As a queer person, I love it when we are given visibility in narratives, and love it even more when our queerness isn’t just the only characteristic we have. The Old Guard, Netflix’s new film based on Greg Rucka’s fantastic graphic novels, is very satisfying in that regard, especially because queer visibility is important in every genre. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s combination of the comic’s gritty atmosphere and the common tropes in today’s superhero films, while good, still leaves a lot to be desired.
We are instantly introduced to the film’s eponymous protagonists – a group of superpowered warriors set loose against an evil tech-bro CEO and his heavily-armed minions in the far-off future. While, of course, this is the textbook posthuman superhero story, there are some things that make it stand out compared to others. The heroes, led by Andy (Charlize Theron), don’t have any fancy costumes or alter egos, and they all share the same superpower – not dying. Whenever they’re close to dying, they fall down and bleed, but then they jump back up again to finish off any attackers. Andy has been doing this the longest, since antiquity. The others include Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), two lovers who met on opposite sides of the Crusades (more on them later), Booker (Matthias Schoneaerts), who joined the Guard during the Napoleonic Wars, and Nile (KiKi Layne), a newly-initiated ex-Marine.
As Nile is a new recruit to the Guard, she struggles to understand her immortality. It comes with some fine print – not the vampire escape clause, but something more subtle and philosophical. Time comes for everyone, sooner or later, and the Guard lives in the shadow of perpetual loss – as they are doomed to outlive people they care about – and constant uncertainty. They are powerful, but also vulnerable. Unlike a lot of films that grapple with this lingering uncertainty, the uncertainty does not drive the film. It complements it, and allows room for humility and honesty. And this is something very important in a superhero film – not everybody loves the boisterous, joking Marvel movie heroes, and the tone of hard-boiled melancholy that Prince-Bythewood sets is apt and welcome in this superhero canon. Like a lot of people, Andy is having doubts about her vocation, wondering how much power she has left in her and whether the world can get better.
This film’s intensity showcases the camaraderie that brings the meaning and purpose of life into view, and the performances support this showcase well. Charlize Theron, especially, has always been creative with her characters, and it’s nice to see her portraying the charismatic leader of a tight friend group. While I love her range, I think that it’s thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, and now this film, that she found her niche as the action heroine. Joe and Nicky’s relationship is another highlight, as they are portrayed humanely – it’s much more than token representation, as the queerness is sidelined for a meaningful display that provides both the funniest and most emotional moments the film has, in my opinion. The film takes the foundation that the comics laid for each character and goes one step further, something that only a film could do.
Despite everything good, this film is not free of problems. The story is too linear and supported by a rather weak script, and focuses more on backstories than how the dynamics and relationships have changed over the course of their lives. It is nice to hear about the helpful things that these immortals have done in the past, but it drags the film for a considerate amount of time and leaves a lot to wonder for people who have never read the comics. It’s also surprisingly low-stakes, which this genre rarely is, and that works less in its favor than I wanted it to. Prince-Blythewood obliges, however, and keeps the action fast and fierce and the soundtrack consistently banging, all the while avoiding overdone CGI. What I love about her films is that she never condescends to her material – her movies, no matter whether you’re talking about Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, or The Secret Life of Bees, are always anchored in the humane curiosity that the people they depict are filled with. Here, it comes from the mentor/protégé bond between Andy and Nile – each character is wavering between self-confidence and panic, and their openness to learn from each other.
With all that in mind, The Old Guard is good. It gives measure to either possibility of immortality – showcasing life everlasting and projecting the immense pain attached to this reality. Now that Netflix proved they can make good comic book movies, I have one request for them – please, please don’t mess up the movie you’re producing based on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.