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Filmmakers behind Latinx superhero movies like 'Blue Beetle' hope to inspire change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today the superhero Blue Beetle bursts onto the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLUE BEETLE")

XOLO MARIDUENA: (As Jaime Reyes) Let's party. Yeah. It's like Batman stuff.

GEORGE LOPEZ: (As Rudy Reyes) Batman is a fascist.

KELLY: It stars and was written and directed by Latino talent, but they are not allowed to promote the film while unionized Hollywood actors and screenwriters are on strike against big studios like Warner Bros. Instead, a group of Latino leaders, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and LA Collab, is trying to get audiences to see the movie. And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, Blue Beetle is the latest in a long line of Latino superheroes.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The first time we see the live-action superhero America Chavez on screen, she's getting chased with Doctor Strange through the multiverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS")

XOCHITL GOMEZ: (As America Chavez, speaking Spanish).

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange, speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ: Spanish words - I mean, that's huge. Marvel movie - first word is a Spanish word.

DEL BARCO: Xochitl Gomez plays the Marvel hero.

GOMEZ: America Chavez is a 14-year-old young Latina girl who can punch star-shaped portals that allow her to travel throughout the multiverse. And that is a power that no one else really has.

DEL BARCO: The Mexican American actress is excited about the Latinx superhero, who uses Mexican slang and wears a red, white and blue jacket and an LGBTQ-plus pride pin.

GOMEZ: Seeing how much it means to fans, especially young brown girls - I get stopped on the street. Someone would be like, you know, I just want to let you know that I feel so seen because you're there.

VICTORIA ALONSO: There is validity when we see ourselves represented.

DEL BARCO: Victoria Alonso is an executive producer of Marvel Studios' biggest global film releases. Alonso said she worked for many years to bring America Chavez and other diverse characters to the big screen.

ALONSO: Superheroes give you the chance to dream of becoming someone with a different power. But at the end of the day, all of our stories bring you back to the power of you.

DEL BARCO: Colombian American Sasha Calle is the new Supergirl in "The Flash." Another Colombiana, Rachel Zegler, portrays a goddess with superpowers in "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods." Unlike America Chavez, these characters don't ID as Latina. In that sense, they're like a TV superhero from the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDER WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Wonder Woman.

DEL BARCO: Mexican American actress Lynda Carter played '70s Wonder Woman, a character from a mythical land called Amazonia - not the Amazon, which could have made for fun South American adventures. At any rate, the CW network dropped its planned TV series of "Wonder Girl." And then there's "Batgirl." Dominican Leslie Grace shot all her scenes as Batgirl before Warner Bros. Discovery spiked the movie, reportedly as a tax write-off. Infuriated fans leaked film footage and made their own online trailer with a new villain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The Warner Bros. And you're a write-off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE GUN FIRING)

DEL BARCO: The "Batgirl" news had fans worried about other DC superheroes, such as Blue Beetle.

ANGEL MANUEL SOTO: I'm not going to lie. There was concern, anger, fear at first.

DEL BARCO: At the Warner Bros.' lot last year, long before the Hollywood strike, Puerto Rican director Angel Manuel Soto says studio executives reassured him "Blue Beetle" wouldn't suffer the same fate as "Batgirl."

SOTO: They told me not to worry. The film has their full support.

DEL BARCO: Actor Xolo Mariduena stars as Jaime Reyes, who becomes Blue Beetle when he's implanted with superpowered alien armor.

MARIDUENA: He's kind of, like, a fusion of Green Lantern and Iron Man. He has a scarab from outer space that's attached to his body called Khaji Da.

DEL BARCO: The 21-year-old actor, who's now on strike, said Blue Beetle is one of the oldest characters in the DC Universe. Earlier Blue Beetles were archeologists, inventors or industrialists by day. But Mariduena and Soto said their Blue Beetle is new.

MARIDUENA: He's a first-generation Mexican American kid from El Paso, Texas.

SOTO: A kid from a marginalized community and humble neighborhood who now has these powers that were only reserved for the white and few.

MARIDUENA: That's right.

DEL BARCO: Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer wrote the screenplay for "Blue Beetle."

GARETH DUNNET-ALCOCER: What would my mom do if an alien technology burrowed into my spine? Like, she would not think it's cool. And for the Reyes family, this is terrible. We're going to get attention from American institutions, from the government, from the military, from the police.

DEL BARCO: Alcocer said growing up in Queretaro, Mexico, he never related to ultra-rich superheroes like Batman or Iron Man. But he did enjoy a naive, accident-prone TV superhero from the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EL CHAPULIN COLORADO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) El Chapulin Colorado.

DEL BARCO: Mexican comedian Chespirito - Roberto Gomez Bolanos - created the satirical character Alcocer loved.

DUNNET-ALCOCER: The American heroes are so, like, yeah, and there's so much confidence, and, I know everything, and powerful and stuff. And he's just this wily, fallible, super-skinny, scared, slightly depressive guy.

DEL BARCO: From the 1950s to '70s, there were other Mexican superheroes on film and TV. Kaliman, the Incredible Man, had telepathic powers. And El Santo was a masked lucha libre wrestler, a luchador who fought zombies, vampires and rivals, like Blue Demon.

HUGO ABEL CASTRO DUARTE: The oldest superheroes are the luchadores.

DEL BARCO: Video game industry promoter Hugo Abel Castro Duarte led a panel on Mexican superheroes at last year's Comic-Con.

DUARTE: The luchadores were wearing spandex in the late 1800s, way before Superman and Batman were wearing spandex. So we kind of joke around a little bit that they copies us in spandex and their mask and their capes.

DEL BARCO: The Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny is a pro wrestler, and he's been cast to play a luchador named El Muerto in an upcoming spinoff of "Spider-Man." Over the years, Spidey has appeared in many guises. In 2018, he was an animated, bilingual Puerto Rican kid in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE")

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Miles Morales) My name is Miles Morales. And in my world, I'm the one and only Spider-Man.

DEL BARCO: And on screen, many Zorros have left their mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORD SWISHING)

DEL BARCO: Actor Wilmer Valderrama is developing a Zorro TV series for Disney. And filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and his sister Rebecca are working on a modern-day female Zorro. Peruvian American filmmaker Alex Rivera is also working on "Zorro 2.0," a cyberpunk story of a Zorro fan named Oscar Vega, an undocumented kid in Southern California.

ALEX RIVERA: When Oscar's family is attacked by, essentially, ICE, Homeland Security, his mom is detained and deported, he uses his hacker prowess to infiltrate their databases.

DEL BARCO: Rivera says the original Zorro story was based on the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta from the 1850s. Zorro was Don Diego de la Vega in Colonial California.

RIVERA: By day, he sort of writes poetry and complains that his back hurts. But then at night, he takes on this other identity as an avenger with a mask and a cape, standing up for the poor. This image of the rich man by day, avenger by night gets taken up by the people who create Batman. So I always say, you know, Batman has a Mexican father.

DEL BARCO: As Hollywood looks for ways to boost the box office and remain culturally relevant, Zorro, Blue Beetle, America Chavez and other Latinx superheroes are poised to save the day. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE THE DAY")

SELENA GOMEZ: (Singing) Save the day. Day, day, day, oh, save the day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.