Blue Beetle may be the first major superhero film with a Latino lead, but its director, Ángel Manuel Soto, doesn't like to think of it that way. Nor does he like to think of himself as the man chosen to helm such a culturally-momentous moment. "I don't think I ever really sat down and thought about it that way," Soto reflects. "The whole idea of being 'the first' has never been appealing to me."
Instead, he looks at Blue Beetle as a continuation of the work done by his filmmaking forefathers — Latino auteurs like Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro — who not only helped open the door for Soto to make his own mark in Hollywood, but showed the power of Latinx storytellers telling Latinx stories on the big screen. Without them, Blue Beetle might never have existed. At least, not in the form that it does.
"When I think about the film in terms of it being the first of its kind, I also think about everything that has been accomplished to get us here," Soto says. "In my opinion, it's a legacy worth protecting, holding onto, and remembering.”
The movie, which was originally slated to premiere on the streaming service Max before Warner Bros. decided to give it an exclusive theatrical release, follows Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a Chicano college graduate chosen to be the human companion of a powerful alien scarab. Which makes him a target of a powerful businesswoman, Victoria Kord (Oscar winner Susan Sarandon), and her right-hand man, Lieutenant Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo). As Jamie adjusts to his new superhero lifestyle, he is forced to rely more than ever on the love and support of his family and community.
"Our film is unique in that it has a front-and-center Latino cast, but when I think about someone like del Toro, I think he really paved the way for a lot of us to be looked at and, at the very least, considered for jobs behind the camera," he explains. "Now, there's no denying anymore our influence in pop culture and the money that we bring to the table, purely in terms of box office participation. So, it was due time for studios to finally give us the chance to show our culture in a big, comic-book way — the same way that films like Shang-Chi and Black Panther have for their communities."
Reflecting on Blue Beetle's place in history, Soto says, "It's definitely taken too long, but there's also no better time for something to happen than the time that it does." Ultimately, he's just grateful that he was able to make the film under the circumstances he did. "As much as I wish a film like Blue Beetle had been made before, I'm happy that I was able to do it now, in this day and age, and with a cast that spans generations," he explains. "We've got everyone from legendary Mexican actors to up-and-coming Chicano stars in this film. Being able to bridge those gaps between various generations is an amazing opportunity."
A.frame: When you initially signed on to make Blue Beetle, it was planned as an HBO Max original film. What were your thoughts on that strategy at the time?
When I got onto the project, you're right that it was an HBO Max release, but there was an understanding that, more than anything else, that was the result of the pandemic and the whole day-and-date mandate. Before then, the intention was to release the film theatrically. When I came in, I definitely thought, "I'm gonna take this, because it's an amazing opportunity, but what are the chances that the first time we have the chance to be the heroes of our own story, it has to go straight to streaming? Why are we always thought of as belonging on TV rather than the big, silver screen?" So, we worked very hard to create an experience worthy of a theatrical release. We shot on IMAX, and we decided to do our world-building in a way that's bigger than life, because we wanted the film's story to feel very specific but also universal at the same time. Everybody involved really put in a lot of effort to create an experience that was worthy of the big screen.
Did the change in the film's release strategy impact that approach at all? Or were you always planning on shooting it the way that you did?
Always, dude. I was like, "I don't care if this is gonna be released in 360 SD resolution, I'm just going to go for it." We all went for it. We all knew that this story deserved that mentality, and I wanted to go as big as I could with it. Even if the plan wasn't for it to be released theatrically, I was still going to just go for it, you know? Sooner or later, I thought that the studio would see, whether it was through our dailies or through concept art, the potential this film had to be front and center on the big screen, to be part of the cultural zeitgeist as a milestone moment for Latino representation. We also thought committing as hard as we could to the film's Latin culture would help us freshen up the superhero genre a little bit, and would create a different lens for people to see this origin story through.
The film really goes out of its way to focus on the Reyes family and their Latin roots. What was it like for you to bring that aspect of Blue Beetle to life?
I wanted to protect that aspect of the film more than anything else, because in superhero movies, the most exciting parts are usually the big, explosive action sequences. Our movie didn't have the usual big, explosive superhero movie budget, though, so we decided to hone in on the thing that we consider the biggest, most explosive aspects of our own culture: Our familial values and how we relate to our family members and members of our communities. We wanted to show how those things really inform the way we all might handle the kind of challenges that arise in a superhero film.
Are there any specific cultural details that you're particularly proud ended up in the film?
A lot! And a lot were left out, unfortunately. But it's worth saying that Latinos are not a monolith, and it's pretty impossible to put every Latin person's experience into one movie, which means it's hard to put all the preferences, specificities, and nuances that we wanted to into one movie. We had to pick and choose the best ones that were not only reflective of the Mexican family at the center of our film, but that also allowed us to create connections between the world's different Latin communities and countries. We had to find the points of intersectionality where we could actually celebrate the things that connect us as Latinos.
For example, I'm very happy that we were able to include María del Barrio, the telenovela, in the film. Every Latino household, from Mexico to Patagonia, was forced to watch María del Barrio by their grandmother. [Laughs] There's just no denying that! The film's writer, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, is from Mexico. I'm from Puerto Rico. Despite that fact, our first introduction to a [Latino] superhero was El Chapulín Colorado. We grew up with that, so including it in the film was inevitable. We realized, "Oh, man, there's a lot more stuff that we have in common than there are differences between us, so why not celebrate those things?" A lot of the references in the film are very specific to the Reyes family's Mexican culture, but they're also very universal as well.
The other thing that I really wanted to include in the film — and that I’m happy stayed in it — is the backstory of one of our villains, Conrad Carapax, which touches on the United States' interventionism in Latin America. In Carapax's case, we address the actions of the School of the Americas and how everything started in Guatemala in 1954 and still exists today. That's an obscure moment in history that nobody talks about, and when we presented it to the studio, everyone was surprised that it was a real-life historical moment. They thought we'd made it up for the film's story, and I was like, "No, this really happened, and the fact that you guys don't know about it only reaffirms to me that it needs to be discussed in this film." We didn't want to perpetuate the stereotype in this film that there are Latinos out there that are just born bad, have no excuses for their actions, and need to be ignored. I'm not saying there aren't bad people out there, but one thing we've never had the opportunity to ask in a Hollywood movie like this before is: What are the situations and events that create people like Carapax? We had the opportunity in this film to ask that question and explore the answers to it. That's why, even though there are some non-believers out there who will debate this, the flashback showing Carapax's past features archival footage from the School of the Americas' real-life interventionism in Guatemala and South America. I'm very happy we were able to keep all of that in the film.
How has it been for you to see James Gunn and Peter Safran, the heads of DC Films, embrace Blue Beetle so warmly? And for Gunn to confirm that Jaime Reyes is the first hero of their new DC cinematic universe?
I still hear you say that and there's a part of me that's like, "Okay, when are you going to tell me that this is all a prank?" Maybe that's just my personal imposter syndrome or insecurities, but there was just so much work and effort put into all of this. Not just from me and my cast and my crew, but also so much work that was done that paved the way before us and made it possible for a film like this to happen. There have been a lot of unknown voices out there that never got the chance to see all of this materialize, so the fact that Blue Beetle is the first step into the DCU and the new heads of DC are embracing it as a canonical part of Jaime Reyes' story is really gratifying. His story in this film is so Latino. It just oozes our culture and really embraces the freedom to be ourselves and celebrate ourselves without any shame, and now this film is Jaime's DCU prologue. Moving forward, if viewers want to know anything about Jaime, they can go back to this film. He's the first hero of his new DC Universe, and that really opens the door for us to continue our mission with him.
Right from the start, Gareth and I set out to make a film that could be the first act of a saga. We took that seriously, because we've never had the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the world in this way before. We've never had the opportunity to show what came before us and what formed us — the good and the bad. As a Puerto Rican, we've had West Side Story and Carlito's Way, you know? We've always been gangsters or we've always just gotten out of prison. There's never been any hope for our community onscreen, because we’ve always just been "bad people." That’s not the truth, of course, but Hollywood's never given us the chance to explore the truth before. With that in mind, we really wanted Blue Beetle to be an exploration of what makes us powerful as a community, and we really wanted to explore one of the many ways that we can represent our culture positively. We've never had the opportunity to really do that before, and it's comforting to know that James and Peter appreciate the film and believe in it, too, for those reasons. As two white men and the literal gatekeepers of DC, it's very reassuring to see them be such allies in helping us tell our stories the way we want to.
It fills me with immense pride and joy and honor and gratitude to be part of this. To take a quote from another Latino, Phil Lord: This was a film made by a lot of people. A lot of people were responsible for this movie turning out the way it has. A lot of passion and love and pieces of ourselves are exposed very vulnerably in this film, because we see those pieces of ourselves as the things that make us powerful. My only hope is that this is the first of many, and not just the first of many movies made by me and my crew or about Jaime Reyes and his family. I hope this is the first of many movies told by authentic Latino voices and other members of other marginalized communities that want to see themselves celebrated onscreen, because, frankly, it's just good to see life through different lenses. That's how we grow more empathetic, and that's how we create a better world. We have the power to take down barriers, and I think that's the beauty of cinema. Entertaining people is amazing, but I think one of the most beautiful things about cinema is, as Roger Ebert said, the empathy machine nature of it. It gives us a window into worlds that we don't know, and it shows us that, at the end of the day, we're not that different after all.
By Alex Welch