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‘The Old Guard’ Review: Netflix’s comic book action-drama is a character study that shows what we’ve been missing

By all account the summer's biggest blockbuster, "The Old Guard" plunges into questions of mortality, expectation and duty.
Credit: Netflix

For how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to be one of the last consistent channels of mass-consumed entertainment and how many billions of dollars it’s made at the box office (or, more accurately, because of it), we’ve gotten comfortable with how those spandex-wearing, one-liner-quipping heroes represent characters whose motivations have less to do with character and more to do with the unassailable appeal of altruistic duty. Even as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers bicker over the ethics of becoming bureaucratic pawns in “Captain America: Civil War,” what differentiates them isn’t really a matter of “I do or don’t want this or that” so much as what’s the most sensible method of fighting the enemies that will continue to come their way. The foe is always as much a driving force, if not more, than the self—it wouldn’t be an MCU movie otherwise, with the exception of the multilayered politics of “Black Panther.”

And that’s all OK…if only because that’s what we want. Packed theaters (oh, how they are missed) and merchandise sales and Halloween costumes are more than enough to shield Kevin Feige and Co. against any other suggestion.

Leave it to Netflix, then, to bring us a comic book actioneer that shows us what the genre is missing, and in a year where we’ve reached July with nary a Wonder Woman or Black Widow to cheer on, no less. A movie about superpowered beings that was probably made for the cost of catering on the set of an “Avengers” movie, but exponentially more considered about the emotional and psychological toll of being a superpowered being, “The Old Guard” is the rare comic book adaptation (I’d call it a “superhero” movie, but things are more complicated than that) where the quiet moments are more interesting than the loud ones.

You’ll find all the familiar tropes – the novice hero, the flying fists, the moustache-twirling villain, etc. – to sustain you over the prolonged gap of time to the next Marvel or DC comics film, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest directorial effort prods deep enough to reset our expectations in the meantime. With its diverse cast and a fresh sprinkling of nihilism, “The Old Guard” puts character over spectacle, in the process asking questions the genre hasn’t been all that interested in asking as of late.

“The Old Guard” opens on a small team of covert mercenaries led by Andy (Charlize Theron, subtly continuing a hot streak of performances after “Tully,” “Long Shot” and “Bombshell”). As she gazes at a news channel toggling between headlines of “crisis in Syria” and “unrest in Haiti,” her eyes betray weariness at a world that is decaying faster than they can smooth out the rough patches. “Some good means nothing,” she croaks out in one early scene, a line with more implications about the relationship between servitude and exhaustion than most superhero/comic book movies serve up in two-plus hours.

The uninitiated to “The Old Guard” may wonder how long, exactly, Andy and her team have devoted their lives and bodies to the pursuit of heroic ends. You’ll get your answer about 15 minutes in, when an ostensible mission to save some kidnapped girls is revealed to be a trap, and rifle-toting goonies make swiss cheese out of Andy and her co-warriors. It’s a grisly scene (the movie makes good on its R rating).

But moments later, the bullets pop out. Their wounds are healed. The squad stands up, and swiftly proceeds to turn the tables on their ambushers. Andy, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are immortal, it turns out…and they’ve been at this for decades. Or, in the case of Andy (full name: Andromache the Scythian), for centuries.

The premise is one that “The Old Guard” fascinatingly explores in shades of grey, contextualizing Andy’s world-weariness with seeds of reservation that have been festering over time. While the traditional contemporary comic book movie expends minimal energy contemplating what heroes think – what they actually think – about the emotional fallout of fighting new menace day after day after day, “The Old Guard” plunges into those questions as forcefully as Andy plunges her battle ax into an enemy’s neck. And she does so in the shadow of secrecy, with no one to acknowledge her but the creeping suspicion that if the world hasn’t gotten any better, perhaps she shouldn’t waste her time (the film can certainly be read as a commentary on gender expectation).

It’s a startlingly human moment when she admits that “none of it means anything anyway,” and makes one consider the numerous kinds of stories comic book movies refuse to tell, in favor of destroying made-up European countries and fighting giant purple aliens. “The Old Guard” provides first-person perspective at a time when the genre is viewed increasingly through the lens of corporatism, both in the context of the actual stories and of those who make them. Ironically, or intentionally, that same profits-driven corporatism proves adversarial when a big pharma bro-preneur, Merrick (Harry Melling, a seeming representation of Mark Zuckerberg with his curly hair and ego), seeks to capture and harvest the team of whatever in their biology makes them immune to bullets and stabs. “We’re morally obliged to take it,” Merrick says, a sentiment that is more fully realized in the conflicted CIA agent anxiously helping him, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Copley.

The film also represents a landmark moment for Black filmmakers; Prince-Bythewood, who previously made “Love & Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” is now the first Black woman to helm a comic book movie. It’s an overdue deviation from an unfortunate norm, a change in perspective that’s striking to see play out in the film’s astute observations of what one owes the world when one gets nothing in return. It certainly helps that “The Old Guard” was penned by the same writer of the source material, Greg Rucka, who restrains himself from getting too muddled in lore (although one particular backstory is haunting) for the sake of providing an audience proxy in KiKi Layne’s Nile—a Marine who discovers her own immortality while on duty, and is soon gathered by the team after a psychic episode alerts them to another of their kind.

The parallels to “X-Men” are obvious—and that superhuman family certainly makes sense as a thematic overlap, not to mention the Wolverine-like abilities of the titular old guard. But unlike that Marvel gang, there’s no School for Gifted Youngsters here, and no William Stryker to direct their rage at. They’re constantly on the run, only relying on each other. They’re not outfitted in brightly colored costumes, don’t come equipped with adamantium shields or the ability to shoot deadly beams of light from their hands or the support of national security budgets. The result is a careful and legitimate humanizing of the movie’s diverse characters, a sneaky achievement of drama that far outweighs forgettable action sequences and the occasionally bland aesthetic (the movie’s song choices are legitimately baffling). “I’ve got people that love me—people that are going to worry,” Nile responds when Andy encourages her to follow their path. “The Old Guard” isn’t particularly subtle, but that opens up avenues to explore the painful implications of mortality through a moral lens.

Credit: Netflix

As long as the movie interrogates the genre confines it’s operating within, we can, of course, interrogate the moments when it deviates into familiar territory. While the stakes thankfully remain grounded in the final act – actively subverting heroes-save-the-world expectations in the process – there’s a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to shake when the bodies of faceless goons start piling up. One of my favorite scenes in a film whose characters constantly converse about inevitable endings comes earlier as Niles confesses that, while the military has trained her to subdue her foes, it can’t prepare her for living with what comes after the blood-letting. It’s slightly jarring, then, to remember that position when she’s mowing down enemies with seemingly no misgivings and no remorse in the climactic shoot-em-up, beat-um-up sequence.

At the same time, it’s refreshing as hell to see a young Black woman with real agency making major life-or-death decisions in a movie of this caliber. And Prince-Bythewood knows it; the movie is punctuated by an act of coming into one’s own that absolutely brims with catharsis – for us as movie-watchers and for Nile herself – that brings the film’s message about self-fulfillment to the fore.

The world of “The Old Guard” – by all indications, it’s our world – is one that doesn’t deserve the heroism of those whose selfless efforts it can’t recognize. That alone feels like a novel idea teeming with possibility for the genre, let alone a timely sentiment in the age of COVID-19. As we argue consequentially about the simple issue of wearing a mask, an individual act that’s been proven to be able to save lives, “The Old Guard” confronts the notion that the work of the individual can never be enough to cause vital change. Perhaps not.

But heroism goes far beyond putting in the work and waiting to be praised when the meteor has been stopped, the villain extinguished, the virus mitigated. True heroism is as much about the subdued commitments we make in the face of cataclysmic uncertainty—when intention outweighs expectation.

"The Old Guard" is rated R for sequences of graphic violence, and language. It's streaming on Netflix now. 

Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood