Blue Beetle and the Elusive 10 Percent

I saw Blue Beetle in theaters. Short review: It was good-ish.

Ever since I saw the film, I’ve been debating on whether to talk about it because I have some critical thoughts on the film. I make it a rule not to be negative toward other media. Everyone works hard on a movie. Even the movie you might not find great. No need to bash other people’s work.

That said, I’m going to go ahead and say Blue Beetle is consistently only good-ish and never hits great heights. And the reason for that isn’t because it doesn’t work, but because it never nails that final 10 percent.

I could break the film down, piece by piece, but that’s not strictly necessary. I can ummarize Blue Beetle’s shortcomings with one example, and it might even be one you’ve seen in the trailers.

“Anything you can imagine, I can create,” says the scarab that gives Jaime his powers.

He then makes a giant sword, which looks very cool. But why?

Here’s where we get under the hood of what makes a moment stumble or shine. This giant word moment is impressive enough to include in the trailer, even outside of any other context. And outside of context, it’s pretty neat, but what does it mean in context? Because context matters a whole hell of a lot. It’s a fun moment to put in a trailer, yes, but it should be even more interesting when we get the larger picture.

The story has given us a promise. Anything Jaime can imagine can be summoned at his fingertips. Infinite possibilities. And Jaime makes . . . a sword.

For the right character it might be the best answer. Sticking with over analysis I have to ask who would make a giant sword? An aggressive person, probably. An unsubtle person. A guy who wanted to intimidate his opponent. A clever person who understands that a giant sword is just the right tool for the job. None of these examples define Jaime Reyes.

It’s easy to look at the moment and shrug. It’s just a giant sword. It’s not meant to mean anything else.

But it really should mean something. That’s where the extra 10 percent comes in. That’s the secret ingredient that takes good and makes it great.

The sword gets the job done, but as a choice it tells us nothing about Jaime. It doesn’t reinforce anything we’ve already learned about him. It doesn’t signal a change in his character. It’s just a bigass sword. And that’s not great.

This is why I get irritated when people say “It’s just a superhero movie” as if all a superhero movie needs to do is a requisite number of action scenes and then a giant sword and then our protagonist punches the bad guy and saves the world. And, technically, that’s true for a functional superhero movie, but just not true for the great ones.

The genre of action-adventure and all its sub-genres often get dismissed as if it’s easy to do, but when you think of the great ones–the ones that stand the test of time–there’s a hell of a lot going on under the hood. Rarely is a punch just a punch, a sword just a sword. The great stories brim with personality and resonance and they stick with you because those little moments aren’t just good . . . they’re great.

Why does Spider-Man use web-shooters? There are plenty of answers to the question in and out of story. Peter Parker is an engineering genius who invented them. Webbing is a gimme for a spider-themed superhero weapon. They’re also defensive in nature, letting us know that Spidey isn’t an aggressive hero. They allow for Spider-Man to solve problems in creative ways. Web-shooters are practically synonymous with Spider-Man. It’s no wonder that one of his many nicknames is Webslinger.

I keep coming back to this about Blue Beetle. There’s nothing distinct about Jaime Reyes or his powers. He’s just a good kid with a suit of generic alien power armor. And a good kid is just not enough.

(He’s a lot more interesting in the original comics, for the record. Not because he’s more complicated. He’s a good kid with power armor in that one as well. But his goodness is well-defined, and his supporting cast is fantastic. But that’s a digression not worth getting into.)

I’ve become increasingly aware of such things in my own writing, and I do my best to find that final 10 percent that makes good become great. It’s elusive, and I sometimes think the more I do this the more elusive it becomes. I look back at my early days as a writer where I was just happy to get the words on the page, gleeful if the plot didn’t fall apart, and I smile at the simplicity of it. Once I could’ve given my protagonist a giant sword and not sweated the details.

But the details matter.

The details are where greatness is found.



3 Replies to “Blue Beetle and the Elusive 10 Percent”

  1. The harder you work to get that 10 percent, the more we appreciate it. And once an author/ movie/ artist delivers it, we come to expect it, and are disappointed if we don’t find it again.

  2. I just reread (okay okay listened again to) Gil’s All Fright Diner. Lost count. Same goes with Too Many Curses, The Automatic Detective, Emperor Mollusk and all the rest. You are an amazing writer. Please just write more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.