Maybe I’ve been stuck inside for too long. Maybe my standards have been lowered by subpar Netflix blockbusters (I’m looking at you, “Extraction” and “Eurovision”). But I liked “The Old Guard,” a superhero action flick starring Charlize Theron, much more than I expected. It’s an action blockbuster that splits the difference between galaxy-spanning superhero flick and gritty, earthbound B-movie. While there are plenty of familiar elements, it subverts enough of the genre’s most reliable tropes that it engages the mind, even while dazzling the eyes.
Theron plays Andy, the leader of a cadre of immortal super soldiers who work to save the vulnerable from oppression and death. As we meet them, they’re taking on a new assignment to save a classroom of girls kidnapped by warlords in South Sudan. Essentially, they’re superheroes who function as an independent Special Forces unit, but unlike most superhero movies these days, this one doesn’t bother explaining where they get their powers. The screenplay by Greg Rucka, based on his comic book, trusts that an audience that has been soaked in superhero culture doesn’t need each detail spelled out.
Instead, a more interesting set of details leaks out. Andy was the first of her kind, and nobody – not even Andy herself – knows exactly how old she is. She lived in ancient Egypt, was burned at the stake for witchcraft, and fought in the Civil War. Her confidante Booker (Matthias Schoenarts) fought in Napoleon’s army. The other two, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and NIcky (Luca Marinelli), met during the Crusades, and fell in love while killing each other over and over. Their newest recruit is Nile (Kiki Layne), a modern-day Marine who discovers her powers after getting killed in duty and magically springing back to life.
There is, of course, an antagonist: An evil, smarmy pharmaceutical CEO (Harry Melling) with shades of Martin Shkreli who wants to capture the Immortals and harvest their DNA to make an age-reversing drug. He enlists a former CIA operative (Chiwetl Ejiofor) to help him lure the Immortals in. It’s a smart and surprising way to frame our introduction to these characters. The film’s focus is entirely on the heroes’ efforts to evade capture, rather than simply following them along on their latest mission. It locates the heroes as victims of oppression, which dovetails with the film’s strong social conscience.
The relationship between Joe and Nicky, its two explicitly gay characters, represent the only romance in the film. It’s not unusual to see a romance between two men in cinema, but it’s downright rare in a military-adjacent action blockbuster. In one pivotal scene, Joe and Nicky are kidnapped, and their captors express some casual homophobia. “Is that your boyfriend?” one jokes. Nicky responds with a heartfelt and eloquent expression of love that would silence any bigot.
In fact, “The Old Guard” is entirely devoid of hetero-normative relationships, and, if you read between the lines, it almost qualifies as a queer text. Andy has no romantic attachments – Theron’s ice-blue eyes remain entirely opaque – although we learn of a backstory involving a ambiguously close relationship with another female Immortal. With her close-cropped brown hair, athletic physique, and gender-neutral name, she is written and performed as a non-binary character. The only other affection presented is the closeness the Immortals feel for each other, the kind of bond shared by those who live in a world that doesn’t understand them. Somewhere between the gunfights and historical exposition, a manifesto for non-traditional relationships emerges.
It’s also sensitive about how it depicts its bloodshed. Yes, the Immortals suffer gruesome injuries that present as hyper-violence. Gunshot wounds to the face, broken bones that break through the skin, and organs that spill from gaping wounds. But they heal in front of our very eyes. When they kill bad guys, the deaths of its nameless henchmen are bloodless and easily forgotten, more like what we would see in a James Bond movie. It’s a clever trick that allows fans of gore to get their fix, without turning off those more sensitive to violence.
With a compassionate heart and a taste for the unorthodox, “The Old Guard” actually feels new. It reshapes familiar material into a modern crowd-pleaser that’s both viscerally thrilling and responsive to our current moment. In a summer season completely devoid of blockbusters, we are lucky to have this one.
“The Old Guard” is currently streaming on Netflix.