There is a line toward the end of “Blue Beetle” — the Latinx superhero live-action movie released in theaters Aug. 18 — that exactly describes one of my first impressions of the film.
Uncle Rudy, a character played by Mexican American stand-up comedian George Lopez, receives a surprise gift: a new Toyota Tacoma. Upon realizing that the truck is blue, he chuckles and says something like, “It’s a little on the nose, no?”
As it turns out, “Blue Beetle” is a lot on the nose. From the beginning of the 127-minute movie, there is a barrage of Hispanic references that overwhelm the senses. From the music choices — there was some Calle 13, Los Panchos, Selena, and Ivy Queen, among other Hispanic musical titans — to the iconic images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a Vicks VapoRub appearance, the movie immediately feels like it wants to unapologetically keep reminding you that, just in case you forgot, this is a Latino film made by Latinos.
The cultural specificity is strong, the Hispanic touchstones nonstop. Most of them are about Mexican identity. The Latinx superhero film centers on Jaime Reyes, portrayed by Xolo Madriueña, who transforms into Blue Beetle and his family, who are of Mexican descent. Hence the specific mentions of Mexican pop culture symbols like the telenovela “Maria la del Barrio” and “El Chapulín Colorado,” a reference to a Mexican TV comedy from the ’70s that will likely come across as obscure even for some Latino viewers.
And yet all the references end up working because it’s as if the movie knows it’s being literal. On some level, one can conclude that “Blue Beetle” is trying too hard. But behind all the Hispanic stereotypes and tropes, and the deeper gentrification and colonialism themes, “Blue Beetle” contains a meaningful layer that resonated with people like me, a Mexican American immigrant.
Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto, a Puerto Rican filmmaker, and written by Mexican American screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, “Blue Beetle” opened to underwhelming success at the box office compared to other superhero movies from the DC multiverse. But it did dethrone “Barbie” at the box office during its opening weekend and, to be fair, its release came during the actors and screenwriters strike, which prevented the protagonists from participating in the movie’s promotional plans.
The plot, which is formulaic but also funny, focuses on the gravitational pull of an immigrant family, a Mexican American one in this case. That’s where the heart of the movie is. The real protagonists are the abuelita, or grandma, Nana Reyes; the comedic chops of Lopez’s Uncle Rudy (who uttered the instant classic, “Batman is a fascist!”); and Jaime’s father, Alberto, played by an outstanding Mexican actor, Damián Alcázar, who stole the movie. Then there’s the unapologetic use of Spanish and Spanglish throughout the movie, which gives it an exceptional authenticity, as others have argued. Plus, Ignacio Carapax, the movie’s supervillain, speaks a Guatemalan indigenous language. That has got to be a first.
Sure, it’s going to take more than a fun Latino DC Comics superhero flick — the first one ever — to fix the stubborn lack of Hispanic representation on the big screen. The newest installment of a Hollywood diversity study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that Latinos held roughly 5 percent of speaking roles in films last year, a percentage that has barely budged in recent years. The representation gap is striking: 1 in 5 Americans identify as Hispanic.
That invisibility is what came to mind when Milagro, Jaime’s sister, deadpans to him, “We’re invisible to people like that, Jaime. It’s like our superpower.” Aside from the topic of Hispanic underrepresentation, that sentence contains multitudes. To me, it was a nod to the way many Latinos, and immigrants in general, have learned to turn invisibility into strength and resilience.
Is every Latinx viewer going to love “Blue Beetle”? Of course not, it’s not designed for that. And therein lies its beauty as well. Latinidad means different things to different Latinos, which is of course why the question of identity is so complex. The movie portrays distinct Latino experiences — to name two: Milagro won’t go to college because the family can’t afford it and she doesn’t want to go into debt; and Carapax’s villain origin story in an indigenous village in Guatemala echoes the legacy of American military interventionism in Central America. Many Latinos will relate to those experiences, while some others won’t.
What truly made me love the movie, though, was the song chosen for the closing credits, a selection so singular and epic that I felt like the director was speaking directly to me. It was “Nada Personal,” an upbeat synth-pop hit from the ’80s by the famous Argentinian rock band Soda Stereo. The band’s better-known songs, “De Música Ligera” or “Persiana Americana,” would have been more obvious choices but the fact that they weren’t picked felt original.
It’s been years since I’ve heard “Nada Personal,” but my sister and I immediately started lip syncing it, the only ones in the theater singing along. As corny as this sounds, I felt uniquely seen. And that is “Blue Beetle’s” real superpower.