Glen Weldon at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.,
Future-focused Blue Beetle (Xolo Mariduea). The film he is in follows suit.
Warner Bros. If we agree to carbon-date modern superhero cinema to the release of Iron Man in 2008, it is currently a morose, disgruntled 15-year-old. Its potential as a wide-eyed, ebullient child has devolved into something bitter and spiteful. With a moist sigh, it saunters into the home and throws itself across the furniture in a performative manner; somehow, despite constantly complaining that no one seems to appreciate what it has done, it has managed to persuade itself that the world revolves around it.
The little jerk isn’t fully to fault; it’s not entirely right. Superhero films have risen to the top of the box office and the larger culture over the past 15 years. Even the resistance they have managed to elicit seems stale in light of their relentless omnipresence. In 2023, whining about “superhero fatigue” has grown tiresome in and of itself, given how casually the word is bandied about whenever a superhero movie falls short of audience, critical, and/or financial expectations.
The Flash performs poorly? Superhero drowsiness
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantum of Solace had a smashing debut weekend, yet critics brushed it off? Superhero drowsiness
Shazam: Fury of the Gods provokes a general shrug in culture? Superhero drowsiness
The Snyderverse is effectively shut down by Black Adam? Superhero drowsiness
What reviews and financial success has Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 received? Somehow, superhero tiredness! Give us a moment to consider it! We’ll figure it out!
Superhero weariness is real; it’s just that the term is used too broadly and eagerly for it to have any real, practical significance. For one thing, the phenomena is not specific to superheroes. After all, superhero films belong to a genre, and genres have recurring characteristics that are inherent to them. When exposed frequently and over an extended period of time, these customs inevitably turn into cliché.
Fatigue sets in once a particular film genre gets well-liked enough to dominate the box office for a while. Gangster flicks had their time, but that time has since passed. Likewise, Westerns. The same was true of Rob Schneider films, erotic thrillers, and legal thrillers.
MOVIES The creators of Latinx superhero films like “Blue Beetle” want to effect change.
The response that isn’t a response
A more thorough examination of the situation of superhero films today reveals a more nuanced reality. Even though it was just another recounting of a certain superhero story that has become so utterly commonplace that it has become cultural wallpaper, Matt Reeves’ The Batman was incredibly well received by both critics and audiences. This is precisely what those who complain of “superhero fatigue” rage against.
Of course, the telling of that well-known story differed.
Execution is crucial. Absolutely; it always has and always will. Because of this, those who complain the loudest about the sameness of cinematic superheroes feel justified in proposing flippant, conceited non-solutions such, “The answer to superhero fatigue is simply to make better movies.”
It’s not really that easy. Or, at the very least, the clichéd advice to “make better films” isn’t a workable solution because the term “better” is just too subjective to be helpful or quantifiable. We require a realistic, executable plan if we are to collectively escape the current abundance of superhero cliches and worn-out formulae.
That’s why it’s so good that the most recent DC superhero movie, about a D-list, deep bench character with a scant comics history and the shortest possible impact on popular culture, offers such a distinct, doable set of guidelines for the future.
How ‘Blue Beetle’ evaded detection
Nobody anticipated that Blue Beetle would provide the remedy for superhero fatigue that it provides. It was never ever intended to be released in theatres; instead, it was part of a now-abandoned plan to make a number of short, inexpensive films on obscure DC characters and release them all at once on streaming services. The idea was to reserve theatrical release for major tentpole characters like Batman and Wonder Woman while leaving the JV squad, including Blue Beetle, Batgirl, and the like, to (what was then termed) HBO Max.
Then there was Blue Beetle himself, a figure from comic books. A contemporary parody of two DC heroes with the same name, Blue Beetle was created in 2006 by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hammer. The twist: this new Blue Beetle was a young Mexican-American who discovered alien biotech, which equipped him with sentient battle gear capable of wreaking havoc. Our chubby little hero Jaime, however, had a big heart and a loving family, two characteristics that enabled him to turn the armor’s aggressive function into a force for good.
It’s a lot more abstract, less immediate, and less viscerally real than, say, a one-man crusade against crime motivated by the murder of one’s parents, as origin stories go. In addition, Jaime was brown, thin, and slight compared to other heroes who were white, square-jawed, and jacked. When you take into account Blue Beetle’s name recognition—or, rather, the complete absence of it—it becomes obvious that a movie about him will never gross as well as another Batman reboot. However, by hiding it on HBO Max, DC could use it as evidence of its dedication to diversity and inclusion in the DCEU.
However, that strategy was abandoned, and Blue Beetle eventually arrived in theatres. And along the way, it unassumingly and covertly embraced a three-part strategy that has the genuine ability to save the superhero movie industry.
In Hollywood, Latino superheroes are rescuing the day.
HISPANICS IN HOLLYWOOD
In Hollywood, Latino superheroes are rescuing the day.
First, shift the centre.
White characters have always dominated superhero flicks. Yes, there were instances where people of colour appeared as sidekicks, potential love interests, and even villains. However, the combination of this inherent whiteness with well-known narrative frameworks that have been subjected to the strict requirements of IP attorneys and then painstakingly focus-grouped has given critics and viewers the impression that these films are produced using an algorithm.
Every few years, we receive ancient stories that have been somewhat revised and retooled, not because those stories beg to be told but rather because the studios must maintain the rights or the stockholders must have a successful fiscal quarter.
It’s not that Blue Beetle avoids the hoariest, most predictable aspects of superhero storytelling—it very much does not—that make it so remarkable. The character of Jaime, played by Xolo Mariduea, is a Reluctant HeroTM, and as a result of his Heroic Trials, which also include a Training MontageTM and a Tragic LossTM, he is forced into a CGI-driven Third-Act ShowdownTM with a Villain Who Is An Evil Version of Our HeroTM.
No, Blue Beetle understands that when you focus a superhero narrative on groups of people and cultures who haven’t traditionally been centred in one, even the most traditional storytelling tropes get revitalised and innovated because they are suddenly infused with fresh viewpoints and new voices. It’s a strategy that produces the one thing that every lover of superheroes and cynical critic believes the genre so sorely needs right now: new storylines.
For members of the cultural group first represented in a superhero movie, it’s a success because they can now see heroes who resemble them onscreen, just as white people have for all time. But it’s also a gain for those who are not part of the group since the painfully familiar is inflected in ways that actually surprise and excite people. The most tired clichés become dissected and transformed in front of our eyes. (This is a major factor in how successful Black Panther and the Spider-Verse movies performed.)
Step 2: Enlarge the centre
Blue Beetle’s main character, Jaime, is not really its hero in many aspects. Certainly not its lone hero.
This is so that viewers can internalise Jaime’s love for his own family in particular and the significance of family in Latinx culture. It’s remarkable how much of Blue Beetle’s running time finds Jaime on-screen with his sister (Belissa Escobedo), his mother (Elpidia Carrillo), his mother’s mother (Adriana Barazza), his mother’s possible love interest (Bruna Marquezine), his father (Damán Alcázar), and/or his uncle (George Lopez).
Yes, the alien mech-suit has selected him, but he is not another selected One hero. He is not some isolated individual who must bear the burden of responsibility on his own; rather, he is a member of a group that provides him with moral support, strength, and encouragement. Because he completely depends on the people he loves, he is not a Superman who floats above us but rather an Everyman who is one of us. In a clever twist on the traditional hero/sidekick dynamic, they then go above and above to save him when he is in danger. The members of his family are not his henchmen; rather, they are all a part of a group, or to put it another way, a community.
For fifteen years, the archetype of the lone, stoic hero—long suffering, self-sacrificing, and self-reliant—has dominated superhero movies. It makes sense that if superheroes were an American invention, they would have been bred in the nation’s myth of tough individuality. The intriguing and modest suggestion made by Blue Beetle is that perhaps we have seen enough of the same old grimdark loners who suffer in quiet while keeping watch. Perhaps characters who willingly join their loved ones in the light and whose goal is to completely embrace their own humanity and share their strength with people they love are more appropriate for this moment than those whose goal is to hoard their powers from the safety of some dark rooftop.
Step 3: Skip the focus group and just pay attention.
I should mention that I watched Blue Beetle with my husband, a Cuban-American man who ate it up from beginning to end, as he was seated next to me. He exhaled, laughed, and sniffled in turn at precisely the right moments in the movie.
Early on in the movie, Jaime is recovering from a prolonged case of body terror when the alien mech-suit joins with his flesh and launches him into the air, sending him falling to the ground. He is wounded and injured and has an unsettling extraterrestrial insect bonded to his spine as he lies on a couch in his family’s house.
Close-up shots of his unconscious visage are shown. His grandmother’s hand slowly emerges from the bottom of the screen, carrying a globular object. It is a blue circle with some sort of white gunk within that we are viewing from above. It appears to be…Is it?
It’s a Vick’s Vap-o-Rub jar.
The woman sitting in front of him was startled by my husband’s bark-laugh of recognition, which caused her to drop her popcorn.
It’s a knowing joke about Latinx culture. (I should note that the jar’s label is never shown to us; this is a visual joke that only rests on our ability to deduce what it is from its appearance.)
That scene is strongly founded in a natural, built-from-scratch cultural peculiarity; the film is chock full of them. In a universe where this movie was made more quickly, cheaply, and broadly, the jokes about Latinos would have been added afterwards or sprinkled on top and then run through a number of test audiences to ensure that they would be received well by everyone.
That movie wouldn’t work; the gags would come out as cheap, cynical, and committee-made. It would function as a hedged bet and a protracted test of risk aversion. Which is to say: It would cause superhero weariness in viewers and critics just like any of the interchangeable superhero movies that have brought us to this current cultural juncture.
However, Blue Beetle isn’t another entry in the bombardment of anodyne super slug-fests because of its three-part, original strategy. If not in content, then at least in approach. Like Black Panther before it, it crafts a narrative that is at once intensely specific and unmistakably universal using grounded cultural touchstones. It turns out to be something completely new as a result, which is unusual, odd, and kind of astonishing.