“Look at all these beautiful brown faces,” Ángel Manuel Soto said while gazing up at movie-screen-sized poster for Blue Beetle as he introduced his new DC Comics superhero film at a special screening in Hollywood this week. “And Susan Sarandon.”
Soto didn’t mean that as a slight against Sarandon.
“I love Susan. She’s such an ally and she's just an amazing talent,” Soto later explained to Yahoo Entertainment. “She gets it. She understood the assignment.”
Instead, Soto was calling to attention his culturally groundbreaking effort: It’s the first major superhero movie led by a Latino cast. Its hero, Jaime Reyes (Cobra Kai breakout Xolo Maridueña) is a recent college grad cleaning the homes of the wealthy when he’s chosen to become a symbiotic host to the Scarab, an ancient alien relic that grants him sweet blue armor and major powers. He’s got a deeply supportive Mexican-immigrant family (Adriana Barrraza, Damián Alcázar, Elpidia Carrillo, Belissa Escobedo and George Lopez). His love interest is Brazilian (Bruna Marquezine). The central antagonist is white (hello again, Susan Sarandon), but her bodyguard (Raoul Max Trujillo) and top scientist (Harvey Guillén) are Latino.
The film’s authenticity extends beyond its cast. It was written by the Mexican-born Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. Soto, who broke out with the 2020 Sundance darling/Baltimore motorbike drama Charm City Kings, is from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
But, as Soto cautions, that does not mean Blue Beetle is the ultimate Latino film.
“It would be unfair to say this is the Latino experience,” he says. “It would be a lie to say this encompasses everyone because Latinos are not a monolith. … But though Gareth is Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican, and we have very specific idiosyncrasies and cultural elements that differentiate us, we realized as we were working together that [there] was more stuff that connected us [than] divided us. And by honing into the things that unify us as the Latino experience, I think we were able to find that there is actually a lot of universality in our specificity.
“And by doing it that way, we felt like if this is hopefully the first of many stories told by our communities that can actually explore all the millions of issues and concepts and experiences that exist in the Latino community, let this be the first of many. It’s impossible to do everything in one movie, but it is possible to at least try to open the doors for more of those stories, more of those diverse stories even just within the Latino community.”
Blue Beetle isn’t just about breaking cultural barriers. It’s really good, and is drawing early raves from critics for its lighter, more comedic approach to superhero storytelling, with comparisons to Marvel’s Iron Man and Spider-Man movies — and not just because of their respective talking-armor or coming-of-age aspects. While Marvel has since embraced the multiverse, and many DC films have gotten progressively darker, Blue Beetle “takes itself less seriously than most comic-book movies,” notes Variety. The stakes are lower, too: Jaime doesn’t need to save the world, just his family.
“We definitely wanted to have fun,” Soto says. “If you read the comics, the character in the comics is very funny and quirky and his relationship with his environment is similar. So we were like, ‘Why not show a Latino family having fun?’ And we can also show a family that lives in a reality where some of the [things] that happens to them are visceral, they're intense and traumatic and possibly triggering to some. But at the end of the day, we also wanted to live in this world that we have often been left out from experiencing.
“That's why the film has this nostalgic throwback essence to the [early superhero] movies. Like with Iron Man, I want to have that experience, too. Why do we always have to reinvent the wheel every single time Latinos show up? It's like, why can't we just have fun, pay homage to the movies that build us and see us in [those] places?”
Of course now one of the biggest questions is where Blue Beetle fits within the larger DC Universe? The film began production before the seismic leadership change that saw James Gunn and Peter Safran (a producer on Beetle) take the reins and pronouncing an end to the Snyderverse.
“The film, more than just being an introductory card of Blue Beetle and Jaime Reyes into the live-action cinematic universe, this is also a prologue, the first act of a saga,” says Soto, who has previously stated he hopes to make a full trilogy. “Meaning by the end of the movie, now he can actually go into the new world. But first we wanted to ground it. We wanted to [use] the language of Latin cinema, spend time with the family, create empathy, create connection, create experiences that last so that we can understand the background. We can understand everything that surrounds our hero.
“And as he relates to all the other heroes with all the different alliances that might come in the future in James Gunn’s DC, you have this movie to go back to and know what is the heart of this character. Because at the end of the day, plot is plot. Explosions are explosions. But the heart for me is what matters the most.”
Blue Beetle opens in theaters on Aug. 18.