Chicanos have been carrying metaphorical pitchforks and flaming torches for years—demonstrating and complaining that Hollywood just doesn’t make enough movies by and about Latinos, especially working-class Latino families. I’ve been marching in that Chicano virtual village mob outside the walls of Hollywood studios for years, along with lots of other like-minded raza. Over the years we have been able to celebrate little victories and successes here and there. So, now comes a monster Big Budget Blockbuster of a movie centered on a Mexican American contemporary working-class family. And además, it’s a super-hero movie with the hero being a young Chicano (although that word is never used in the film; perish the thought). What could go wrong?
The film is “Blue Beetle.” The main character is played by the very capable Xolo Maridueña. He’s sort of a Spider-Man. And a bit of Superman. With just a touch of Ant Man. The movie is a product of DC Comics, directed by Puerto Rican Ángel Manuel Soto, with an able cast of Latino actors. (Plus, a memorable Susan Sarandon as a sort of low-key Cruella de Vil villiain).
The DC tale has its origins in comics of years ago. It’s all updated for the purposes of this contemporary version, which takes place in the mythical Miami-like city called Palmera. In this new version our hero, Jaime Reyes, has just graduated from college—the first in his familia to accomplish that feat. So far, so good. But he comes home to find that his family is facing a desmadre of a situation. His family’s home is about to be taken away. His jefito had a heart attack and lost his auto repair business. Pobresa is stalking the family. And, oh yeah, greedy corporate-driven gentrification is stalking the entire community.
Because this a comic book movie, the twists and turns that follow are tolerated by the audience, as outrageously improbable as they may be. Hey, it’s a movie! Oh, and it’s a comic book super-hero movie–okay?
What is established right away is the core foundation and driving force in the narrative is that family matters. Love may not conquer all, but it binds the family together and it gives purpose and agency to the mono. The peculiarities of the various characters surface. Jaime’s father, played by Damián Alcázar, is warm and stoically protective of his familia. It is, however, a bit grating to hear some of his aphorisms that sound like fortune-cookie axioms. The abuelita, wonderfully portrayed by Adriana Barraza, slowly reveals a riotous personal history and perspective. She is a gun-toting revolution-minded Nana. (As the movie develops, she makes Che Guevara look like Pee Wee Herman.) And, of course, a romance is sparked between Jaime and the not-so-evil member of the evil corporate engulf and devour family and that has designs on ruling the world.
It’s encouraging that Latinos are front and center in the movie. Not a drug lord of gang banger among them. So, let’s consider that one of the positive accomplishments of the movie. Hooray: one point for our side. But a movie has to succeed on its merits as a movie. That goes without saying; but I said it anyway. Are the characters engaging? Does the story make sense and move along logically (given its own context and “rules”)? Do the jokes land? Is the action—whether human or CGI created—satisfying for the audience (again, within the context of a comic book, super-hero movie)? Hey, are you sufficiently entertained for two hours? These issues determine the success or failure of the movie. This movie has vastly more successes than failures.
How does working-class college boy Jaime become a Spider Man-like hybrid super hero? Hold onto your tando. Remember the aforementioned evil, but endearing Susan Sarandon character—Victoria Kord? Well, she’s the mastermind of a plan to use an extraterrestrial-sourced (insert your variety of “illegal alien” jokes here) mecanismo to create a super cyborg army to rule the world. It’s done by using this gizmo, shaped like an ancient Egyptian scarab, that can create these Robo Cop-like violent humanoid stormtroopers. This is like AI on fentanyl steroids. This mysterious, magical scarab looks like, you guessed it, a fist-sized iridescent blue beetle. (By the way, Sarandon ain’t no ingenue anymore, but she still is stunning and has commanding presence.) Where was I?
Oh yes, this being a super-hero movie we see that Jaime Reyes has this scarab cosa glom onto his back. It infiltrates him. It connects to his brain and, working in tandem with his physiological self, it ends up giving him super powers. He becomes the Blue Beetle.
Aided and an abetted by his resourceful family, he works to vanquish the bad guys. He’s helped, particularly, by Uncle Rudy. Rudy–part cholo, part computer nerd, part Rasputin—is played wickedly by George Lopez. The veteran stand-up comedian likely contributed some of his character’s one-liners to the script. He is funny and a bit menacing at the same time. So, should the Chicanada be satisfied with this Blue Beetle movie? Should we cheer the movie as a positive reflection on our community. Should we say, Hollywood you got this one—mostly—right?
There is much to applaud, from a Latino point of view. The strength of the family. The cooperation they demonstrate. The basic notions of caring and compassion. All good. The humorous, but on-target digs at gentrification, corporate avarice and colonial imperialism, are duly noted. The subtle cultural references, from Mexican cuisine to El Chapulin Colorado induce chuckles of familiarity. And the movie tells a good story that’s fun to watch for the most part. What else is a movie supposed to achieve?
This shouldn’t be a controversial list of achievements. But, in this social media age, it is. YouTube and other platforms have already erupted with racist, stereotypical depictions of the movie and its characters. It just confirms that racist pendejos are still out there and, presumably, always will be. I have some Chicano friends who were not crazy about “The Blue Beetle.” I understand.
But my small criticisms of the film are tempered by the context of the whole thing. We’ve been yelling at Hollywood for years to make movies with positive images of Latinos. This movie is at least an additional step in that direction.
I smell sequels.
Copyright 2023 by Luis Torres. Luis Torres is a veteran Los Angeles journalist who is the author of a forthcoming biography of political pioneer Gloria Molina. Blue Beetle poster used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. Photo of George Lopez in the public domain.