Watching The Old Guard, a sci-fi action-thriller-adventure movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, reminded me painfully and unexpectedly of how the summer of 2020 was unlike any summer before it. Instead of movie theaters being flooded with established superhero franchises, and general fast-paced, action-thriller fare, the biggest action movie of the summer was on Netflix, viewed mostly at home, on screens far smaller than Prince-Bythewood’s cinematic vistas require for maximum effect.
The story, based on a comic book of the same title, revolves around a group of immortal warriors who’ve spent their long, long lives fighting in humanity’s wars, trying to figure out the “right” side in various conflicts, occasionally popping by various natural disasters and other major events where people with military skills and a lack of ability to die can be useful.
There’s Andy (Charlize Theron), also known as Andromache of Scythia, an ancient warrior who’s about six thousand years old. There’s Nicky and Joe (Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, respectively), who were originally known as Nicolo di Genoa and Yusuf Al-Kaysani and met on opposite sides of the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099. There’s Sebastien le Livre, now known as Booker, who was a soldier in the Napoleonic wars.
The newest member of the team, around whom half the movie’s plot revolves, is Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), a modern-day US Marine stationed in Afghanistan. In this world, the way immortal powers work is that every member of the Old Guard lives their human life as normal until their death (specifically, a violent death during a military conflict), after which their wounds heal and they are resurrected. From that moment on they can’t be killed, and any injury heals itself in minutes.
Nile discovers this when a man her unit is hunting slashes her throat with a knife, and she dies in the arms of her friends while waiting for a medic. Miraculously, however, the next day Nile is not only alive, but there’s not even a mark where the knife had opened her neck.
At best, faced with suspicion from her fellow troops, and at worst designated for medical testing and experimentation at the hands of the military, Nile is quickly scooped up by the other members of the Old Guard.
At the same time, the team is dealing with the slow unraveling of their secret identities. In the age of smartphone cameras and the internet it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the secret of their unchanging bodies and resurrection abilities. Soon, a powerful pharma company becomes interested in exploring the healing abilities of these elusive immortals, and the team faces enemies who know their secret, as well as betrayal from within.
More broadly, The Old Guard asks, through Andy’s jaded ancient eyes and Nile’s newly sparkling ones, does any of the good we try to do really matter? Over the span of centuries, Andy has tried to save as many people as she could, to be on the “right” side of as many conflicts as possible. But thousands of years later, as humanity is destroying itself ever more rapidly, she wonders, has she really done anything at all?
The movie’s answer to this is to show the accumulated effect of Andy’s actions—the achievements humanity has made, the improvements in people’s lives, as a result of her actions, which become visible only generations after her involvement. While I would have preferred this point to be made by showing that all lives have inherent value, and that a single life made better is always preferable to the absence of that action, instead of showing the offspring of specific people Andy saved who went on to do great things, it was still a lovely, uplifting message to walk away with. Even if you can’t see it in the moment, the good you do ripples out. Even if not every decision is the right one, ultimately if you strive to help people, you’ll have an accumulated positive effect. That, not the goodness or bravery of specific heroes or specific moments, is what makes the good fight worth fighting.
Compared to the moral bankruptcy of most superhero films, where efforts are made to avoid saying anything meaningful about the world outside of “power is bad” or “selflessness is good,” this socially conscious message of being part of a struggle that lives before and after you, even if you’re six thousand years old, is possibly my favorite thing about the movie.
Which neatly leads into the fact that The Old Guard is also the first superhero movie ever to be directed by a Black woman, a state of affairs that’s equally enraging and depressing, considering these movies have dominated box offices for over twelve years.
Prince-Bythewood’s directorial style is perhaps the reason a movie based on an esoteric comics franchise stayed on Netflix’s “top ten most viewed lists” for weeks in many countries around the world. Sure, some of that was the hunger for a good summer action blockbuster, but some of it was the unique blend of story and pace this movie has to offer.
There are so many silences in The Old Guard. So many small character moments, so much room to breathe in between the action sequences. It’s Nile who feels overwhelmed by the fear and apprehension in her fellow soldiers’ faces, and walks away from her tent to sit alone for a moment and listen to a favorite song on her headphones. It’s the many lingering shots of Andy’s face as she plans, thinks, and processes things around her. It’s a moment of silence when Booker sits next to a fire and drinks from his flask.
All of these create a different pace from your standard action movie, which usually seeks to grab the viewer by the throat from minute one and not let go until the credits. The Old Guard is almost meditative, slow, pensive, punctuated with occasional bursts of action. There’s also the cast, composed almost entirely of characters who’ve never before been front-and-center in superhero movies. Aside from Andy and Nile, whose dynamic is that of the veteran mentor and the new recruit, a relationship that big action movies have rarely allowed, never mind centered, when it came to women, there’s also Joe and Nicky, who’ve been a couple since they first met on opposite sides of a crusade.
As Nicky, a former priest, puts it, “the love of my life was of the people I was taught to hate.” Compare this to the fact that in over twenty-five movies from Marvel and DC, we’ve had not a single significant character who was textually, unequivocally queer.
In one of The Old Guard’s most-talked-about scenes, and one that writer Greg Rucka (who wrote both the comic and movie) insisted in his contract must remain in the adaptation, Joe and Nicky are captured by enemies and mocked for showing concern for each other. This drives Joe into making a speech about how in love he is with Nicky, clearly indifferent to homophobia even when he’s handcuffed in a van and surrounded by armed soldiers. The speech is followed by him and Nicky kissing, in front of the men who mocked them, and killing those men shortly afterwards.
I couldn’t imagine a scene like that in Batman v Superman (2016), or in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). The current superhero landscape is so heavily predicated on the idea of white male straightness as the focus, with movies like Black Panther (2018) and Wonder Woman (2017) being exceptions, presented almost as benevolent gestures after audience uproar.
But, as much as I enjoyed The Old Guard, and as welcome a respite as I found it from the restrictive nonsense of the big franchises, it does have its limitations. It’s still very much a Hollywood film, with Hollywood biases, where the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, for example, is never questioned, despite the characters being hundreds of years old and having a unique perspective on imperialism and conflict. It casts Nicky, who was originally part of a force that slaughtered most of the civilians in ancient Jerusalem, as patient and kind, hinting at stereotypical Christian virtues, and Joe, a Muslim played by a Tunisian-Dutch actor, as rash, emotional, quick to anger, a kind of harkening to orientalist stereotypes. It also has the characters speak a multitude of European languages (with English, for the sake of the audience, being their primary, even though it makes no kind of sense) but not a single word of Arabic, despite the fact that the opening sequence takes place in Morocco.
The Old Guard is better at representing diverse characters and catering to a global audience than any other movie in its genre in recent memory, but it’s still very much a Hollywood offering with the usual biases that implies.
Ultimately, the movie is a glimpse of the kind of big-budget superhero stories we could have with a much broader range of creators behind the camera, and a broader range of characters taking center frame. Please, give me more movies directed (and written) by Black women. Give us all movies starring a racially diverse cast and explicitly queer characters, who make mushy declarations of love. Give me movies starring women as both the wise old veteran and the inexperienced but excited newcomer.
We need more of these kinds of movies, so we can have terrible and mediocre, and excellent versions of them, just like we have terrible, mediocre and excellent versions of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Superman, and the rest. My wish for the next decade of superhero movies is that it turns The Old Guard into part of the norms of storytelling, instead of leaving it as the massive outlier it currently is.