How ‘Blue Beetle’ Landed at the Center of a Historic Strike and a Latino Movement

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The new superhero movie’s success – or failure – can impact the future of BIPOC blockbuster films

Blue Beetle Xolo Maridueña
"Blue Beetle" star Xolo Maridueña

Fears are rising amid Latino activists and fans that the double strike will endanger the box office success and the legacy of “Blue Beetle.”

When DC’s latest comic book movie hits theaters on Aug. 18, it will be the first superhero feature starring, written by and directed by Latinos on the big screen. This event has the potential to be what “Black Panther” was for Black audiences and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was for AAPI viewers: a celebration of a film representing marginalized audiences in a Hollywood landscape that remains remarkably white.

In order to get to the screen this summer, “Blue Beetle” had to survive three regime changes, a straight-to-streaming greenlight, a pandemic and content cuts at Warner Bros. Discovery that overwhelmingly affected BIPOC-driven shows and movies. Now, it’s opening amid a historic double strike. And for many in the Latino activist community, that’s what may finally do it in.

SAG-AFTRA is prohibiting promotion of projects by actors at the struck studios — all of the majors, including Warner Bros. So while the movie is a groundbreaking piece of Latino representation, its cast can’t do anything to hype the film.

This has caused concern among groups that have long advocated for authentic Latino representation in media. They fear that Latino-led movies and TV shows such as “Blue Beetle” will lose their cultural significance and be forgotten. To prevent this, 27 Latino advocacy groups issued an unprecedented joint open letter on Wednesday urging the public to #SupportLatinoCreatives at a time when they can’t promote their projects themselves.

And the ramifications can be bigger: The double strike, the group wrote, “will have a significantly disproportionate impact on artists from underrepresented communities.”

So many hurdles already

“Blue Beetle” miraculously survived three different regime changes at Warner Bros. It was initially announced in December 2018 under Time Warner. From there it was developed, cast and prepped under the AT&T-owned WarnerMedia and went into production shortly after the deal that created Warner Bros. Discovery closed in 2022. Originally planned for an HBO Max premiere, confidence in the film grew enough to transition it from the small screen to theaters — complete with an Imax release.

However, when “Batgirl” was canceled by the studio’s new owners, there was fear in the Latino community that the same fate would befall “Blue Beetle” since it was greenlit by a previous regime. That didn’t happen, but just two months from release, the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strike has thrown a new wrench into things.

Representatives for DC and Warner Bros. declined to comment.

Barriers to diversity

“Pre-strike there were so many challenges facing film properties targeted towards BIPOC audiences,” Pilaar Terry, managing partner and COO of POV Agency, told TheWrap. “This includes lack of investment in those projects due to a dearth of confidence that these types of films would deliver a return.”

The major concern is a lack of promotion for films with marginalized casts and writers will lead to poor performance at the box office and perpetuate arguments that audiences don’t want to see films starring BIPOC actors. Though the box office often disproves that notion (“Black Panther” and “Shang-Chi” are proof in the superhero space alone), the myth persists.

“There remains an unspoken and unspecified stigma about these types of films from mainstream studios and streaming [services],” Terry said. “Studios and [streamers] continue to be ‘pleasantly surprised’ that these films are not only tapping into the cultural zeitgeist but that they’re making actual money. It’s wild.”

Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. population and 39% of Californians, according to Census figures. They make up an estimated 25% of the moviegoing audience.

Yet their representation in Hollywood falls far short of that and has worsened, not improved, in recent years. Latinos made up 2.3% of the leads in theatrically released movies in 2022, according to UCLA’s 2023 Hollywood Diversity Report, and 6.1% of the leads in streaming movies.

SAG-AFTRA unveiled a plan to boost diversity and inclusion in 2021, including the creation of diversity committees for underrepresented groups. But since the basis of SAG eligibility is working as an actor, a lack of representation in film roles is inevitably reflected in the demographics of the union.

“It definitely seems like an unfair struggle for the Latino actor,” said a Latino SAG member who spoke to TheWrap, requesting anonymity so as not to jeopardize his ability to get future work.

Now add the strikes

The promotional restrictions of the strike are intended to impose painful costs on the studio. But the added pressure of being a BIPOC picture needing to make a box office killing in order to become a launchpad for more marginalized groups’ stories could make “Blue Beetle” collateral damage.

“This should be a moment to celebrate what is a fun ride for all told through this lovable family,” a rep who has talent in the film and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject told TheWrap. “Latinos would love to celebrate its cultural achievement but fear the repercussions from the guild. Everyone is looking to guild leadership to say it’s OK to be proud publicly about this moment.”

For his part, “Blue Beetle” star Xolo Maridueña stood with his fellow SAG-AFTRA members, saying shortly before the strike began that going on strike meant being “on the right side of history.” An Instagram post encouraging followers to see the movie was the last message he could post about the film he starred in.

Ironically, he was able to walk the red carpet for Warner Bros.’ “Barbie,” whose July 9 premiere came well before the SAG-AFTRA strike, but not his own movie.

The talent rep estimates that the combined reach of the cast on social media is more than 90 million people. Maridueña has 3.2 million followers on Instagram, for instance. That free promotion isn’t available for the movie now.

There are some who want to see “Blue Beetle” obtain an interim agreement so its cast can promote the film. Currently, SAG-AFTRA does have a process that can allow independent productions that agree to the guild’s terms to continue working. These interim agreements also extend to promotion, with the Lily Gladstone-starring film “The Unknown Country” receiving a waiver, as well as Luc Besson’s upcoming Venice drama “Dogman.”

Clearly, “Blue Beetle” would not be eligible for an interim agreement for promotion as it hails from Warner Bros., a major studio. And even if it got a waiver, “Blue Beetle’s” stars may refuse to cross the picket line. Granting this or any other major studio film an exception would likely draw even fiercer opposition from union members than those made for independent productions which have agreed to guild terms.

As TheWrap previously reported, there is growing division over these waivers, with some union members arguing that they go against what the guild is on strike for while some of those who have been given waivers have still decided to pause production and promotion of their projects out of solidarity.

SAG-AFTRA didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

So what can be done?

Fans who call themselves the Blue Beetle Battalion are trying to make up the difference by posting about the movie. But supporters of the film and diverse representation in Hollywood still worry whether it will be enough.

“It’s incredibly difficult to market any property without talent that stakeholders know will resonate with the target audience,” said Terry. “It hurts because teams can’t access the road-tested [ways] of promotion. At the same time, it’s an opportunity. Promotional teams have to get incredibly creative with the assets that they have available at hand.”

She cites, as an example, how Universal, Interscope and Beats by Dre crafted a digital and social strategy that worked to fabulous effect on “Straight Outta Compton.” Terry argued it’s still too early to tell how the movie will fare.

“Instead of seeing ‘Blue Beetle’ as [an] example that showcase[s] the limits of BIPOC film marketing, these are spaces for opportunity and ingenuity, which, honestly, we thrive in,” she said.

And there is some upside to “Blue Beetle” that will pave the way for more diverse films regardless of how it fares.

“In spite of the inclusion movement, there is still, in my opinion, not enough work for a Latino actor to have the opportunity to receive health care and pension benefits,” the Latino SAG member said.

The days logged filming BIPOC projects like “Blue Beetle” will give more marginalized actors their SAG cards and fund their benefits. So while Maridueña may not be able to offer words in support of his movie, he’s already changing the numbers.