A Latina pre-teen lines up to be the next world-saving hero. That’s the plot of We Can Be Heroes, a family film by Robert Rodriguez of Spy Kids and El Mariachi fame. Released on Christmas Day, it was Netflix U.S.’s most popular film for a while there and is still in the top 10 a month after its release.
I, for one, am glad We Can Be Heroes is having a moment. Like the most famous Latinx superhero film before it, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, We Can Be Heroes celebrates our culture, values, and aesthetic while offering hope that these tools can help build a better future.
Let’s start with aesthetics—both superhero films are bright and colorful. This isn’t the dark and muted tones of Batman and his friends. Into the Spider-Verse, in particular, was beautiful, filled with comic book staples like modern art polka dots, 3-D treatments, and bright splashes of color. There’s a reason it won the Oscar for the best-animated film that year—I’ve never seen anything like it on screen. And of course, the visuals reflected the culture of its Black and Puerto Rican protagonist Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore. We Can Be Heroes probably won’t win any Oscars but it’s still visually stunning. Its sitcom-bright lighting bounces off its vibrant sets, making me feel like the cast was running around high art (but still kid-friendly) playgrounds. The look is theme-park-waiting-to-happen.
We Can Be Heroes follows a group of pre-teens, led by 11-year-old YaYa Gosselin’s Missy Moreno. Hers is a mix-race group of kids who must work together to defeat alien invaders. Each has their own superpower although Missy’s appears to be leadership, not the supernatural kind. They can’t get much done individually, stuck in sibling rivalries, doubts about their place in the group, and/or the kid-version of a tantrum. Together, though, they’re ready to save the world. Into the Spider-Verse also features this type of collectivism, perhaps the most famous Latinx value. In a recurring bit, we meet also sorts of Spider-People (men, girls, creatures) who each thought they were the only one. But in this film, the Latinx one, they’re all together, brought from their alternate dimensions to help Miles in his transition from teen to spider-teen. The film ends with Miles realizing he’ll never be alone, he’ll always be part of a broader community. What’s more Latinx than that?
There’s also our protagonists’ age. Miles is 14, Missy 11. They’re young, like the actual Latinx population, about a third of which is under 18. But it’s not just demographic similarity—the youth of our heroes and the films they’re in express a value in trusting kids not as our future but as our present. Missy uses her intergenerational alliance, thanks to her badass abuelita (played by Adriana Barraza) and loving father (Pedro Pascal, obviously) to succeed in her heroes’ journey. While Miles leans on his father (Brian Tyree Henry) and uncle (Mahershala Ali) for ideas about masculinity, heroism, and justice. Both films manage to center youth without exoticizing them or betraying our elders. It’s good.
So yes, these shows reflect our values but they’re more than a mirror—they’re a droplet of hope. Latinxs are still vastly underrepresented on screen and when we do show up, too often we’re just stereotypes—the gang member, maid/construction worker, the “spicy” bombshell. We’re rarely the heroes, let alone the super heroes. This positive representation, the kind that doesn’t make us saints or martyrs but rather flawed and interesting people, is as satisfying as it is rare. No wonder Latinxs flocks to see it —we’re hungry to see ourselves and show our kids a positive representation of our community. Even better, these films center the marginalized amongst us —here girls and Afrolatinxs— the films’ big budgets finally reflecting their subjects’ true value.
It’s already been announced that Rodriguez is making a sequel to We Can Be Heroes. And we’re slated to FINALLY get more Miles Morales in 2022. You bet I’ll be watching both—I love escaping to a world where characters like Miles and Missy have the powers they need to save us. And I bet you will too.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.