Superheroes are basically police in tights and cloaks, as well as some improved abilities, and in general, any negligence or accountability to the law is inadmissible. Therefore, they do not always seem so heroic from the perspective of marginalized communities where people are disproportionately affected by law enforcement. This is a problem for Ben Hernandez Bray's new movie El Chicano which is being billed as the first live-action movie with a Latinx superhero in the lead role. Bray wants the movie to be another uncomplicated superhero empowerment narrative. But he keeps stumbling upon complicated questions that he does not want to acknowledge or solve.
The first scenes show the problems associated with employing a superhero in the East Los Angeles Barrio. The film is opened from the perspective of three children: the twins Paco and Diego Hernandez and their friend Shotgun. The shotgun is the son of a notorious gangster named Shadow. As the children watch, a few police officers roll up to harass Shadow, who they claim has been involved in the deaths of some officers. After the police leave, El Chicano, a masked vigilante, rides a motorcycle. He throws Shadow out of his wheelchair and kills him in front of his family, friends and children.
If this were the series Netflix Punisher or Daredevil viewers would know exactly whom to identify with: the familiar face with a long history as a hero. The superhero is El Chicano and he has disposed of the bad guys so the viewer should obviously be on his side. But here El Chicano is a fearsome masked stranger who murders a friend and family member while frightened children watch. Is he Batman or the bat who killed Batman's family? Superheroes should be saviors and rescuers. But in the Barrio, violent, merciless police officers look more like oppressors.
This ambiguity about superheroes and policemen reappears when adult gangster shotgun (David Castaneda) tells adult Diego (Raul Castillo), now a police officer, that the LAPD has robbed you of your heritage. "Otherwise, however, the film gives up its questions and argues that police officers are heroes who are entitled to break or break the rules if they can make a criminal victim. Diego discovers that a Mexican cartel led by El Gallo (Sal Lopez) has partnered with Shotgun to take over East LA. The gang kills people close to Diego and, to avenge himself, he puts on the mask of semi-mystical vigilante El Chicano. From there, the action runs as expected, with a minimum of humor and effective everyday filming. Diego sweeps villains and battle scenes on his way to the inevitable triumph.
El Gallo has the potential to be a Killmonger-like figure. He is a wicked thug but also has a revolutionary vision. He believes that California and the Southwest have been illegally abducted from Mexico, and he wants to extend his cartel to the US to correct this historic injustice. "The illegal alien is the gringo," he says, which surely sounds like an implicit critique of Donald Trump's demonization of Mexican immigrants.
Black Panther gave a rather sympathetic hearing to Erik Killmonger's critique of global racism and even his call for global revolution. Bray does not treat El Gallo's critique of US imperialism and racism with similar respect. El Chicano is in the tradition of Death Wish or a Dirty Harry movie. It represents a criminal dystopian city that must be cleansed by hyperbolic vigilante violence. In this sense, it includes a Trumpian view of Mexico's violence and criminality. The hyperbolic violence and cruelty of the drug cartel – which comes after bombs, slings and chainsaws after the police – could easily have been inspired by a Breitbart article that triggered racist whistles about the imminent threat of MS invasion.
In El Chicano the evil Mexicans are an invading horde. The hero Diego, on the other hand, is a red-blooded patriot defending the border. Being a superhero means for Diego to forcefully reject his ties to a pan-Mexican identity and fight El Gallo's revolutionary vision. "I stand for the Barrio … Because I'm Mexican-Americans," says Diego, quoting the diary of his twin brother, in particular, the "American" is written in all Caps.
For the Latinx hero, being American means murdering evil Mexicans ("They bleed on American soil," he tells them) and records the story of the white manifesto Destiny. The only people objecting to this anti-immigrant nativism are the bad guys. No one in Diego's community is in favor of immigrants or criticizing American racism, unless you count Diego's chief complaining about the white FBI agents involved in his murder investigation. ICE is never mentioned; Concentration camps for immigrants are never mentioned. The mask of El Chicano is certainly never donated by Diego to rescue children with migrant cages.
The fact that Diego fights immigrants instead of helping them underscores the standard of the superhero genre. Occasionally a narrative like Cleverman will intelligently reverse the script. This show has a super hero fighting on behalf of indigenous fringe groups in New Zealand against a totalitarian police in the near future. 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 the extinction of criminals are still the bread of the superhero. A resourceful film and a resourceful filmmaker could have used the relationship between the Mexican American community and the police to challenge the superhero genre and oppose the idea that people who define cops as criminals are always the bad guys are.
Unfortunately, El Chicano is not endowed with this kind of knowledge and awareness of the world around him. The inevitable last fight is that Diego and his childhood friend roll around the barrio in mud to beat the tar in vengeance. One of them should be good, one of them should be bad. But as they struggle and gasp and kick, it's hard to see how the result will greatly improve things for their neighborhood, community, or nation. What is this fight about? Why should we cheer?
Theoretically, viewers should cheer because Diego is a superhero and an American. Americans are superheroes, superheroes are Americans, El Chicano tells us. That should be inspiring. Instead, it leaves an uncomfortable discomfort about the genre and the country. American superhero stories do not have to be so xenophobic or accept the status quo. But El Chicano suggests that this is where it ends without effort or genius.
El Chicano is currently in theaters.