Latino superheroes are saving the day in Hollywood
Latinos are a big part of the U.S. box office, and during the pandemic, they helped keep cinemas open. Last year, they were 24% of the movie-going audience, according to The Motion Picture Association. Many of the new blockbusters are superhero movies with Latinx actors or characters.
For instance, this year's Marvel film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness features a 14-year-old Latinx superhero named America Chavez.
"She can punch star-shaped portals that allow her to travel throughout the multiverse and that is a power no one else really has," says Xochitl Gomez, who plays the live-action hero.
The first time we see Chavez on screen, menacing creatures chase her and Doctor Strange, and the superheroes talk to each other en español. "Spanish words. In a Marvel movie. That's huge," remarks Gomez.
Gomez is excited about the Latinx superhero, who uses Mexican slang, wears a red, white and blue jacket and an LGBTQ plus pride pin. "Seeing how much it means to fans, especially young Brown girls, just going on this superhero journey... I get stopped on the street (by fans) going 'I feel so seen because you're there.'"
"There is validity when we see ourselves represented," says Victoria Alonso, an executive producer of Marvel Studios' biggest global film releases. She's being honored by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation as a visionary.
Alonso says she worked for many years to bring America Chavez and other diverse characters to the big screen.
"Superheroes give you the chance to dream of becoming someone with a different power," she says. "But at the end of the day, all of our stories bring you back to the power of you."
Coming soon are other superheroes played by Latina actresses: Colombian-American Sasha Calle is the new Supergirl in the upcoming Flash movie. Another Colombian, Rachel Zegler, will portray a goddess with superpowers in Shazam! Fury of the Gods.
Unlike Chavez, these characters don't identify as Latina. In that sense, they're more like the TV superhero Wonder Woman.
But some Latina superheroes are struggling. The CW network recently dropped its planned TV series of Wonder Girl, the fictional daughter of an Amazonian warrior and a Brazilian river god. There's talk that Supergirl may not get her movie or TV series after Flash.
And then there's Batgirl.
Dominican Leslie Grace shot all her scenes as Batgirl before Warner Bros. Discovery spiked the movie, reportedly as a tax write-off.
Infuriated fans leak film footage and made their own online trailers with Warner Bros. as the villains.
The Batgirl news worried fans about other DC superheroes, such as Blue Beetle, whose feature film is set for release next summer.
"I'm not going to lie. There was concern, anger, fear at first," says Puerto Rican director Angel Manuel Soto. He says studio executives reassured him Blue Beetle won't suffer the same fate as Batgirl. "They told me not to worry, the film has their full support."
Actor Xolo Maridueña stars as Jaime Reyes, who becomes "Blue Beetle" when he's implanted with super-powered alien armor. "He's kind of like a fusion of Green Lantern and Iron Man. He has a scarab from outer space that is attached to his body called Khaji da."
The 21-year-old actor, who also stars in Cobra Kai, says Blue Beetle is one of the oldest characters in the DC Universe. But this Blue Beetle is new.
"He's a first-generation Mexican-American kid from El Paso, Texas," Maridueña explains.
Gareth Dunnet Alcocer wrote the screenplay for Blue Beetle, which follows the journey of Reyes and his entire family. "What would my mom do if an alien technology burrowed into my spine? She would not think it's cool," says Alcocer. "And for the Reyes family, this is terrible. 'We're going to get attention from American institutions, from the government, from military, from the police.'"
Alcocer says growing up in Mexico, he never related to ultra-rich superheroes like Batman or Iron Man. But he did enjoy a naive, accident-prone TV superhero from the 1970s: Chapulín Colorado.
Mexican comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños, whose stage name is Chespirito, created the satirical character. He wore a red and yellow outfit with antennas, and his power was just being a nice guy. Alcocer says, unlike the confident, powerful American superheroes, Chapulín Colorado is "just this wily, fallible, super-skinny, scared, slightly depressive guy."
There were other Mexican superheroes on film and TV: Kaliman, the Incredible Man had telepathic powers. And El Santo was a masked Lucha Libre wrestler, a luchador who fought zombies, vampires, Frankenstein and rivals like Blue Demon.
"The oldest superheroes are the luchadores," says videogame industry promoter Hugo Abel Castro Duarte. At this year's Comic-Con in San Diego, he moderated a panel about Mexican superheroes.
"The luchadores were wearing Spandex in the late 1800s, way before Superman and Batman were wearing Spandex," he says. "So, we kind of joke around a little bit that they copied us in Spandex and their masks and their capes."
The Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny has been cast to play a luchador named "El Muerto" in an upcoming spinoff of Spider-Man. Over the years, Spidey has appeared in many guises. In 2018, he was Miles Morales, an animated, bilingual Puerto Rican kid in New York.
Onscreen, many Zorros have left their mark, portrayed by actors from Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 to Antonio Banderas in 1998. Now, actor Wilmer Valderrama is developing a Zorro TV series for Disney. And filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and his sister Rebecca are working on a modern-day female Zorro.
Peruvian American filmmaker Alex Rivera is also working on Zorro 2.0 — a cyberpunk story about an undocumented kid named Oscar Vega.
Rivera says the original Zorro story, written in 1919, was based on the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta from the 1850s. Zorro was Don Diego De La Vega in colonial California.
"By day, he writes poetry and complains that his back hurts. But then at night, he takes on this other identity as an avenger with a mask and a cape standing up for the poor," says Rivera. "This image of the rich man by day, avenger by night gets taken up by the people who create Batman. So I always say Batman has a Mexican father."
As Hollywood looks for ways to boost the box office and remain culturally relevant, Zorro, Blue Beetle, America Chavez and other Latinx superheroes are poised to save the day.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mexican comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños' stage name as Chesperito. In fact, it's Chespirito.