For years, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has hinted that his films take place within the same cinematic universe. Two years ago, he even teased the possibility that future projects might bring together the disparate worlds he’s built in his nearly three decades as a filmmaker. It’s tough to imagine how the the story lines of, say, Sin City and Spy Kids might intersect, but it’s interesting to imagine how the dynamic between the Cortez family of spies and the neo-noir vigilantes and villains of Sin City might play out.
Rodriguez’s cinematic oeuvre got a new entry recently: We Can Be Heroes, which Netflix released on Christmas. The film kicks off with the abduction of Earth’s heroes by alien invaders. Their children, including the superpower-less protagonist Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin), must team up and learn how to work together to bring them back.
On the heels of Rodriguez’s new release, we thought it was high time for a power ranking of the filmmaker’s most iconic heroes, from Machete to Lavagirl. But first, a caveat to this very unscientific ranking: to narrow things down, we’ll only be ranking characters in films that Rodriguez both wrote and directed. That means characters from Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn, Predators, and Alita: Battle Angel aren’t in contention.
10. The Wilson family (Spy Kids: All the Time in the World)
Eight years after the third Spy Kids movie, Rodriguez returned with a fourth installment that shifted focus to the Wilson family. Retired spy Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba)—Carmen and Juni Cortez’s aunt—attempts to bond with her stepchildren when she’s called to defeat Tick Tock, a villainous schemer determined to speed up time on Earth. What can I say? I hate change. There’s nothing technically wrong with this family of super spies. They made for an entertaining movie, but they’re just not the Cortezes. Marissa Wilson does get major credit, though, for helping to save the day after just giving birth.
9. Max (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl)
Max, the protagonist of Rodriguez’s 2005 flick The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, has a whole lot of heart. Given his ability to dream anything he wants into existence (including his friends Sharkboy and Lavagirl), he’s a powerful entry on this list; at one point, he creates an entire dream world called Planet Drool. But since he doesn’t possess full control of his powers through most of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, his daydreaming abilities also come with a significant downside: the ability to make his nightmares come to life. This births one of the most absurd and iconic villains in the Rodriguez Cinematic Universe, Mr. Electric, an evil robot played by George Lopez who wields some truly awful puns.
8. Padre Benicio Del Toro (Machete)
I’ll be honest, most of this entry is based on a three-minute scene from Machete. But it doesn’t get much better than seeing a Catholic priest (portrayed by the legendary Cheech Marin) use two sawed-off shotguns to defeat four armed henchmen roaming his church. As the song “Ave Maria” swells dramatically in the background, Padre Del Toro narrowly dodges machine-gun fire and pulls off a slew of incredible hits. Most important, though, he’s responsible for one of the best lines ever committed to film. When an enemy on the wrong end of his shotgun begs Padre for mercy, he replies: “God has mercy, I don’t.”
7. Luz a.k.a. Shé (Machete)
Another standout character in Machete, Luz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) is a taco truck owner by day and a pro–immigrant rights vigilante by night. Through her alias “Shé,” Luz helps undocumented immigrants through her underground aid movement, the Network. She’s passionate and relentless, remaining loyal to Machete even when her refusal to give up his whereabouts results in a gunshot to the eye. (While sporting an eye patch, she’s still an incredible shot.) When she returns in the franchise’s sequel, Machete Kills, she’s blinded by one of her enemies and still manages to finish the job with a killer blow to the heart.
6. Sharkboy (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, We Can Be Heroes)
Rodriguez’s aptly named half-shark, half-man character Sharkboy was once a human, but eventually evolved into his current form when a storm separated him from his marine biologist father and he was taken in by sharks, giving him a big leg up in the competition for coolest origin story. He also boasts enhanced reflexes, speed, and strength in addition to being capable of breathing underwater and communicating with sharks. I did dock a few points, though, because of the “Dream Song” that Sharkboy sings for Max during the film. This “lullaby” is aggressive, too catchy, and includes a short dance sequence that I still think about to this day.
5. The Cortez family (Spy Kids trilogy)
I want everything this family has, from the drama to the intrigue to their secretive and fast-paced lifestyle. We’re introduced to the Cortez family in the first Spy Kids film, with the youngest members, siblings Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), completely unaware that their parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) work for the Organization of Super Spies (OSS). By the end of the third installment, the tight-knit family has defeated menacing thumbs, an army of robot children, an evil double agent, and the formerly imprisoned Toymaker, who’s hellbent on revenge. They might not have superpowers, but as a unit the Cortez family is more than capable of saving the world time and time again.
4. Lavagirl (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, We Can Be Heroes)
It’s never made clear where Lavagirl comes from or how she came by her powers. But the ability to shoot magma out of her hands, as well as her penchant for turning into lava, make her a far more powerful and capable hero than her love interest Sharkboy.
3. Guppy and Friends (We Can Be Heroes)
As the daughter of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, the adorably named Guppy possesses both the shark strength and lava powers of her parents. Making her onscreen debut in We Can Be Heroes, Guppy is part of a group of superhero children on a mission to retrieve their parents back from alien invaders. She also has an inimitable group of friends that includes Noodles, who can stretch his body; twins Rewind and Fast Forward, who can change the course of time; A Capella, whose power includes moving objects through song; and Facemaker, who has the distinctive skill of being able to create different identities. Given their combined powers, this crew easily earns their spot in the top five.
2. El Mariachi (El Mariachi trilogy)
El Mariachi, the character who kick-started Rodriguez’s career, was portrayed first by Carlos Gallardo and then by Antonio Banderas in subsequent films. With his guitar case in hand, the character, who has no name, has a mystery that only adds to his allure. He was once a traveling mariachi whose guitar case led a group of hitmen to mistake him for their real target. As with many heroes, his love interests often meet tragic fates that leave him determined to avenge them. El Mariachi makes for a formidable enemy, but given everything he’s been subjected to, it’s hard to fault him for it.
1. Machete (Spy Kids series, Machete)
It should come as no surprise that Machete, one of the most iconic movie characters ever created, is the undisputed number one entry on this list. Though he technically made his debut as Uncle Machete in the Spy Kids series (Rodriguez has gone on the record saying Machete and Uncle Machete are the same person in alternate universes), this hardened, knife-wielding former Mexican Federal with a conscience won over audiences in 2010, making him one of the first mainstream Latino superheroes in a major blockbuster flick. While Machete doesn’t have superpowers, I think his motorcycle Gatling gun should absolutely count for something. He also earns points for ingenuity for his, erm, unique style of taking care of his enemies. (The man once escaped from a hospital by disemboweling one of his enemies and rappelling out of a window with his intestines.) He’s an underdog who’s easy to root for, one who’s fighting for a cause.