Director Ángel Manuel Soto on the Importance of ‘Blue Beetle’ in the New DCU – Exclusive Interview
Blue Beetle is the kind of fresh start James Gunn and Peter Safran’s new DCU franchise needs. Helmed by Puerto Rican filmmaker Ángel Manuel Soto, Blue Beetle introduces audiences to a DC hero who’s been long overdue for his time to shine on the big screen. Jaime Reyes, played by Xolo Maridueña of Cobra Kai fame, is a young Mexican American looking to both make his family proud and make a name for himself with his new college degree. This film adaptation takes the action from El Paso, Texas, Jaime’s hometown in the comics, to Palmera City. An original location created for the movie, Palmera City is a futuristic, neon-drenched amalgamation of different Latin American cultures with an ocean view. Above all else, it’s a rich melting pot that needs a hero, which is where Jaime Reyes comes in.
Upon returning home and seeking a lucky job opportunity at Kord Industries, Jaime crosses paths with the Scarab – an ancient alien biotechnological relic that grants him powerful exoskeleton armor. The entity that imbues and controls the Scarab known as Khaji-Da, voiced by global pop star Becky G, unexpectedly chooses Jaime as its host, thus propelling him on a daring heroic journey that he never asked for. While he rejects the notion of being a superhero at first, his family soon helps him realize that his special bond with the Scarab is not to be taken for granted. That’s right, unlike most superhero stories, the Reyes family is deeply involved in Jaime’s heroic transformation. His mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), father Alberto (Damián Alcázar), uncle Rudy (George Lopez), younger sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), and Nana/grandmother (Adriana Barraza) each play a unique role in the story and get in on the action.
In a time when so many comic-book movies are easily forgotten, this family element was crucial to Blue Beetle director Ángel Manuel Soto and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (2019’s Miss Bala). Given how this film speaks not only to the Mexican American expereince but to many different Latino cultures through authentic storytelling and vibrant cinematic thrills, it’s very likely that Blue Beetle will stand as one of the strongest superhero films of 2023. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ángel Manuel Soto was previously known for his Sundance breakout hit Charm City Kings. He also co-directed the 2022 docuseries Menudo: Forever Young, which follows the rise and fall of the iconic Puerto Rican boy band of the same name.
Ángel Manuel Soto’s journey with Blue Beetle has been full of twists and turns, having been hired by Warner Bros. to originally direct the movie for HBO Max to then going under multiple changes in the DC heirarchy. In the end, he was never distracted from his own responsibility to deliver the first DC film and the first live-action film to feature a Latino superhero as the lead. In our exclusive interview with the Blue Beetle director, we dissect the importance of Jaime Reyes in the DCU franchise and how this film can only mark the beginning of more landmark representation with DC characters on the big screen. Our conversation covers the many Latin American influences in the film and how Soto and his team created the imaginative fight choreography on display. Plus, we get one of the ideas he wants to explore in a sequel!
Exclusive Interview with Director Ángel Manuel Soto for Blue Beetle
First of all, we have to talk about the “Blue Beetle Battalion.” That’s the name the legions of online fans supporting the film have given themselves. Do you know of them and how do you feel about them helping promote Blue Beetle across social media to great lengths? I met a few fans the other day and found out that there’s even a Blue Beetle Battalion Discord server.
Ángel Manuel Soto: I do know of them! They came to my attention a while back. That type of energy is the type of energy that I only wish every movie has. I love cinema, and I love when people rally around to support each other, support fans, or support actors and creatives. Seeing this group of people that I don’t even know show so much love gives me a little bit of hope on humanity.
It’s very humbling, knowing that this story is expected by many people and they’re actually rooting for it even if they haven’t seen it yet. I just can’t believe it. It’s my first experience with that. I only hope that more storytellers and filmmakers get to experience this because it’s very, very beautiful. It took me by surprise what you just said, that they have this whole Discord. That’s awesome!
The family aspect of Blue Beetle is so genuine and each member of the Reyes household stands out from one another in their own ways. Of course, we don’t always see these kinds of fleshed-out characters in Latino stories. Are there any stereotypes surrounding Latino families that you wanted to avoid the most while making Blue Beetle?
Ángel Manuel Soto: Our energy behind it was trying to be as honest and authentic as we could to our own experiences. We know that there have been a lot of attempts and there have also been, like you say, a lot of stereotypes. Most of them truly happen because there are no Latinos behind the creation of these worlds. We were lucky to have Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer writing the script. He comes from Queretaro, Mexico and the Reyes family dynamic on-screen is an experience that’s very close to his heart. Even the character of Rudy Reyes [Jaime’s uncle played by George Lopez], who is not in the comics, is inspired 100% by his uncle that goes by the name of Rudy – who passed away last year – and was created to honor him and the impact on Gareth’s life through this movie.
Everything that you’re seeing, every experience on screen is somewhat that’s very close to our hearts. Even other situations that happen in the movie are verbatim experiences that I have had in my life. With Gareth coming from Mexico and me being from Puerto Rico, we were able to intersect with those experiences and find common grounds and motives. We discovered that our collective Latino experience transcends borders, transcends frontiers, and transcends countries. So it’s about being able to find what makes us Latino. The movie is not like the totality of the Latin American experience, it’s not. It is a window to our world, to our families, with the idea of being able to continue telling more stories of the different windows that make up this great Latin American race.
On that same note, how important was it for you to give each member of the Reyes family their own heroic moment in the story? Obviously, Jaime takes the spotlight as Blue Beetle, but I think audiences are going to be surprised to see how the film balances out each member of the Reyes family with their own purpose and actions.
Ángel Manuel Soto: For me, it was always very important that this superhero, although he is called Blue Beetle, his name is Jaime and the beetle is called Khaji Da. Basically, Blue Beetle is a mantle that someone puts on him and we said, “Why don’t we tell a story that is a little bit refreshing to the original superhero stories?” While we know that a superhero is attracted to their powers, yet they keep them in a dark room and hide the secret to protect their family, we wanted to explore the idea of how, we as Latinos, our mothers are always up our noses. You know, it’s really hard to hide a secret from Mom. We then said, “If you can’t hide a secret from your family, why don’t you use it to your advantage?”
That’s why we chose to include Jaime’s family in his heroic transformation. Even when Jaime has the suit and he’s a superhero, the family keeps busting his balls! And that kind of family bullying and that kind of relationship was something we wanted to honor. Also, we wanted to make sure that the Reyes family wasn’t a prop and that they weren’t bait, that they weren’t this thing that the bad guy grabs and threatens Jaime with. No!
We are a product of all the efforts that our families have made, not just our fathers and mothers, but our grandparents and our ancestors. We wanted each member of the Reyes family to have something heroic – not just to hand out wisdom or some type of teaching, but to have an active participation in Jaime’s journey. Just as the people that you and I are today, we are products of the sacrifices that our ancestors made. And the way for us to honor what came before was to make this movie a love letter to our families.
Moving on, can we talk about working with singer Becky G and creating a unique voice for the Blue Beetle suit? The final result isn’t a simple A.I. voiceover and the scarab/Khaji Da has got more personality and spunk than I think some fans might be expecting.
Ángel Manuel Soto: Correct. Part of the process was, one, I always wanted to work with Becky G. She’s like the Chingona, and she’s such a great person and an amazing talent too. I was also trying to find a way to get her into a movie. We thought she had the sass and the energy that could emulate the scarab. “What if Siri had the personality of Becky G?” (laughs). So we were like, “Okay, let’s play with that idea first and now go off the story.”
The voice is still very A.I. and has an OS-type of feel, but as the story keeps going it’s like machine learning, Jaime himself keeps getting into the code. Thus, the suit starts to embrace more personality. Ultimately, in future iterations, our goal would be to really appreciate what the banter [between Jaime and Khaji Da] is going to look like once she gets more comfortable with the way people talk nowadays. But still keeping that android energy, analytical military-type of verbiage. Becky understood it too. She had a lot of fun recording the voice and was such a pro. She found a lot of ways of making everything feel funny.
So every superhero movie nowadays is expected to be filled with needle drops. However, the music in Blue Beetle very much serves Latino culture. To be very honest with you, as a Latino, I never thought I was going to hear ranchera classics from Vicente Fernández, reggaeton hits from Ivy Queen, and Spanish rock bangers from Soda Stereo all in the same comic-book movie. It’s a quite surreal expereince on the big screen. Can you talk about serving the culture through music in Blue Beetle?
Ángel Manuel Soto: Of course, the writer, Gareth, already had certain songs written into the script. Songs that he grew up with. But one of the things that I set out to do in pre-production was to create a playlist that included, as it were, all the songs that could be on the cell phones of every member of the Reyes family. We have the elders who are from Mexico. We have those who grew up in a generation like our parents, but we also have a first Mexican generation, who were born and raised in the United States. They are completely influenced in the same way by popular culture, not only from Mexico but also from the United States. We asked ourselves, “Why not then include all the types of sounds that make up us?”
Even though reggaeton came out of Puerto Rico, reggaeton has now practically become a world music. To be able to connect in a more pan-Latin way through our music, which for me is one of the biggest links that allows us to break barriers and connect with each other. To use the music that formed us, not only the ones that give us nostalgia but also the ones that we have in a futuristic community [like Palmera City]. We use Calle 13, Soda Stereo, Vicente Fernandez, and Ivy Queen in the movie of course. But we have newer people like Alvaro Díaz too.
We also have classics like Mötley Crüe and Cypress Hill! And this is the soundtrack of my childhood. This is the soundtrack of my life. For me, it was very important that, in the same way that we have easter eggs of movies that built us, we could pay tribute to the music that formed us in Blue Beetle as well.
With this being the cinematic introduction of Blue Beetle, you were tasked with establishing how he visually stands out from other superheroes. How much fun did you and your team have getting visually creative with Blue Beetle’s power set and how Jaime uses the suit?
Ángel Manuel Soto: Ah! 100%, I think those are the most fun stages of any pre-production. There are things I wanted to be able to do. I wanted the action and violence to be a little more visceral. Although I do love the fantastic and magical side of things, this is the beginning of Jaime Reye’s heroic journey and he doesn’t know everything he can do yet. So, one of the things we wanted was for this movie to feature a little bit more hand-to-hand combat.
We used a lot of references like The Raid movies and Gangs of London for the hand-to-hand combat, which Jon Valera, our stunt coordinator, drives very well. We managed to make something that represented that kind of flesh-to-flesh intimacy that can exist in violence. But, at the same time, we play with different alternatives that are fantastic and the wish-fulfillment of a young man. For example, a lot of the combos in Injustice 2, we used them as a reference during fights and with the manifestations of the weapons. Blue Beetle’s blaster was even inspired by Mega Man!
There’s a scene where Jaime says, “Khaji, show me something”, and he pulls out a gun that we chose to look like the ZF-1 gun from The Fifth Element. And he’s like, “No Kahji, no killing!” Then we play with that again towards the end when Jaime goes “Anything I want? Okay!” and he busts out Cloud’s sword [from Final Fantasy VII] Why? Because we’re gamers! We were asking ourselves, “Wow, what would I want to create?” I always wanted to have a buster sword like they do in Final Fantasy. To be able to play with those nods, including some from Dragon Ball Z. Play with a lot of other references that I’m not going to spoil – it was super good fun. I felt like I was twelve again!
Finally, Xolo Maridueña recently said that he wants to play Jaime Reyes for 12 more years. James Gunn has also previously teased that Blue Beetle is the first character of the new DCU. You’ve been very clear on wanting to make a sequel, but why do you think it’s important for a character like Jaime Reyes to continue on in the future of the DCU?
Ángel Manuel Soto: For me, it is very important because, one, we designed Blue Beetle as the first act of a saga from the very beginning. The story of Jaime Reyes… this is only the beginning. We literally only knew 48 hours of Jaime’s life so far. And we did take our time at the beginning of the film to introduce his character, to introduce his community, to introduce the things that affect us Latinos and marginalized people. But once this movie ends, it literally comes to fruition in that this first act opens a whole new world, and Jaime is going to face this world no matter what.
Yes, we chose the best hits from the different comics and the possibilities for Jaime’s adventures and the possible interactions he can have with other superheroes are endless. However, for us to see that he is Latino, that his family is Latino, that his culture is part of his essence, and for him to be the first superhero of James Gunn’s universe – for me, that is a milestone of representation. Because for the first time, we have been able to see ourselves as the superheroes of our stories and we are no longer the villains in the stories of others. Jaime Reyes has a lot more stories to tell. And not only him! I think Blue Beetle can open doors for other Latino superheroes and superheroes of other nationalities to play a more prominent role [in the DCU]. But, most of all, for Latino stories to be told by Latinos.