DC’s Guardian Ángel

There’s a fierce sociopolitical consciousness coursing through Blue Beetle, something most wouldn’t expect from the new superhero romp by DC Studios. Those revolutionary undertones come directly from the mind of its Puerto Rican director Ángel Manuel Soto.

“Superhero movies often are about the banality of who comes up with the most unrealistic thrill ride,” Soto tells Inverse. “But why do we have to sacrifice emotion and depth for fun? Why can’t you have a lot of both?”

Ángel runs hot, his publicist says as he arrives for an interview and photo shoot, both politically and physically. Removing an oversized pinstripe jacket, he reveals a custom T-shirt with a photo of the entire Blue Beetle cast printed on the front, a loving tribute to the striking actors who can’t join him on what should be a victory tour. DC’s latest movie was at one time destined for a quiet streaming release. That it’s now playing in IMAX theaters is thanks to its director’s uncompromising vision.

But Soto’s path to Blue Beetle was more winding than straightforward, and it begins in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan where he grew up.

Although he received formal education in architecture by way of a soccer scholarship, Soto, unable to afford film school, opted for shoplifting books on cinema to teach himself the basics of film as an art form. The son of a politically involved father who advocated for unions, Soto was never keen on abiding by the system’s rules.

Told in the tradition of social realist dramas from Latin America, Soto’s 2015 microbudget debut La Granja centers on a trio of struggling characters in his financially burdened homeland. Among them, there’s a teenage boxer who must win a match to pay his father’s debts. Following a stint working in virtual reality in Los Angeles, Soto landed the Baltimore-set coming-of-age indie Charm City Kings, a movie about a Black boy eager to join his complicated neighborhood’s lively dirt bike scene which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2020.

“At first I was hesitant because I didn’t want to Brown-wash Spiderman.”

Now, he’s crossed over into big-budget studio filmmaking to realize the story of Jaime Reyes (played by Xolo Maridueña, of Cobra Kai fame), a Mexican American young man-turned-superhuman overnight when an extraterrestrial device fuses with his body, from a screenplay by Mexican-born writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala). Given Soto’s nontraditional path, stepping into this higher-stakes realm always seemed far-fetched.

“Never in my wildest dream did I think that I would ever be in this place,” Soto says. “I still find it difficult wrapping my head around it.”

Before attaching himself to Blue Beetle, Soto had originally pitched DC a Bane origin story. That the burly and gasmask-wearing villain from the Batman universe was born inside a prison on a fictional Caribbean Island offered, in Soto’s mind, an opportunity to discuss the geopolitical conflicts that have afflicted the region for so long.

“I was inspired by what happened with the movie Joker, which taught you about what was happening in America, and how the system creates a villain like that,” Soto says. “That would be a great opportunity to talk about the conflicts of the Caribbean, which has been a pretty unstable region for the past 500 years and nobody really addresses the issue.”

Although he didn’t get as far as to create a casting wish list, Soto was aware that wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista had expressed interest in the character. However, since Batman and his foes were already in Matt Reeves’ hands, DC offered Soto Blue Beetle instead.

“If you get to decide how big the explosions are going to be for me, then you cannot tell me how Latino I’m going to be.”

The studio wanted a Latino director to helm its first movie with a Latino protagonist, but Soto didn’t immediately jump at the chance.

“At first I was hesitant because I didn’t want to Brown-wash Spiderman,” he says. “I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypes: a Latino family where the mom says ‘mija’ twice and they eat tacos, and that’s as Latino as it gets.”

It was the involvement of Dunnet-Alcocer (whose credits include the Oscar-shortlisted short film Contrapelo) that reassured Soto the production wouldn’t try to manufacture a Latino identity, but that it would emerge organically from the core Latino creators.

As far as superhero films go, Blue Beetle falls on the lower-budget end of the spectrum. That’s likely because when Soto joined the project, which had been in development for some time, Warner intended to skip theaters and release it exclusively on streaming.

Rather than clocking the lesser funds as a disadvantage, Soto accepted in exchange for creative freedom.

“If you get to decide how big the explosions are going to be for me, then you cannot tell me how Latino I’m going to be,” he says.

Nevertheless, Soto thought it was telling of how the industry treats Latinos in general that the one time a Latino family would lead a live-action superhero movie, the executives envisioned it solely for online platforms.

“Every superhero movie gets a chance to play on the biggest screen possible,” Soto says. “And the first time you allow a Latino to direct one, you’re going to put it into the algorithm so that it gets lost with all your big movies?”

To push the studio to reconsider its release plans, Soto and his team focused on impressive world-building elements. Having a practical Blue Beetle suit in nearly every shot, akin to those in Tokusatsu action films and shows from Japan, was crucial to ground the character for Maridueña in a tangible manner while on set.

Soto on the set of Blue Beetle with Xolo Maridueña.

Warner Bros. Discovery

By the same token, the narrative played into the trope of the reluctant hero, giving Jaime enough time to initially reject his new reality, and eventually assimilate it. That, Soto believes, reflected a more realistic human reaction to such otherworldly situations than seeing someone immediately ready to take on the role of a valiant paladin.

“I always hated those movies where 15 minutes in the guy’s already swinging like a pro,” Soto says. I’m like, There’s no way. It would take forever to convince me.

Despite the unique routes they took with the framework of the superhero movie, James Gunn, the new commander-in-chief for the revamped DC Universe, has enthusiastically stated that Blue Beetle will serve as the foundation of his new live-action universe.

“Why can’t a humble kid from a marginalized community be front and center in a hero movie?”

“It was beautiful being able to do that and see that for James Gunn, this prologue, this first act of our saga is worthy of being canon for his superheroes so that he can embark into new adventures,” says Soto. “I hope that means Blue Beetle is going to partner with other heroes, and I hope that means we get a Blue Beetle 2 and Blue Beetle 3.”

And since this is the introduction to the Blue Beetle saga, Soto and Dunnet-Alcocer weren’t interested in featuring cameos from the household names among heroes. They sought to ensure the Latino protagonist remained the main focus throughout.

“I didn’t want the god or the billionaire to come in and take away from his spotlight,” Soto says. “Why can’t a humble kid from a marginalized community be front and center in a hero movie?”

Another of Soto’s major contributions entailed shooting in Puerto Rico to both support the economy and work with the friends who helped him make La Granja a decade ago. It also didn’t hurt that the U.S. territory (often referred to as a present-day colony) has a competitive tax incentive to encourage productions to film there. “I’m sure that if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have shot there,” Soto says.

Soto painted the landscape of Palmera City, the fictional town where Reyes lives, with the places where he spent his childhood. That included El Morro, a centuries-old citadel built by Spanish colonizers which serves as the backdrop for a pivotal fight.

“As a kid, I always thought, ‘This could be a good place to shoot an action movie or an adventure movie.’” Soto says. “And now 30 years later, I’m coming home to shoot an action set piece in an adventure movie in this 500-year-old fortress. Being able to satisfy that childhood dream was very special for me.”

And since gentrification and all the social ills it breeds for the most underprivileged represent a daily battle for locals in Puerto Rico, it’s also present in Blue Beetle. Soto and Dunnet-Alcocer didn’t want the Reyes family to be detached from the issues that threatened Latino communities in our reality, such as the displacement that the notion of “progress” in the eyes of corporations promotes and deportation. A sequence where Kord henchmen storm the Reyes home resembles a violent immigration raid.

“That whole idea of home insecurity is probably the biggest fear that I’ve always had growing up,” Soto says. “It wasn’t an alien invasion, it was being displaced and removed from my home.”

Soto with Adriana Barraza (Nana Reyes).

Warner Bros. Discovery

Soto added further realism by making Conrad Carapax (one of the movie’s villains played by Raoul Max Trujillo) an alum of the School of the Americas, an actual center where, for decades, the U.S. military trained Latin American soldiers to carry out horrific acts on behalf in their home countries. The aim was to impose puppet dictatorships across the region, exploit resources, spread neoliberalism, and protect the interests of private companies.

“I kept hearing ignorant voices talking about Latin America as if we did everything to ourselves,” he says. “As if we are where we are because we are bad managers, and nobody wants to talk about the [U.S.] interventionism that took place.”

“I wanted everybody watching to get a smell of what it’s like to live in our state of mind of nostalgia.”

Most importantly, Soto hopes not to perpetuate Hollywood’s depiction of Latinos as simplistically evil criminals with no moral compass. Even if Carapax commits atrocious acts, he’s the product of the weaponization of trauma inflicted at an infamous institution. When we finally get to learn Carapax’s story, Soto tells it backward as if peeling the layers to get to the root of his sorrow and intercuts it with archival footage of the actual School of the Americas.

Executives at the studio were shocked by this “school” when Soto provided historical context. But the director claims it was those thoughtful references and emotional layers present in his and Dunnet-Alcocer’s take on Blue Beetle that convinced Warner to give it a theatrical release.

“They thought we made it up,” Soto recalls. “The studio had no idea that this was real. Until we school them and they were like, ‘Oh sh*t, this is f*cked up.’”

But not all the movie’s references are as serious. Soto also populated his largest canvas yet with Latino pop culture, such as a brief animated homage to El Chapulín Colorado, a clumsy superhero from a 1970s Mexican comedy series clad in a red and yellow costume; or a clip from Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, whose ancient golden scarab doesn’t look too dissimilar to the device that transforms Jaime’s body.

“Giving nods to the films that we love and to the music we grew up with is a way of honoring the legacy that our parents left us, too,” Soto says. “I wanted everybody watching to get a smell of what it’s like to live in our state of mind of nostalgia.”

As distinct in scope and setting as Soto’s three features to date are, they all center on young men from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking a way out of their circumstances and getting caught up in dangers beyond their grasp. Undoubtedly, the director recognizes himself in all of them, including Jaime Reyes. For Soto, taking on Blue Beetle and coming out on the other end not with corporate sludge as a result but a shiny popcorn flick with depth and above all a sense of authenticity, is a triumph he’ll cherish for years to come.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet that a kid from the streets of Santurce, who stole books because he couldn’t afford film school, made a superhero movie,” he said. “What a beautiful world we’d live in if the universality of the specificities that make us special become mainstream.”

Photographs by Spencer Heyfron

Executive Editor: Jake Kleinman

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Tyghe Trimble

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert