Everything was going right for Angel Manuel Soto after the premiere of his last film, Charm City Kings, at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The movie received raucous approval from audiences and picked up a Special Jury Prize in Park City, and Sony Pictures Classics planned an April 2020 theatrical release at more than 1,000 locations in North America—a reflection of the distributor’s belief in the independent film. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, had other plans. Charm City Kings lost its theatrical release date and was instead sold to HBO Max, where it became a streaming-only debut in the fall of 2020. Dejected, Soto was left to wait for some future time when one of his films would receive a wide theatrical release. That moment will finally come on August 18, when Warner Bros. will release his latest film, Blue Beetle, as part of its rebooted DC Comics series of films.
Blue Beetle tells the story of Jaime Reyes, a Mexican American teenager living in the fictional Palmera City, who accidentally stumbles upon his own superhero identity after a chance encounter with an ancient scarab relic. Featuring a diverse cast of Latin American actors, Soto’s take on this lesser-known DC Comics superhero is primed to be one of the late summer’s biggest studio releases. Boxoffice Pro spoke with the filmmaker about his journey from microbudget independents to big-budget studio tentpoles, and how his own indie roots shaped his vision for the upcoming film.
Before we chat about Blue Beetle, I want to talk about your breakthrough feature, Charm City Kings, a hit at Sundance that was picked up for theatrical distribution. What was that experience like for you?
It was very special to me to be able to make Charm City Kings. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for theatrical release. We had this plan of going to 1,300 theaters. It was the biggest thing that I had done at the time. The speculation and the excitement from the studio were overwhelming, in a positive way. After Sundance and the hype that came out of that premiere, everything seemed like it was heading in the right direction. I got engaged. Everything was going according to plan.
Then the pandemic hits. Nobody knew what was happening. It was originally going to come out in April, then we pushed it to August. When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere—that it was only intensifying—a lot of studios started selling titles to streaming services. And that’s how HBO Max got their hands on my movie and opted to do an October streaming release of the film.
It was a little disappointing at first. We spent a lot of time creating a cinematic experience for audiences to enjoy in a theater. At our premiere in Sundance, it felt like the audience was watching a basketball game. People were so excited, they were standing and clapping and yelling. The programmers had no idea what was going on. I was hoping to see that collective experience going on in theaters across the country. I was disappointed, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. I don’t mean to undermine the impact the pandemic had on people’s lives, all the people that we lost during the pandemic. I’m glad the movie got picked up and gave it a lot of love, dedicating the time and effort to create a great marketing strategy for it. In the end, I was very happy with how they treated the film. I think it was the most streamed movie on HBO Max that October.
Ultimately, the relationship with HBO Max came out of that situation.
It was a blessing in disguise. It led me to create a relationship with HBO Max and Warner Bros. That relationship, along with the reception of Charm City Kings, is what got me noticed by DC Studios. They reached out to talk about a couple of projects, and that’s when they pitched the story of Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle.
Were you convinced by the idea when you first heard the pitch?
My first reaction off the bat was, no disrespect to anybody, but I didn’t have much interest in brown-washing the story of Spider-Man. First of all, we already have Miles Morales, so I didn’t really see any need in repeating the story. To my surprise, I received this script from Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, a Mexican screenwriter who is so knowledgeable about the conditions and situations of the world and who has a great sense of humor and heart. All those adjectives I just used were things he had incorporated into the script. That’s why it drew me in. It wasn’t your typical Mexican postcard that audiences have been conditioned to consume; this had something to say. His screenplay focused on all the right things, and he treated this origin story in a different way. He had that Latin American sensibility.
If I understand correctly, this movie was originally meant to be a streaming-only release on HBO Max. When did the decision come down to take it to theaters?
Very early on. [For a time] there had been that whole mandate at Warner Bros. to release things on HBO Max. When we started doing all the concept art, building the story and world building and setting up the stakes and making it look good, they realized this movie was bigger than HBO Max. That was good for us to hear because you can release anything on HBO Max any day down the line, but there are certain projects that are meant to be experienced in a collective environment and watched on the big screen. Luckily, we were able to develop and produce a movie that we believe satisfies those expectations.
The decision to go theatrical came before we entered preproduction, as we were doing the director’s pass at the script. We were talking to concept artists like Shane Baxley. We even started working super early on the design of the suit with [costume designer] Mayes Rubeo and developed some of the storyboard work and previsualization for the action sequences very early on. What was helpful was that as we developed how that world was going to look before we even went into production, that’s when they noticed the film had a scale that transcended TV. They announced we were going theatrical before we even arrived in Atlanta and Puerto Rico to prep and shoot the movie. By that point, everybody understood the assignment—that we were going to shoot this movie on a grand scale so that the whole world could enjoy it collectively in a theater.
You mentioned Atlanta and Puerto Rico. I know there are also aspects of Palmera City, the fictional setting of the film, that incorporate aspects of El Paso, Texas.
We went to El Paso to see the skylines and architecture, and to get a sense of the people and what it’s like to be inside a family unit in El Paso. It’s a wonderful city. We met the muralist Cimi and brought him over to do some of the mural work for Palmera City. We wanted to get as much of El Paso as we could, to represent the things we felt we could incorporate into this made-up city where our new iteration of Blue Beetle was going to exist. We didn’t want a Palmera City that didn’t have the DNA of El Paso.
We wanted to create a city that infused different Latino cultures, where there’s not one predominant group. Whether you live in your native country or you’re in the diaspora, there’s something that connects us in these types of cities. All the A-list superheroes in DC Comics have their own fictional cities: Superman has Metropolis, Batman has Gotham, and the Flash has Central City. We wanted to give our hero his own city, too. We didn’t want it to be another replica of a gray, post-industrial city. I wanted to bring the vibrancy of places like Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and downtown Miami to Palmera City. We incorporated a mixture of architecture and flora and fauna to create a fictional city with a little bit of a tropical flavor.
We also thought of having working-class neighborhoods outside Palmera City, the way regular metropolitan areas do. So we created a neighborhood called Edge Keys, with a little bit of a Segundo Barrio flow that you would find in places like Hialeah, on the outskirts of Miami. We approached it by wanting to create a unique place where people from all around the world could say, “This reminds me a little bit of home.” Of course, you’re never going to get it perfect. But I feel we did the best we could in being inclusive within all the cultures that compose the Latin American experience.
You’ve spent most of your career making independent features. How much of an adjustment was that, working with so many additional resources?
I come at every project—whether it’s big or small—with the same awe, wonder, respect, and devotion to the craft and art of filmmaking. It’s something that I love so much and that means a lot to me. Working in this medium allows me to put food on the table, provide for my family, and help my family back home. So whether big or small, I take it very seriously.
Going from microbudget movies like my first film, La Granja, or a smaller-budget movie like Charm City Kings, to making that big jump into this one—I have to be equally prepared. That’s the only way you avoid any hiccups along the way and navigate the unique challenges that come with a big-budget movie.
I was blessed to have a cast and crew who were devoted to making the best movie possible, starting with our heads of departments, who were really big allies in being able to communicate and translate my vision and elevate my vision to a point of execution, being able to be taken care of so I could focus on everything else that matters. I had really strong support from my VFX team, making sure we were able to execute a lot of the heavy demands of the visual effects shots. We have something like 1,600 VFX shots in this movie, and I wanted to treat them in a way that wasn’t so heavily dependent on green screen, gray pajamas, or blind performances and CGI.
Right off the bat, we made the decision to make a coming-of-age story about a young boy assuming his responsibility and becoming who he’s supposed to become, pursuing his destiny and purpose in life, with an emphasis on his family life and with a lot of humor and heart. It just happens to have superhero elements in it. Given the sensibilities of the indie approach in my other films, we looked to make a movie that felt intimate and relatable. That’s why it was important for us to use practical locations, [real] suits, and lighting—it helped us not be dependent on VFX.
By doing so, it allowed us to experiment with the structure of a superhero origin story of a lesser-known character. We wanted audiences to not just follow our movie, but to connect with it as well. We took a lot of inspiration from how Latin American cinema deals with character and plot, so by the time the action starts, you’re very familiar with the family at the core of the first film. I call it the first film because we designed our story as the first part of a saga. Although it’s a movie with its own three-act structure, in the character arc of our hero, this is his first act. By the end of our movie, he’s ready to go into the new world.
AT THE MOVIES
Do you have a favorite movie theater?
I was born, raised, and grew up my whole life in Puerto Rico. I’ve only been working in L.A. for around seven years. I spent more than 30 years living in the island. There are so many movie theaters I could name, but the one that I frequented a lot—the one where I saw movies that made me want to be a director—is the Caribbean Cinemas Fine Arts movie theater in Miramar, in the municipality of San Juan. They remodeled it, and now it’s a little bit bougie, but back in the day it was super small. It had grit; you could smell the history.
They didn’t have big auditoriums back then, but that’s where you could go see a movie by Pedro Almodóvar. They were showing all these international movies that helped me fall in love with this medium. I remember watching Requiem for a Dream and Pi there. That’s also where I saw Following and Memento. All the films that wouldn’t get a wide release in Puerto Rico, that’s where they played—and it was my sanctuary. It was my holy place. I knew I could go there and be inspired. I learned so much by watching movies there that I still think about it fondly. That’s where we had the premiere of my first movie.
It’s where I learned that you don’t need that much money to create a visceral story that connects with audiences around the world, moves hearts, and has an emotional hook that that we can all connect with, learn from, and debate with. That, for me, is the beauty of cinema.