How does a superhero movie breathe new life into a staple as old as comics themselves? That’s the challenge Blue Beetle’s stunt and effects teams faced when trying to capture the feeling of their protagonist’s high-speed flight.
From the earliest days of Superman movies to Iron Man and Captain Marvel, flight has been a crucial part of superhero cinema’s visual vocabulary. But the stunt team on Blue Beetle was determined to shake things up. The goal: to imbue the new DC movie’s flight sequences with speed, impact, and a little bit of flair, combining innovative wirework with high-speed drone footage to freshen up a superhero staple.
Blue Beetle follows Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a teenage boy who bonds with an alien device that gives him a variety of powers, including flight. The movie’s action was shot by second-unit director J.J. Perry, a legendary stunt performer and choreographer who made his feature directorial debut with last year’s Jamie Foxx vampire action throwback Day Shift. Talking to Polygon via Zoom, Perry was effusive in his praise for Blue Beetle’s stunt team, which included many members of the 87eleven action team, best known for their work on the John Wick movies.
He particularly highlighted the wirework for the movie’s flight scenes, which he said are “some of the best in the last 10 or 15 years,” crediting stunt coordinator Jon Valera and his team. That’s a high bar to reach — Perry worked extensively in the ’90s with Alpha Stunts, the incredible group who worked on Power Rangers and Kamen Rider, and he said many elements of Blue Beetle reminded him of Japanese tokusatsu productions.
The challenge for the team was keeping Blue Beetle’s flight grounded in reality, which is exactly as difficult as “grounded superhero flight” sounds. Specifically, Perry and his team were looking to prevent “float,” when it becomes easier to tell the movement isn’t natural. Imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. If that pendulum suddenly leaves its natural path, the movement appears artificial and forced. That same principle applies to a performer on a wire attempting to imitate flight.
To solve that, when Jaime is flying, the Blue Beetle team would sometimes add points of impact right before any moment where he might pass that imaginary pendulum line. This is most clearly seen in Jaime’s first flight. When the alien device first takes control, it takes him on a test run, where they continually crash into environmental hazards. Each impact causes a change of direction, making the wirework feel more naturally like a part of the environment as Blue Beetle zooms around it.
“When it turns into a cartoon, you can tell when gravity doesn’t play into it,” Perry says. “There’s reality, then there’s reality plus 10%. Anytime you cross that 10%, [the audience thinks], There’s something not right. They feel it right away.
“A lot of times with wirework, it’s either action or reactionary wirework,” Perry says. “We combined it — it was action with that reaction. It’s not easy to do. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of rehearsal.”
Wirework was only one part of the flight equation. Perry also reunited with frequent collaborator Tommy Tibajia, a drone pilot with Wild Rabbit Aerial who worked with him on Day Shift, Murder Mystery 2, and the upcoming Jamie Foxx-Cameron Diaz action comedy Back in Action.
“He put on a frickin’ seminar,” Perry says of Tibajia. “That’s a really hard one to get right, flying. It’s a really tricky one. But with the FPV [first-person view] drone, I think that we’ve taken it to another level.”
The team sent drones flying 75 mph through Puerto Rico, ducking and diving under bridges, through traffic, and up the face of a building. The drones’ footage was then married with shots of Maridueña or a stunt performer on the wire to create a realistic effect of high-speed flight. The end result is more dynamic than the static imagery you might get from pure CG effects, while being significantly cheaper than using helicopters.
“Speed is speed,” Perry says. “When something goes 75 miles an hour, blowing by things, you feel it.”
Maridueña did quite a bit of the wirework in Blue Beetle himself, and his experience on the fight-heavy Netflix series Cobra Kai came in handy.
“He’s about to be a massive star,” Perry says of Maridueña. “Not only is he an amazing actor, and one of the hardest-working, most humble, kind people I’ve met, but he’s great at action as well. He’s a real one. I was really lucky to work with guys like that.”
At the end of the day, the most important thing for Perry and the team was that the audience could really feel the speed and impact of Blue Beetle’s flights. And the stunt team — who, Perry reiterates, was “all time, like the greatest hits” — delivered. The flying isn’t the only action in the movie that has an impact: The movie’s fights lean on the skills and bodies of its stunt performers, who frequently get flung through the air and used as physical weapons, especially in the third-act tunnel fights. The visceral feeling of bodies violently contacting bodies is crucial to any action director’s work, especially when working with larger-than-life set-pieces augmented by visual effects.
“You can’t cheat impact, right? They haven’t figured that one out yet,” Perry says. “And thank God, because when they do, I’ll be out of a damn job.”
Blue Beetle is in theaters now.