At the end of DC’s recent “The Suicide Squad,” the bruised and battered (and mostly dead) ensemble cast of super bad guys put together by the US secret service pats itself on the back after having saved the United States (and the planet by proxy) from the intergalactic threat of a giant starfish let loose on the population of Corto Maltese, a fictional island somewhere off the coast of Latin America.
“The Suicide Squad” is the first feature film of the Marvel and DC juggernaut to take place in Latin America. But unlike earlier print and live-action superhero incursions into the region during and immediately after the Cold War, the film does acknowledge US tinkering in the politics of the region. Indeed, we learn from one of the many villains that the starfish is actually a US-backed experiment, quietly taking place in the backwaters of Latin America where any collateral and real damage would only be a blip in the US political sphere. One can easily substitute the starfish with violent anti-leftist suppression or neoliberalism to get at the figurative, historical subtext of the film. The seeming indifference by the Squad and the US government toward local politics adds to this reading — the latter only grow concerned with the internal affairs of Corto Maltese after a coup is staged by anti-US generals against a pro-US dictatorship. The anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy guerrilla are an after thought, and are even slaughtered en masse by the Suicide Squad after they mistake them for members of the military. This, like the broader desire for a democratic and representative government, is given little weight in this film.
While “The Suicide Squad” is refreshingly different for US audiences, it very much confirms what Latin American film and comic aficionados have already known since the middle of the 20th century — that superheroes are only super and heroes for the interests of the Global North. Their altruism and powers are neither universal nor disinterested.
THE REAL-LIFE HEROES
In their absence, Latin America has seen a rise of real-life superheroes who don masks, capes, and costumes to fight petty crime, government corruption, and social inequities. Mexico City in the 1980s saw a boom of live-action characters that combined the aesthetics of the Mexican wrestler with the US superhero archetype, producing such famed characters as Superbarrio, Ecologista Universal, and Super Gay. In the 21st century, we have seen other characters, such as Super H from Honduras, Capitán Colombia, and a bevy of Avenger-styled superheroes in the streets of Chile during the recent protests.
While “The Suicide Squad” is refreshingly different for US audiences, it very much confirms what Latin American film and comic aficionados have already known for decades — that superheroes are only super and heroes for the interests of the Global North.
Missing from all this, however, is a strong female presence. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, given the lack of representation in the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, a vestige no doubt of the masculine-centered comic-book worlds they evolved from. These comics were first geared toward teenage boys, and female characters were thus relegated to the role of sexual object, accessory, or distraction. Superheroes, after all, are surprisingly conservative characters that reinforce the status quo: When Superman fights alien invaders, he does so to maintain US hegemony; Batman puts a stop to the Joker’s thirst for anarchy as it would dismantle society as we know it. Marvel and DC superheroes are really only interested in protecting the current state of affairs, one that is very patriarchal and wary of strong female leadership. In the first decade of the current superhero boom in film, female characters appeared as love interests and assistants. Only recently have we seen female-centered films starring Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Black Widow. DC has also given female supervillains, such as Catwoman and Harley Quinn, starring roles in recent films and television series, but there is still a very long way to go for gender equity in representation.
WHERE ARE THE FEMALE SUPERHEROES?
The real-life superheroes of Latin America are catching up with this gendered trend. In Mexico City, Ciudadina follows in the footsteps of Superbarrio and other social justice heroes that came before her by going out in the streets of the capital to promote civility and a better life for all. She is part of a recent cohort of characters that include Peatonito (whose aim is to cut down the city’s abysmal traffic jams and reliance on cars), Tacubo (who has created an anti-bullying campaign), and Superluz (a union rights activist).
Dressed in a pink leotard, green cape, and wearing a pink luchador mask to protect her identity, Ciudadina rides around the city on her bicycle, stopping to help children cross a busy street or to spread messages of gratitude and caring through personalized notes. Ciudadina is very much a superhero of the people, with no special gadgets or superhuman strength — her superpower is her message.
Ciudadina is not the only superhero to make a mark in Mexico today; one of the government’s efforts to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has centered around the creation of an animated superhero, Susana Distancia. The name is a play on words designed to encourage social distancing: Susana as a variation of “su sana” or your healthy distance. The character is dressed quite unlike the local real-world heroes that tend to explore the wrestling lore so popular in the country. Instead, she wears a pink, blue, and yellow outfit that wouldn’t look out of place in an X-Men film. The character would later go on to sport a surgical mask, evolving with the public health recommendations on masking. As an animated character, Susana’s target audience includes younger children who may at first not understand the importance of social distancing and masking.
Susana has become a social media phenomenon, with users posting their fan art, fan fiction, and even amigurumi dolls to various outlets. A member of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s party even dressed up as the character and appeared in a live-action clip spread on social media sites touting the benefits of social distancing — she appears maskless as the video was produced before the government advocated widespread mask-wearing.
While real-life female superheroes in Latin America are a relatively new phenomenon, we can only expect more characters to appear on the streets and then circulate via social media, as the citizens of several countries have recently mounted increasing protests against domestic and international policies that foment greater socioeconomic inequity and precarity.
Vinodh Venkatesh is a Professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He is the author of Capitán Latinoamérica: Superheroes in Cinema, Television, and Web Series.