Director Gina Prince Bythewood’s adaptation of Image Comics’ The Old Guard is a movie that asks you to really reflect on what it is about superheroes and their stories that keeps us coming back. Rather than fully trying to reinvent the comic book movie, The Old Guard instead takes hallmarks of the genre and uses them to explore the ruminative, emotional elements of the hard-boiled heroic archetype.
If you’ve read Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s comic, the movie’s narrative beats will ring more than familiar to you. After spending multiple lifetimes ridding the world of evil, a group of immortal warriors finds themselves confronted with the greatest threat to their existence: being exposed.
As the oldest member of the titular Old Guard, Andromache “Andy” of Scythia (Charlize Theron) acts as the group’s leader. Their mission, as it were, is to fight evil — currently by taking out human traffickers and drug runners who have no qualms about hurting innocent people. But after more than 1,000 years of fighting the good fight, Andy’s grown weary of the world and its bottomless well of human suffering. Just as she hits something of an emotional low when it becomes clear that someone has designs on capturing her and her fellow immortals, the group as a whole is shocked when they realise that a new person of their kind has just been “awoken” in a sense, something that portends a major shift in all their destinies.
In stark contrast to Andy and the other immortals who’ve long since lost most of their emotional connections to anyone outside their group, Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), a young Marine deployed in Afghanistan, loves everything about her relatively mundane life… right up until the moment when she dies in the line of duty before inexplicably coming back to life in the infirmary shortly after. For different reasons, Andy and Nile are both alarmed to learn that they’re about to become important parts of one another’s lives, and that bond is something that The Old Guard consistently centres as it pulls you into its action-thriller plot that feels surprisingly fresh compared to other comic book movies.
Once she’s collected her, Andy introduces Nile to her new family — Yusuf “Joe” Al-Kaysanioe (Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari), Nicolo “Nicky” di Genova (Luca Marinelli), and Sebastian “Booker” le Livre (Matthias Schoenaerts). The film then quickly telegraphs the broad strokes of its story, which follows the squad as they try to take down Steven Merrick (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling), the villainous pharma bro who’s hunting them with plans of turning them into lab rats, and former CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who’s also keen on studying their genetic makeup but perhaps for slightly different reasons.
Though Nile can’t deny that the healing factor she shares with the Old Guard makes her more than a baseline human, she struggles with the idea of leaving her life behind simply because the other immortals have. The psychic connection they share with one another makes it impossible for them to believe that they aren’t meant to be together, but beyond that, The Old Guard is careful to steer clear of spelling out what, if any, higher power gave them their abilities and wove their fates together.
In subtle ways, The Old Guard depicts how, absent of any sort of divine directive, all of the immortals have come to believe chiefly in their collective sense of justice and the different things that make each of them feel truly alive. Theron brings a world-weariness to her performance that makes you understand why Andy’s turned to the drink and how her crusade wore her down over the millennia (they never do get around to saying how old she really is). As was the case in the comics, Nicky and Joe — who were once enemies — find sanctuary in one another as the group’s resident pair of lovers whose relationship is put front and centre as a testament to how the immortals’ feelings have shifted over time. The film spends a noticeable amount of time highlighting these aspects of its characters because the nuances to their humanity are ultimately what the story wants you to recognise as what makes them heroic.
Prince-Bythewood’s approach to action emphasises that while Andy and the crew’s immortality gives them a decided advantage against their opponents in combat, what really makes them lethal forces are their collective experiences and understanding of how to work as a cohesive unit. The Old Guard’s fight scenes are brutal more often than not as people get shot in the head at point-blank range and axes are lodged into people’s guts, but every battle is defined by a distinct sort of elegance that speaks to the team’s prowess on the battlefield.
Just as it all begins to build towards a somewhat predictable dramatic climax, the movie takes a moment to make you think about what it is that a superhero does when they get involved in a situation. While a hero’s intention might be to protect the lives of innocent people from those who could hurt them, it’s almost inevitable that others are going to be hurt or murdered in the process, something that superhero films tend to gloss over in service of larger-than-life action sequences. The Old Guard, though, doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of Andy and the team’s important, difficult work, and figuring out how she feels about the entire situation is part of Nile’s journey that the film invites the viewer to follow along with.
Aside from a few pacing issues in its third act, The Old Guard flows with a briskness that suits the story’s overall straightforwardness — which at times makes the movie’s twists feel somewhat predictable. But between a solid first outing and more than enough foreshadowing for future installments set in this world, The Old Guard easily holds its own in the increasingly crowded market of cape films that are trying to find something new and novel to say within the confines of the genre.
The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.