that film. He was right, although the person at the top of that hierarchy would not be him: the rise of James Gunn, another director from Marvel’s ranks (he was, between 2014 and 2023, responsible for the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy), would bring the end of the previous narrative universe and the announcement of a complete reboot, which will begin with Superman: Legacy in 2025.

‘Blue Beetle,’ played by Xolo Maridueña, surrounded by his Mexican family. Their relationship and culture are an essential part of the story.
‘Blue Beetle,’ played by Xolo Maridueña, surrounded by his Mexican family. Their relationship and culture are an essential part of the story. Warner Bros (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)

The other problem for Warner is in damage control. The Flash, whose main character was introduced in Batman v Superman, was developed in parallel with the string of scandals of its protagonist, Ezra Miller, who has a criminal record, a history of violent behavior and accusations ranging from robbery and sexual abuse to the formation of a sect. It is estimated that its failure this year made Warner lose $200 million. In December, after multiple delays, another production from the previous regime is set to premiere: Aquaman and the lost Kingdom, the sequel to Aquaman (2018), whose position in the new order of things is also complicated, to say the least. In a new balancing act, to avoid the bad image of a studio that releases new installments of series that have already been canceled, Gunn has declared that Aquaman 2, just like Blue Beetle, is also part of the new universe (although the official start is still his future Superman). Meanwhile, with the release of Blue Beetle, Zack Snyder has already hit Warner’s weak spot — its apparent lack of interest in the Latin American community — after announcing on Twitter that he would take his children to see it, accompanying the tweet with the hashtag #RepresentationMatters.

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