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When Angel Manuel Soto got the call from Warner Bros. about directing a DC movie, his mind was miles away from Blue Beetle. “I wanted to pitch ideas, and one of them was the Bane origin story,” Soto tells Den of Geek magazine. “I always thought that there was something interesting in exploring his reality and how a character like that comes to be.” He quickly found out, though, that “the conversation was not about that.” Instead, the studio had a more youthful and heroic figure in mind, telling Soto, “There’s this character that we’ve been developing for a couple of years. The Blue Beetle, a Latino superhero.”
That fateful phone call was about a young ’00s superhero, Jaime Reyes, but the hero known as the Blue Beetle debuted in 1939 in the pages of Fox Comics’ Mystery Men Comics #1. Like Batman, Dan Garret is a hero driven by revenge. The son of a policeman murdered on the job, Garret was originally more of a pulp figure with no powers until he gained a bulletproof suit and took a special vitamin that gave him superhero strength. And his mantle came from the scarab-shaped symbol he wore on his chest. Like almost all the other superheroes of the era — Garret was a middle-aged white man, and his adventures soon became a massive success.
Blue Beetle quickly spawned his own radio serial and multiple titles centered on his adventures, but by the mid-1950s, Fox Comics was out of business, and Charlton Comics ended up with the rights to print Blue Beetle stories. Here, Garrett — the extra T was added by Charlton — was reimagined as an archaeologist who found a magical scarab in Egypt that gave him fantastical powers. In 1966, Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, reimagined the character as Ted Kord, a student of Dan Garrett, a genius-level inventor who used his creations to take on the mantle. Not only was Kord super smart, but he was also an athlete, which made him a perfect vigilante, and while he didn’t have the superpowers of his predecessor, his inventions made him a fearsome foe.
For decades, Ted was the most well-known Blue Beetle, heightened when Charlton Comics was sold to DC in 1983. Ted soon had his own Blue Beetle solo series — written by legend Len Wein — launching him into the superhero stratosphere, followed by a starring role in the Justice League. But Ted wasn’t the last person to take on the mantle of Blue Beetle. In 2006, Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner introduced Jaime Reyes, a teen who gained powers from a mysterious alien artifact known only as “the scarab.” That nearly 70-year-long journey, from 1939 to 2006, was only the beginning of Jaime’s story, as he soon became a fan-favorite character both on the page and on the small screen thanks to appearances in several DC animated projects.
This year, Jaime finally makes the jump to the big screen in Soto’s Blue Beetle. But, as Soto tells us, at first, he wasn’t sure it was the right project for him. “I didn’t want it to be another story where 15 minutes in, something happens, and 50 minutes later, he’s dominating the experience, and by the end, he’s saving the world. I get it, I enjoy it, I go watch those movies and eat the popcorn and it’s fun, but it was hard for me to relate to an experience like that,” Soto explained. “If someone gives me a lot of power, the first thing I’d do is say, ‘I don’t want it.’ I just wanna provide for my family; I don’t need it, more power, more problems!”
That mindset led him to pursue a more grounded take on Jaime, which Soto — along with writer Gareth Dunnet Alcocer — saw as a way to explore Jaime stepping up to the call of being a hero. As he explains, “He’s not going to save the world yet; he doesn’t deserve to yet. We wanted to find a way to really explore his growth, how it relates to how his family and community see him in this role, as well as how his relationship with Khaji grows as well.”
Khaji is the symbiotic alien who gives Jaime his powers and makes him the titular Blue Beetle. But while it’s the magical artifact that allows the teen to become a hero, Jaime is always at the heart of the story, which is why it was so important to get his casting right. Soto first met the young Cobra Kai star, Xolo Maridueña, at Sundance while showing his film Charm City Kings. Maridueña made an immediate impact. “He was just super real; that always stuck with me.”
It was during Covid that the director watched Cobra Kai and was blown away by Maridueña’s performance. “I saw how charming he is and how well people were receiving his authentic self.” It all began to come together. The fact Maridueña is bilingual was another immediate draw. And the cherry on top? The actor already had martial arts experience thanks to Cobra Kai.
“You might think that would have given me a leg up,” the actor tells Den of Geek in an interview conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike. “I definitely thought, ‘I’ve been doing martial arts for five years; what’s adding a couple of wings to it?'” The reality was much more intense, though, and Maridueña was full of praise for his collaborator in bringing Jaime to life. “I was really blessed with a wonderful stunt performer. He’s doing stuff that’s supposed to be fake, but he’s really doing it! He’s doing superhero stuff in real life!”
The demands of bringing every part of the Blue Beetle to life — both as Jaime and the titular hero — meant that while Maridueña was excited to get in the suit and spent “ample time” in it, he “wasn’t hesitant to pass it off to the stunt guys.” He did sneak in at least a couple of Cobra Kai moves, however, while also promising fresh new action for the audience.
Jaime’s journey features an iconic high-tech alien suit. So what’s it like to step into the hero’s blue alien shoes for the very first time? “I’ve got to tell you; it makes you feel different, man.” Citing Hayden Christensen talking about being in the Darth Vader suit, Maridueña agrees with the actor, “It really changes how you feel about the character. There’s something about your expression and the way you move that changes.” Luckily, his own experience of being nervous and impressed by the suit helped him shape his young hero. “Jaime is just as shocked and in disbelief about the whole suit interaction as I was, so it provided a pretty natural reaction.”
When it came to designing Jaime’s iconic costume, the crew revisited his first appearance in Infinite Crisis #3 — “a very bold look,” as Soto called it — as well as the Injustice games and the beloved Young Justice and Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoons. One of the biggest challenges was crafting a full-face mask that could also emote. “One of the main issues was the mouth; showing the mouth just takes away the armored aspect of it.” To come up with their own design for the mask and suit, they merged the notion of organic alien tech and insectoid features. Designed by Mayes C. Rubeo and the team from Nine B collective, the suit is “very practical,” Soto explains. “We didn’t have the biggest budget in the world, but doing it like this really does help. And you get a very cool suit!”
One of the unique powers that Khaji and the Blue Beetle suit offer Jaime is the power to create constructs from nothing but his imagination, leading to one of the most internet-breaking moments in the trailer. As Jaime gets into a fighting stance, he manifests a massive buster sword; it was a moment sparked by one of Soto’s lifelong loves. “I’ve always wanted to create something I would enjoy,” he shares. “If I had Jaime’s powers, why would I limit myself? Why would I limit my imagination? I have the opportunity to create something iconic. As a Latino, I embrace anime; I grew up watching anime. I grew up watching that sword. I always wanted to wield it, and even if I can’t, I’m wielding it vicariously through Blue Beetle.”
Every great superhero has a hometown. Originally Jaime hailed from El Paso, but during the production of the film, the creative team had a realization. “We wanted to have Jaime live in a world that felt like it fit his circumstances,” Maridueña explains. “Whether it’s Batman and Gotham or Superman and Metropolis, these are cities that are a character in themselves.” That’s where Palmera City comes in. “What we were looking for was a metropolitan of Latinos; we wanted to start in a world where it was understood that this is the population.”
When Soto came on board Palmera City was already in play, so it was up to him to visualize the new location, taking nods from Akira and Neo Tokyo as well as Miami. But there are two sides to Palmera City, the fancy financial district and Jaime’s neighborhood. “Jaime comes from the other side of the tracks, the Edge Keys,” Soto shares. “It’s way more humble. Working class, struggling families, marginalized communities under the threat of gentrification.”
Speaking of family, one of the most authentic parts of Jaime’s story is the fact that his family knows that he’s a superhero, thanks to them witnessing his first-ever transformation. “It’s one of those things that comes out of our experience,” Soto says. “Right off the bat, one of the things that the writer and I said — and he crafted it in this really great way — ‘good luck trying to keep a secret from a Latina mom.’ Our families are very nosy! The experience that we wanted to show was that family is our superpower to some extent. When we’re in trouble, the first people we call are our parents. It was about being able to hone into that and try something new.”
While the team was aiming to introduce a new hero, new city, and new vibe for DC, Blue Beetle is a character with decades of canon and multiple different mantle holders. Soto is keen to let people know that the movie understands that. For example, Susan Sarandon plays Victoria Kord, Ted’s sister, in the film. “Her relationship with Ted and the fact Ted has a daughter is very present in the movie,” Soto says. “A lot of Ted’s gadgets are also important to the film. So being able to keep the idea of Ted and Dan Garrett in the movie and how that came to be, does help Jaime understand what he’s going through. Some of the people around him are fans of Blue Beetle. It’s Jaime’s story, but the context still exists, and a lot of it was thought out and executed and done with the intention of bringing someone back in the future,” he teases.
As for whether the star of Blue Beetle is dreaming of telling more stories in Jaime’s world, “The short answer is, of course,” Maridueña chuckles. “But the longer, more nuanced answer is that when this movie comes out, the work will have already been done. And I will already feel 100% fulfilled with everything that Jaime had to offer. Of course, I’d love to have a saga of Blue Beetle characters, we have so much to offer and so much canon to dig into.” The actor is aware it’s all about how well the movie performs and whether it finds an audience, but he’s feeling content. “The universe will do as it will, and right now, I’m just so happy to be here for the ride.”
Blue Beetle opens in theaters on Aug. 18.