More than two decades removed from his teenage years, Angel Manuel Soto finds himself inextricably linked to Jaime Reyes, a.k.a. adolescent superhero Blue Beetle.
So do friends of the Puerto Rican filmmaker, and countless others of Latin heritage who felt underrepresented in a genre they loved. When he was hired to direct the big-screen adaptation of Blue Beetle, which is in theaters this weekend, Soto knew the responsibility that came with the job.
“Jaime’s story is very close to my journey, having to put what you want on a second plane because you have to help your family or make something out of yourself in order to survive. For me, that whole struggle is very personal,” Soto said following the film’s recent Dallas premiere. “Once I heard a while back that they were trying to make this movie, I said that I hope they get us right. I never thought I would be the one to make the movie,”
It starts with precocious teenager Jaime Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) returning to his working-class community in Palmera City following his college graduation. He takes a summer job working for corporate tycoon Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), whose family possesses a secret relic of alien biotechnology known as the Scarab.
An act of mischief later, Jaime comes into contact with the Scarab, who chooses the youngster as its symbiotic host — giving him an unwieldy cerulean suit of armor. Along the way, we’re introduced to his eccentric blue-collar family.
With his destiny forever altered, Jaime’s new identity is tested when Victoria unleashes an effort to reclaim the Scarab for her own malicious intentions.
Both the director and the character have Texas ties. Soto (Charm City Kings) credits his time living in Austin with launching his career. He directed a couple of commercials while he was working at Alamo Drafthouse and for Fantastic Fest, among other jobs.
Meanwhile, Jaime hailed from El Paso when he was introduced to the comic-book world in 2006. In the film, he’s relocated to the more Gotham-esque city of Palmera City, which nevertheless was given a few distinct touches from back home.
“If they’re gonna take Jaime out of El Paso, I’m gonna bring El Paso along,” said Soto, who admits some naivete about his protagonist before he began preparing to direct the project. “I knew that he was the coolest character to play in the Injustice 2 game. But I didn’t know much more than that.”
Soto, 40, worked closely with screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala) to develop the character while weaving in themes such as gentrification and colonialism. And the relationship between real-life filmmaker and fictional hero continued to deepen.
During pre-production, Soto couldn’t find his father. His sister called to tell him that he was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack, and that dad didn’t want to bother Soto with the news while he was working.
That incident closely mirrors circumstances involving Jaime’s father in the film while also underscoring the importance of close-knit families in Latino culture. After all, that—not morphing into a giant insect for a good-versus-evil showdown—is the primary differentiator between Blue Beetle and the average superhero film.
“We’ve seen origin stories before. They keep their powers secret from their family. It’s very understandable, because they want to protect them,” Soto said. “But good luck keeping a secret from a Latino. You tell your mom something, you turn around, and when you come back, everybody knows. So we wanted to include the family in his transformation and his journey. We wanted them to not just be present, but to be active participants in the formation of him as a hero.”