More than two decades ago, when my main concerns in life were my kindergarten friend group and my Britney Spears HitClips, I was forever altered by the arrival of one particular movie franchise. In 2001, the same year that my only sibling was born, the first Spy Kids film changed the game by introducing the world to a Latino family of superspies, only some of whom were children.
Shot in familiar locations in my home state of Texas, the movie didn’t just transform my backyard into a place full of adventure. It reframed the way I saw my family too. Perhaps it’s a little absurd to place so much importance on a children’s movie with walking thumb people and a villain named Floop, but I’m not alone. I’m part of the Spy Kids generation—a whole class of Latino kids who looked to the Cortez family, and the titular secret agents Carmen (Alexa PenaVega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), and saw themselves as heroes. Maybe this says more about the sorry state of Latino representation in film that’s persisted all these years later, but even still, there’s a lot that the movies got right. So, for the better part of the past 20 years, I’ve been preaching the gospel of Spy Kids to anyone who will listen.
The franchise has evolved quite a bit in those two decades, spawning four sequels, a TV show, and two semi-spinoffs centered on Danny Trejo’s Machete. (Trejo and creator Robert Rodriguez have offered differing statements about the canonicity of the R-rated Machete films, with Trejo at one point suggesting that they portray “what Uncle Machete does when he’s not taking care of the kids.”) The latest installment, Spy Kids: Armageddon, is out on Netflix today. The fifth official Spy Kids feature, it follows the Tango-Torrez family as they take on a villainous video game developer in a bid to save the world. If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Like the Fast and Furious franchise, underneath the Spy Kids movies’ goofy exterior exists a world that is—in some ways at least—surprisingly progressive.
When the first installment premiered in 2001, it tried to win over audiences with a fairly straightforward elevator pitch: What if the only people standing in the way of an evil plot for world domination weren’t the country’s top spies but … their children? The original trailer makes no mention of what has given the film such a long-lasting legacy or what made it, in its own way, groundbreaking—its diminutive heroes are recognizably, unquestionably Latino.
As an espionage movie that revolved around tweens, Spy Kids was always bound to stick out like, well, a thumb person, but for all its quirkiness, Spy Kids was explicitly meant to be relatable. Aside from a few passing references (like Carmen’s full name, Carmen Elizabeth Juanita Echo Sky Brava Cortez, or the calaveras on the Cortezes’ wedding cake), the film isn’t really focused on their heritage.
That was by design. Rodriguez—the Tejano auteur who’s written and directed all of the Spy Kids films, most of which he also shot, edited, and/or scored—modeled the Cortezes after both his uncle, a former FBI special agent named Gregorio (a name shared by Antonio Banderas’ character), and the pretend games he used to play with his siblings as a kid in San Antonio. When he envisioned Spy Kids, making the main characters look and sound like his own family was, for him, a no-brainer, even if it wasn’t for the studio executives. Rodriguez finally persuaded them with a simple comparison: James Bond might be British, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the movies.
Rodriguez found a winning idea in that approach. “By being so specific,” he said, “you’re being more universal.” Those who don’t relate will come along for the ride, and those who do will pick up on every wink thrown their way. With this, he was able to launch arguably the first major Hollywood franchise made by, for, and about Latinos. (It’s telling that one of the only other contenders, Rodriguez’s own Mexico Trilogy, is one he had to jump-start on his own with a microbudget of $7,000.)
From the very beginning of Spy Kids, as Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino) regales her children with the wild story of how she met their father, Gregorio (Banderas), the melodrama and fantasy of their love story feels Latino. Having grown up in a household where my grandfather swore up and down that he once met the devil in Mexico, it’s really not hard to believe that your parents are superspies who narrowly escaped death the day they got married.
The Cortez family dynamics also feel familiar, from the role Carmen plays as a kind of parent to the younger Juni, to the yearslong resentment built up between Gregorio and his brother Machete, only to be forgotten with a hug. (“Latinos: very emotional,” Gregorio explains.)
Though Rodriguez had to persuade the studios to bet on the Cortezes, time proved that they’d been smart to buy in. The film, with a $35 million budget, grossed $148 million at the box office, and each successive entry has been a similar financial success. It’s no wonder they keep making more.
All these years later, the original Spy Kids holds up remarkably well, even setting aside the nostalgia I still feel for all of the inventions that have taken up space in my mind for so long (electroshock gumballs, instant cement, the magic McDonald’s microwave I still desperately need). As ridiculous as it may be, it’s a movie made by a filmmaker who clearly takes childhood seriously, meeting kids at their level rather than talking down to them. And by creating a universe that explored that sense of childlike imagination earnestly, it only heightened my belief that my family members weren’t sidekicks or stereotypes, but leads.
The franchise isn’t perfect. Rodriguez’s passion for catering to his youngest audiences resulted in a 3D installment that failed to win over critics (though I maintain that Rodriguez is one of the only directors who understands what kids want out of a 3D movie, i.e., car chase scenes that make you feel as if you’re in a game of Mario Kart) and a fourth installment that incorporated 4D “Aroma-scope” but lost a bit of momentum by shifting the spotlight away from the Cortezes over to their stepcousins. Even on the level of representation, it sometimes leaves a little to be desired: It’s worth noting that neither Spanish actor Banderas (though Hispanic and a longtime collaborator of Rodriguez’s) nor Gugino (whose heritage is Irish, English, and Italian) is actually Latino. Still, the sequels double down on the family’s multicultural background by casting legendary Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán as Gugino’s character’s father. As for the latest entry, it doesn’t feel like an attempt to reinvent the wheel. Instead, Armageddon is littered with callbacks and Easter eggs to remind fans of the first film.
The franchise has grown up with its fans, and as the Spy Kids generation starts to have children of their own, this new installment feels like an attempt to bridge the gap. Behind the camera, Spy Kids has always been a family affair, with Rodriguez involving and taking inspiration from his own children. This latest installment was co-written with his son Racer Max Rodriguez, who hadn’t yet entered kindergarten when the first movie came out but is now in his mid-20s, and it pays homage to the original in a way that feels heartwarming rather than pandering. Though it’s the first entry not to feature the Cortez family at all, it still maintains its childlike spirit.
Still, it’s hard to match the magic of the original trilogy. It’s not because I’m a purist, but in order to sell the importance of this family of superspies, the original films threw together a mixture of delectable ingredients, like a pizza loaded with your favorite toppings: a wacky story, cool gadgets, off-the-wall appearances from heavy-hitting actors in fairly minor roles (George Clooney as the head of the Organization of Super Spies, Steve Buscemi as a mad scientist, Sylvester Stallone as the supervillain the Toymaker, and Salma Hayek as a character named Francesca Giggles), and, as strange as it might sound for a children’s movie, parents with the sex appeal of Banderas and Gugino. (Every good children’s movie needs a little something for the parents.)
Armageddon has some of these elements, but not all. And without all of the fixings, it just doesn’t pack the same punch. Part of what set Spy Kids apart, what’s given it its cultural impact, is that it, like Shrek, was a movie for kids that adults could enjoy too. Having big-name stars in ludicrous bit parts was part of the fun, and weirdly lent the films a kind of legitimacy—proof that these movies were actually as important as kids felt they were. It’s not to say that the Latino films that came before Spy Kids didn’t move the goal posts forward. It’s that having a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster constructed around a Latino family felt validating. It sent a message that we were a part of mainstream American culture, right down to the fast-food tie-in. In the months after Spy Kids and its sequels were released, being a Mexican kid in a city like San Antonio felt as close as my friends and I could get to having a real-life superpower.
More often than not, when the few films with Latino leads do get released, the stakes are high, and it feels as if the responsibility rests on our community alone to support them, because we’ve been told, explicitly and more subtly, that our stories don’t matter to anyone but us. Spy Kids created a spectacle that anyone would want to see, it cast huge stars knowing that they would bring more people out, and though it was a story about spy kids, the main parents had genuine chemistry. (Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi are capable in Armageddon, but they don’t hold a candle to Banderas and Gugino.)
For me and the rest of the Spy Kids generation, these movies were an absolute revelation, to the point that, in the run-up to Black Panther’s release in 2018, after some Latinos annoyingly asked where “our” Black Panther was (groan), the quippy response “Shut up y’all have Spy Kids” went viral. It was only in hindsight that we could have realized just how different this film was from anything else that had come out before. In the years since, it’s remained a cult classic and a hallmark of Latino film. We still have a ways to go, and though the success of Spy Kids helped blaze a trail for so many movies that followed—from franchise action movies like the Spider-Verse films and Blue Beetle to kids’ movies like Coco and Encanto—there still hasn’t been anything quite like it.