Superheroes are basically cops in tights and capes, plus some enhanced abilities and generally minus any oversight or accountability to the law. As a result, they don’t always look so heroic from the perspective of marginalized communities, where people are disproportionately on the receiving end of violence from law enforcement. That’s a problem for Ben Hernandez Bray’s new movie El Chicano, which is billed as the first live-action film with a Latinx superhero in the starring role. Bray wants the film to be another straightforward superhero empowerment narrative. But he keeps stumbling onto complicated questions he doesn’t want to acknowledge or resolve.
The first scenes encapsulate the problems with putting a superhero in the East Los Angeles barrio. The movie opens from the perspective of three kids: twins Paco and Diego Hernandez, and their friend Shotgun. Shotgun is the son of a notorious gangster named Shadow. As the kids watch, a bunch of cops roll up to harass Shadow, who they say has been involved in the deaths of some fellow officers. After the police leave, El Chicano, a masked vigilante, rides in on a motorcycle. He throws Shadow from his wheelchair, then stabs him to death in front of his family, his friends, and the kids.
If this were the Netflix Punisher or Daredevil series, audiences would know exactly who they were supposed to be identifying with: the familiar face with a long history as a hero. The superhero is El Chicano, and he’s disposing of the bad guys, so obviously viewers should be on his side. But here, El Chicano is a frightening masked stranger, murdering a friend and family member while terrified children look on. Is he Batman, or the thug who killed Batman’s family? Superheroes are supposed to be rescuers and saviors. But in the barrio, violent, merciless police allies look more like oppressors.
That ambivalence about superheroics and policing surfaces again when the adult gangster Shotgun (David Castaneda) tells the adult Diego (Raul Castillo), now a police detective, “The LAPD has robbed you of your heritage.” But otherwise, the film abandons its questions and embraces the viewpoint that law enforcement officers are heroes, justified in bending or breaking any rules if they can bring down a criminal in the process. Diego discovers that a Mexican cartel led by El Gallo (Sal Lopez) is partnering with Shotgun to take over East LA. The gang kills people Diego is close to, and to take revenge, he dons the mask of the semi-mystical vigilante El Chicano. From there, the plot runs as expected, with a minimum of wit and effectively workaday gritty filming, with Diego strewing bad guys and fight scenes behind him on his path to inevitable triumph.
El Gallo has the potential to be a Killmonger-like figure. He’s a vicious thug, but he also has a revolutionary vision. He believes California and the Southwest were illegally taken from Mexico, and he wants to expand his cartel into the US to right that historical injustice. “The illegal alien is the gringo,” he says, which sure sounds like an implicit critique of Donald Trump’s demonization of Mexican immigrants.
Black Panther gave Erik Killmonger’s critique of global racism, and even his call for global revolution, a fairly sympathetic hearing. Bray doesn’t treat El Gallo’s critique of US imperialism and racism with similar respect. Instead, El Chicano is in the tradition of Death Wish or a Dirty Harry movie. It depicts a crime-ridden dystopian city that must be cleansed through hyperbolic vigilante violence. Along those lines, it embraces a Trumpian view of Mexican violence and criminality. The hyperbolic violence and cruelty of the drug cartel — which comes after the police with bombs, nooses, and chainsaws — could easily have been inspired by a Breitbart article emitting racist dogwhistles about the imminent danger of mass invasion by MS-13.
In El Chicano, the evil Mexicans are an invading horde. Diego the hero, by contrast, is a red-blooded patriot defending the border. For Diego, being a superhero means emphatically rejecting his connections to a pan-Mexican identity and fighting against El Gallo’s revolutionary vision. “I stand for the Barrio... For I am Mexican-AMERICAN,” Diego says, quoting his twin brother’s diary, which specifically wrote that “American” in all caps.
For the Latinx hero, being an American means murdering evil Mexicans (“you will bleed out on American soil,” he tells them) and embracing the history of white Manifest Destiny. The only people who object to this anti-immigrant nativism are the bad guys. No one in Diego’s community speaks in favor of immigrants or criticizes American racism, unless you count Diego’s chief complaining about the white FBI agents horning in on his murder investigation. ICE is never mentioned; concentration camps for immigrants are never mentioned. Diego certainly never dons the El Chicano mask to rescue immigrant children from cages.
The fact that Diego fights immigrants rather than helping them underlines the superhero genre default. Every so often, a narrative like Cleverman will flip the script in an intelligent way. That show has a superhero fighting on behalf of indigenous marginalized people in New Zealand, against a near future totalitarian police force. Sometimes stories like Captain Marvel or Black Panther raise questions about who the good guys are and how they present themselves to the public. But law and order stories about punching out criminals are still the superhero’s bread and butter. An inventive film and an inventive filmmaker might have used the relationship between the Mexican American community and the police to question the superhero genre and push against the idea that people who cops define as criminals are always the bad guys.
Unfortunately, El Chicano isn’t equipped with that kind of savvy or awareness about the world around it. The inevitable final battle involves Diego and his childhood friend rolling around the barrio in the mud, beating the tar out of each other, both motivated by vengeance. One of them is supposed to be good, one of them is supposed to be bad. But as they struggle and gasp and kick, it’s hard to see how the outcome is going to materially improve things for their neighborhood, their community, or their nation. What is this fight about? Why are we supposed to be cheering?
In theory, viewers are supposed to be cheering because Diego is a superhero and an American. Americans are superheroes, superheroes are American, El Chicano tells us. That’s supposed to be inspiring. But instead, it leaves behind a queasy unease about both the genre and the country. American superhero stories don’t have to be so xenophobic or so accepting of the status quo. But El Chicano suggests that, without some effort or genius, that’s where they end up.
El Chicano is currently in theaters.