Had our lives not been disrupted by a global pandemic, 2020 would’ve been chock-full of Hollywood’s most reliable moneymakers: superhero movies. At this point in the year, Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984 would’ve joined Birds of Prey in a refreshingly female-centric slate of films—even the perpetually delayed New Mutants might’ve actually seen the light of day. Instead, the last superhero blockbuster that arrived on the big screen—and the last film I saw in a theater for lord knows how long—was Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot. (It’s not very good, but you do get a lot of signature Diesel mumble-growls.)
It’s within this context that Netflix’s The Old Guard enters the superhero landscape. Instead of having to compete against highly publicized films from DC and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s the only game in town. So by virtue of being perhaps the only true blockbuster that’s coming out this summer—Christopher Nolan can try to make Tenet happen all he wants—there’s an air of strangeness about The Old Guard, and that’s before Charlize Theron’s character is introduced … with a scene where she is revealed to be obsessed with baklava.
I’m not kidding: In the opening minutes of the film, Theron’s Andy is given a piece of baklava after arriving in Morocco. She then correctly identifies all the ingredients and what region of the world the delectable dessert came from. (Her friends cheer like she’s just won a round of beer pong.) It’s a curious window into this world, but one that has a particular resonance. Unless you’re going into The Old Guard completely unaware, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Andy and her pals—Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari, a.k.a. Aladdin’s Hot Jafar), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli)—are immortal warriors who’ve spent centuries protecting humanity from itself. They have an unconscionable amount of knowledge between them. That Andy—the first and oldest immortal of them all, whose time on Earth is implied to span thousands of years—stans baklava above all other foods is an exceptional endorsement. She’s seen and done it all.
Being immortal, however, does not come without drawbacks. These characters have lost loved ones over the centuries and, living in our modern times, contend with whether humanity is still worth saving. (I can’t imagine why.) Not helping matters is the film’s main villain: a Pharma bro (played by Harry Melling) who learns of the immortals’ existence and wants to harvest their DNA to figure out how to extend life and prevent disease. (And, more importantly, get incredibly rich along the way.) The chaotic mess is made even wilder when the group discovers a new immortal—a Marine named Nile, played by KiKi Layne, who is killed in combat and then miraculously comes back to life.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka, who cocreated the comic book series the film is adapted from, The Old Guard is as interested in what happens to people when they’re trapped in a cycle of violence as it is with the action itself. These immortals have lived through the Crusades, the Civil War, and now are living in our modern world. For a superhero film, The Old Guard is surprisingly thoughtful about the emotional toll of killing nameless henchmen, even as it obliges with several impressively brutal set pieces. The movie also makes good use of its R rating—and as Prince-Bythewood told The Atlantic, they looked to the likes of The Raid, Logan, and Mission: Impossible–Fallout’s epic bathroom fight for inspiration, and it shows.
Logan, and the larger X-Men universe, is perhaps the closest superhero antecedent to The Old Guard. In fact, the immortals are basically a group of Wolverines minus the Adamantium claws: people who can survive all manner of bullets and stab wounds. (Because they don’t have giant claws, their weapons of choice are various guns.) And like Wolverine, the responsibility and trauma of such experiences imbues the story with a deeper pathos and a slightly more nihilistic outlook for the characters. It’s an objectively crappy existence. “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting,” Booker says.
The Old Guard, then, is a strange superhero movie for what’s been a strange year: violent, pensive, somber, and occasionally profound. But seeing how much the film departs from what audiences have come to expect from Marvel and DC might be a point unto itself: Instead of attempting to cop their style, Netflix is trying to make a superhero franchise of its own. (It’s not too much of a spoiler to say The Old Guard sets up an enticing sequel.)
Netflix is no stranger to original superhero programming, with mixed results best encapsulated by the highs and lows of its defunct, New York–centric Marvel TV universe composed of heroes like Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones. But The Old Guard is the streamer’s first genuine effort to make a true superhero blockbuster: headlined by an A-lister in Theron, directed by a talented filmmaker, and made with a clearly sizable budget. You can picture this movie working well on the big screen—and if it weren’t for the ongoing pandemic, maybe a limited theatrical release would’ve been in the cards. I know Netflix can green-light pretty much unlimited original content, but for the sake of watchability, it’d be great if we got more The Old Guards and fewer 6 Undergrounds.
With superhero fans bereft of options elsewhere, hopefully The Old Guard will find the audience Netflix desires so that a sequel does happen—and an emergent franchise that uses its heroes’ powers to wrestle with deeper themes gets a chance to fill the void left by the better films of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men series. Superhero adaptations on the small screen—namely Amazon’s The Boys and HBO’s Watchmen—have taken more ambitious swings than the MCU’s enjoyable but slightly redundant template. But the MCU isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and DC has made some really entertaining films since moving past the overbearing bleakness of the Zach Snyder era. (You don’t want to know how many times I’ve watched Aquaman.) But there’s no reason why The Old Guard can’t hang with these comparative behemoths, and inject new life into Hollywood’s most lucrative genre while they still can. After all, unlike these ancient warriors, superhero movies won’t be around forever.