The Old Guard is a Revisionist Superhero Movie
Editor's note: this review was originally published on July 6, 2020.
The Old Guard will thrill you and make you think, keep you on the edge of your seat and then knock you back into it. Like 2020’s box office leader, Bad Boys, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest pairs perfectly choreographed action-violence with a gray-area morality and characters who long ago stopped believing in the necessity of indiscriminate carnage. But Prince-Bythewood dispenses with the havoc-fueled filmmaking that left Bad Boys feeling like a multi-million dollar piece of cognitive dissonance, instead adopting the same nihilistic spirit that imbues her world, resulting in a film that mirrors the fun of superhero movies while reflecting on their existence. With any luck, The Old Guard will herald the coming of a new sub-genre: the revisionist superhero movie.
“I’ve been here before,” Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron) narrates in an exhausted opening, “and I’m just so tired of it.” Andy is the leader of a small team of immortal soldiers fighting the battles they think will make the world a safer place. Prince-Bythewood cleverly replaces the seeming invincibility of our favorite comic book heroes with a literal inability to die, adding a few hundred years to their history in a move that emphasizes the futility of their efforts. “None of it means anything anyway,” Andy sighs later in the film.
Forcing the group to operate in the shadows allows Prince-Bythewood to stage elaborately choreographed fight sequences inspired as much by The Bourne Identity as The Avengers. Two early set pieces – one in South Sudan, the other in Afghanistan – offer immediate audience reassurance that the director has found a tentative balance between entertaining and provoking, narrative propulsion and thematic cohesion. And throughout, Theron continues her late-career dominance as cinema’s most believable lone wolf action star.
“You the good guys or the bad guys?” It’s this simple, off-hand question from the immortal army’s newest recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne), that cuts to the heart of The Old Guard’s self-awareness. Historically, superhero and high-octane action movies have followed the tried and true Hollywood formula: good guys and bad guys. The Old Guard doesn’t invert that as much as it questions it. How much wanton destruction must the “good guys” cause before we stop giving them unlimited discretion to stop the “bad guys”? Like revisionist westerns before it, The Old Guard uses the tropes of its forerunners to disassemble the polished mythology of the superhero.
The Old Guard’s reliance on repeated pop music needle-drops lands more as a jarring anachronism than a clever commentary on recent trends, though the use of Khalid’s “Silence” is particularly inspired, with the haunting youngster crooning “‘cause all my life I’ve been fighting…” over a late-movie combat sequence. It takes one twist too many, though it intelligently roots every decision in that very human desire to end pain and suffering, either on a personal or universal scale. The ending is disappointing, though better left unspoken here.
The difficulty of existing as a woman in a testosterone-fueled world is woven throughout, and the story emphasizes the obstacles facing non-traditional relationships, as well as the strength of those that overcome. More than anything, the film demonstrates Gina Prince-Bythewood’s command over the medium. In a world without superhero movies, The Old Guard is the perfect corrective, the ultimate summer counter-programming.