Ángel Manuel Soto is a little unlucky. The Puerto Rican director’s second feature film, Charm City Kings, was well received when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. It was scheduled to screen again at South by Southwest in March and see a theatrical release in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed those plans. HBO Max would end up streaming the film in October of that year, but in August 2022, news broke that the company now known as Max had quietly removed it from its service.
Now the double strike roiling Hollywood has upended the promotion of Soto’s third feature film, Blue Beetle. The director has been making the media rounds by himself in the weeks leading up to its nationwide release on Friday. (While the actors and writers continue to strike, the directors’ union cut a deal with studios in June.) In part because of the film’s hamstrung rollout, box office forecasts predict Blue Beetle, which reportedly cost $125 million to make, will underperform.
“I don’t think about it that much,” Soto says, “ ’cause the fact that we’ve gone this far and for me to make a movie like this, finally having this Latino representation where we have a lot of freedom to be ourselves, is very positive for me.” Soto dons the “aw, shucks, I’m just happy to be here” vibe, because why shouldn’t he? He’s talking to me in a back room at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, near downtown Austin, where he worked as a food runner. Blue Beetle is the first major superhero flick with a Latino, Xolo Maridueña, as its lead, and he’s surrounded by Latino and Indigenous actors in George Lopez, Adriana Barraza, Damián Alcázar, Elpidia Carrillo, Bruna Marquezine, Raoul Max Trujillo, Belissa Escobedo, and Harvey Guillén. That alone is a cause to celebrate.
Blue Beetle, which opens in theaters Friday, follows Jaime Reyes (Maridueña), a recent college graduate who returns home to find his family struggling to pay the bills. Reyes takes it upon himself to put his dreams of becoming a lawyer on hold to help out. Eventually, he comes into contact with an ancient alien biotechnology called the Scarab that makes him its symbiotic host, turning Reyes into a reluctant superhero who comes into conflict with arms dealer Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) and her cyborg bodyguard, Conrad Carapax (Trujillo). Blue Beetle may not upend well-worn origin-story tropes, but it’s still great popcorn fare. It features vibrant scenery, action-packed sequences, and a torrent of great jokes, many of them coming by way of Lopez, who plays Jaime’s weird, car-and-electronics-obsessed uncle.
In tone, Blue Beetle is light, but it is packed with social commentary and political themes. Kord is a perfect foil to Jaime. She’s an extremely wealthy arms dealer who is unrepentantly selfish and despises her family, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s the only significant character who isn’t Latino or a person of color. Carapax is essentially just a pilot project to build supersoldiers and sell them to the highest bidder. In Blue Beetle, you’ll find critiques of police violence, capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and imperialism in Latin America. “If we’re gonna be introducing the first Latino superhero in a Hollywood film that centers around a Latino family, it would be amiss to not talk about the things that affect us and that have affected us in the past,” Soto says.
Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, will probably delight in the film’s cultural references, such as to El Chapulín Colorado, plus some vulgar language in Spanish that’s unsubtitled and likely didn’t compute with the MPAA. Those moments of specificity give the story and its characters texture. While Soto’s mission to accurately represent Latino life succeeds, the decision to change the setting from the comic book’s El Paso to the fictional Palmera City will always be disappointing to some Texans. “I understand how it feels to get something that’s yours taken out; I totally get it,” Soto says. “[People at DC Studios] were already working on introducing this new city for Blue Beetle [before I signed on] because they were trying to position Blue Beetle in the top tiers of DC superheroes.” Sure, Wonder Woman has fought her share of crime in Washington, D.C.; London; and Paris, but she is originally from Paradise Island, inspired by the Greek city of Themyscira and the myth of the Amazons. The Teen Titans (of which Blue Beetle is a member) have been based in New York City and San Francisco, but they’ve also been headquartered in places that exist solely in comic books. The norm for DC’s most prominent superheroes is to have their own fictional locales. Superman has Metropolis. Batman is in Gotham City. The Flash holes up in Central City. Aquaman is from Atlantis. If Blue Beetle was to become a first-tier character within the DC universe, he was not long for El Paso. At least not in name. The problem is that while Soto says there are Easter eggs in the film that pay homage to Sun City and that it served as an inspiration for Palmera, the place doesn’t look or feel anything like El Paso, much less anywhere in Texas.
Palmera City is saturated in neon pink and blue. Its skyline is crowded with skyscrapers and a beachfront—for those unfamiliar with our geography, there ain’t no ocean anywhere near El Paso. Palmera looks more like the setting of a futuristic Miami Vice than it does the 915. To make Jaime Reyes a marquee character with global appeal, DC clearly felt it had to remove him from El Paso and ditch the border-town themes that define his comic book stories. Maridueña said as much in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “We thought [staying true to the comic books] might hit hard for people in America and Mexico who understand that Texas kind of narrative, but we wanted the story to really transcend both the Mexican market and the American market. We felt creating Palmera City was the perfect way to do it because it’s a metropolis of Latinos. It has the sound of a Miami and the look of a Los Angeles and the style of Barcelona,” he said.
If there’s anything the creators of the Blue Beetle film got wrong, it’s that they could’ve probably afforded to make some aspects of Palmera resemble El Paso. Why not name it Sol City and put it in the desert? We’ll see soon enough if this vague rendering of an amalgam of cities with rich Latino culture helps make Blue Beetle the first success of James Gunn and Peter Safran’s tenure as coheads of DC Studios. Border-town stories are important, and I think Maridueña’s wrong about how well they would connect with people throughout the world, but making Blue Beetle a successful character feels more important than where he’s being a hero.