In the Mexico of the 1970s where I grew up, we had no shortage of native superheroes — an antidote to Hollywood imports. My favorite was Kalimán, el hombre increíble, created for radio in 1963, who became the protagonist of movies, comic strips, and folk merchandise. A martial-arts master, Kalimán’s true power was more of the mental variety: He could hypnotize his enemies, move objects with his mind, levitate, and self-heal a wound in a matter of seconds.
There were other legends, too — luchadores like El Santo and Blue Demon and a few Indigenous fighters courageously defending the poor. Some of us who were enamored with this galaxy of Mexican defensores also grew up hearing stories about the Aztec deity Quetzalcóatl, a proto-superhero with magical powers.
My father, Abraham Stavans, was a telenovela star. He had a small role in “Chespirito” (“Little Shakespeare”), a religiously watched comedy show on Mexican TV. One of the rotating characters was El Chapulín Colorado, a superhero, clumsy and cute, often looking as if he were in his pajamas.
These images of my youth are again on my mind after watching “Blue Beetle,” which is being heralded as a cultural benchmark because it is the first DC movie to feature a Latino superhero.
But don’t be fooled: The plot is trite; the cast, a basketful of stereotypes. Across from the fictional metropolis of Palmera City is the Reyes household: a working-class, Mexican family struggling to find a door to the American Dream. Jaime (Xolo Maridueña), their college-graduate son, has piling student debt. His younger sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), aware of the prevalent racism and lack of opportunities for brown people, won’t even consider going to school. The insinuation is that both Jaime and Milagro are DREAMers.
I’ll save you the whole plot synopsis, but let’s just say it involves a weapons-manufacturing company run by an evil CEO, the Guatemalan bodyguard she’s experimenting on, a budding romance, and an alien scarab that gives Jaime an armor suit and superhero powers.
Soto has said the filmmakers wanted to create a “love letter to the people that came before us,” meaning their ancestors. But the original Blue Beetle character, an archaeologist named Dan Garrett who made his debut in 1939, didn’t have any Latino DNA. (The character does have some Holyoke roots: Holyoke Publishing Company printed comics about the Blue Beetle in the early 1940s.) Attempting to redress the character, the current movie is rooted in a venture that started in 2006, when DC Comics decided to bank on the Latino market, changing his name to Jaime Reyes and making him a teenager from El Paso.
Yet the protagonist’s Latinidad feels more like a corporate ploy than an authentic feature, a superhero by way of the Taco Bell toolbox. Jaime Reyes wants to “live más,” but other than the coincidence of birth, he doesn’t articulate what exactly makes him Latino.
The best special effect here isn’t the mutation he undergoes to become the Blue Beetle (why are we still calling this “special effects”? There’s nothing special about it any more), but the film’s use of Spanish. The dialogue not only switches back and forth between English and Spanish (with subtitles) but includes scenes in Spanglish — a fixture of American TV and Hollywood at least since “I Love Lucy” — and the use of an Indigenous Guatemalan tongue in segments that serve as a framework for the backstory of the bodyguard Carapax.
It seems to me that the real source of “Blue Beetle” is Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella “The Metamorphosis.” Jaime Reyes wakes up one day to discover he has become a giant bug. His parents don’t know what to do with him. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Jaime has a sister who is becoming a young woman and who negotiates her brother’s ordeal with savvy and care. Unfortunately, screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer doesn’t appear interested in exploring, even obliquely, the literary allusions in the plot.
The Reyes household also includes Nana (Adriana Barraza), the ubiquitous abuelita, who, without fail, serves as the centripetal force keeping the family together; and Rudy (George Lopez), the bad-mouthed, low-riding, conspiracy-driven uncle, who’s also a savvy computer hacker. Nana and Uncle Rudy season the narrative with all sorts of melodramatic lines about being undocumented, missing the monthly rent, and, as always in Latino humor, unleashing farts (as when a bug-shaped spaceship emits ventosities to eliminate enemies).
Actually, “Blue Beetle” isn’t so much a Latino movie as it is a Mexican one. The director, Ángel Manuel Soto, is from Puerto Rico, but the barrage of allusions is to Mexican pop culture, from the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Reyes living room to an animated version of El Chapulín Colorado. And then there are the countless references to Chicano iconography, among them a bobble-head of “Cheech” Marin of the Cheech and Chong duo.
This is well-traveled territory. Robert Rodriguez, the pathfinding Mexican-American filmmaker, has given us similar concoctions with movies like 1992′s “El Mariachi” and his “Spy Kids” franchise.
It’s tempting to dismiss “Blue Beetle” as derivative, except that in the superhero multiverse almost everything is. The counterargument is that superheroes exist in an ecosystem where authenticity is an undiscovered country. But then why make a “Latino” superhero movie? The desire to represent ends up misrepresenting the uniqueness of each separate culture. I get it: Showing Latino superheroes will motivate young Latinos to mend the world.
Will it, though? More transformational would be to inspire them to be original.
While watching “Blue Beetle,” I kept thinking about Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” a lasting critique of manhood, courtly love, and Spain’s imperial power. When the first part of the novel came out, in 1605, it was derided as rubbish by the Madrid elite. What those highbrow readers failed to see was how this admirable parody of chivalry novels also provided a way to look at popular culture with new eyes. In its unoriginal premise — yet another knight trying to impress his lady! — one finds its extraordinary originality.
I wished “Blue Beetle” did that. In other words, you can do wonders through stereotypes, archetypes, and prototypes.
I saw “Blue Beetle” at the local multiplex on Friday night in Hadley, near where I teach. Eight people were in the audience, including me. Although we laughed in the same places — especially when Uncle Rudy declares that “Batman is a fascist” — I left thinking of the film as more of a hype magnet than a cultural benchmark. Having grossed an estimated $25.4 million over its opening weekend, not quite a fourth of its $104 million budget, it underperformed while still managing to dethrone the five-week-old “Barbie.”
But is that really the measure of success?
Just as every hero needs worshippers, every worshipper needs a hero. Should we go for the cheap ones we are fed, or should we demand better? The Latino imagination isn’t an empty vessel easily filled with recycled parts. From time immemorial, we’ve had an extraordinary assortment of superheroes. It’s just a matter of looking in the right place to find them.
We should demand more — including the impossible.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language” (Restless Books).