Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
In a year without Marvel movies, <i>The Old Guard</i> redefined the superhero blockbuster

In a year without Marvel movies, The Old Guard redefined the superhero blockbuster

Photo: Aimee Spinks/Netflix
Age Of HeroesAge Of HeroesWith Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.

It finally happened. For nearly a decade, since The Avengers came out and crushed all expectations, people have been wondering when Marvel’s utter dominance of the box office would end. That dominance did end in 2020, but then, so did the box office. The superhero-movie apocalypse that has appalled so many filmmakers is over, at least for now. What we’ve got instead is an actual apocalypse. Someone should’ve told Martin Scorsese to stay away from that monkey’s paw.

Only one big-budget superhero movie made it to theaters in 2020: Cathy Yan’s Birds Of Prey, which opened in February, about a month before everything went to shit. When Birds Of Prey earned $33 million in its first weekend, it was considered a catastrophic underperformance. But when the pandemic hit, expectations changed. At this point, any studio head would sell his soul for a film that brought in $84 million at the domestic box office. Birds Of Prey will go down in history as the No. 3 highest-earning film of 2020. Congratulations to Birds Of Prey.

This whole year is one big asterisk. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe had ended its unbroken winning streak with the climax of Avengers: Endgame and the fun denouement of Spider-Man: Far From Home, there might’ve been something poetic about that. Marvel isn’t finished, of course. Black Widow and Eternals, the studio’s planned 2020 releases, will eventually reach the public in some form or other. (They both have theatrical release dates set for next year, though release dates are now ephemeral things.) WandaVision, the first of the MCU’s Disney+ TV series, will also start airing in January. But it’s hard to know whether Marvel will ever be able to recapture its hold over moviegoers’ imaginations. It’s hard to know if anything ever will.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s distinguished competitors at DC reportedly will release its big 2020 swing, Wonder Woman 1984, in some theaters on Christmas, but it is also scheduled to go to HBO Max the same day. As a marketing initiative, Wonder Woman 1984 is almost certainly the most consequential superhero film of the year. It’s a would-be blockbuster that now serves a strategic function for a big streaming service. Right now, the competition among streaming services is the only thing Hollywood really has going on. And maybe Wonder Woman 1984 will be important as a movie as well. We’ll see.

In the meantime, the biggest and best superhero film of 2020 might not even be a superhero movie. It’s a story of unkillable soldiers—immortal figures who exist in shadows and despair at their inability to make the world a better place. In many ways, the protagonists of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard are the opposite of the cinematic superheroes that we’ve come to know. Where Marvel and DC heroes are larger-than-life public figures with their own instantly recognizable emblems, the members of the Old Guard are desperate to avoid anyone noticing their presence. Where superheroes glibly banter their way through apocalyptic scenarios, the Old Guard only tell gallows-humor jokes. Even the darkest traditional superheroes seem to embody some sense of societal optimism. The Old Guard’s ancient warriors, on the other hand, have to be convinced that humanity shouldn’t be left to obliterate itself.

The Old Guard, which went straight to Netflix over the summer, doesn’t look like a superhero movie. It’s drab and grey and visceral. Rather than the vast-scale bloodless battles we’ve gotten used to seeing, it has nasty, brutal, bloody close-quarters combat. In the rare occasions when traditional superheroes die, they die in bombastic, operatic fashion. The characters of The Old Guard die again and again, and then they’re cruelly brought back to life, grunting softly as their bodies painfully reject the bullets that have just riddled them. You get the sense that their physical pain is real, even if it never sidelines them. “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting,” one of the immortals explains, and the film makes sure that you feel that.

But The Old Guard is a superhero story; it’s just one of the many superhero stories that attempts to subvert superhero stories. It is, after all, a movie about a superpowered team that’s out to take down bad guys. Greg Rucka, a writer who’s done great work for both Marvel and DC, published his first Old Guard comic in 2017; Skydance Media optioned the film rights before the second issue came out. Rucka wrote the movie, and he made certain storyline points—like the romance between immortal warriors Joe and Nick—conditions of the deal.

Old Guard director Gina Prince-Blythewood had never made any sort of action movie before. Her past films, like Love & Basketball and Beyond The Lights, are finely observed dramas, and she’s great at communicating character details and conversational subtleties. Prince-Blythewood is also the first Black woman ever to direct a superhero movie. She tells much of her story in glances and silences. We get the sense that these immortal characters are old friends with old rituals and stories that we’ll never hear. When a new immortal enters the scene—the tough Marine Nile Freeman, played by If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne—she becomes the viewer surrogate. The ancient warriors seem put out by her presence, and by the fact that they have to explain the rules all over again. It keeps all the necessary exposition from weighing the narrative down.

The Old Guard also has the advantage of a supremely qualified cast. Charlize Theron is an Oscar-winning movie star who doesn’t have to be out here roundhouse-kicking motherfuckers in the face. But in the past half-decade, Theron has made Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, carving out a place for herself on the list of all-time action-movie greats. Theron radiates heartbroken resentment of human cruelty all throughout The Old Guard; her weary disgust with violence is palpable. But she also looks utterly convincing when doing monkey-flipping a guy in the middle of a gunfight, say, or shooting another twice in the face and then pistol-whipping him. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for someone to use a battle-axe as a weapon in 2020, but she makes it convincing. “That woman has forgotten more ways to kill than entire armies will ever learn,” someone says. I don’t know if anyone else could’ve justified that line the way Theron does.

In 2019, Theron starred in the delightful romantic comedy Long Shot, which opened a week after Avengers: Endgame and was utterly obliterated at the box office as a result. It’s not Theron’s fault that someone at some studio tried to turn her movie into a ill-fated counter-programming attempt, but there’s still something satisfying in seeing Theron headlining the biggest superhero movie in the year that no Marvel joints could come out.

The rest of the cast is almost comically overqualified as well. The great Chewitel Ejiofor, for instance, mostly just does concerned squinting. Marwan Kenzari gives a beautiful, poetic speech about eternal love that comes off as something much more than the comedy beat it could’ve been. KiKi Layne brings real vulnerability to her hardness. Even Harry Melling, the former Dudley Dursely and current Netflix-casting favorite, is excellently loathsome as the pharma-bro villain, a guy who believes in the divine right of CEOs. Some of these actors simply don’t get enough to do. If the teased sequel comes to pass, we’ll hopefully get to see more of Veronica Ngo, star of the excellently grimy Vietnamese action flick Furie. I’m a little mad that Ngo and Charlize Theron were in the same movie and didn’t get to fight each other, even if that wouldn’t have made any narrative sense. Maybe next time.

But even that obligatory pre-credits stinger feels fresh and exciting. Prince-Blythewood walks us through the expected superhero-movie beats—the origin saga, the team bonding, the betrayal, the villainous monologue, the final showdown—and mostly makes them sing. The origin story, in particular, is a lot of fun. Layne’s Nile Freeman has trouble, as one might, in believing that she’s really an unkillable elite warrior. So Theron’s Andy just rolls her eyes and kills this newbie over and over, until she figures it out. Andy is the hero, but she’s also kind of an asshole, and the movie never really softens that.

Though The Old Guard tackles superhero-movie cliches in interesting ways, it has more difficulty with the emerging conventions of the Netflix movie. There are moments where it feels like an algorithmic product. Netflix has evidently determined that people want to see violent movies about teams of globe-trotting avengers; The Old Guard is a whole lot better than, say, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, but it also sticks to many of the same routines. The Old Guard is also a movie without a ton of style. Things like the turgid score make it less lively than it could’ve been.

But The Old Guard still felt like a balm when it came out. The film hit Netflix the same July weekend that the excellent Andy Samberg movie Palm Springs came to Hulu. The two films were nothing alike in tone or storytelling, but both had things to say about the endless-repeat mundanity of immortality. They were beamed into our houses at a moment when many of us probably felt plenty mortal but when we were also getting used to a new kind of crushing monotony. They arrived right on time.

God only knows how the cinematic landscape will look after this pandemic, but The Old Guard quietly, casually alters the scope of what a superhero movie can be. The characters can be graceful and dignified, and they can resist the urge to fire off constant one-liners. The action scenes can be both floridly virtuosic and bone-crunchingly gross. The movie depicts one queer love story and hints at another, and it never treats either as a big deal. Maybe the bigger superhero-movie assembly lines will take note. Or maybe those assembly lines just won’t run like they once did.

Because of the way Netflix operates, we don’t even know whether The Old Guard is a hit in any measurable sense. Netflix itself claims that 78 million households have watched it, and I have no idea whether that’s a good number. According to Variety, a survey has The Old Guard as the No. 7 most-watched straight-to-streaming movie of the year—Netflix’s second-biggest offering behind Extraction. But we won’t really know what kind of impact The Old Guard has had until we start seeing whether the film influences anyone. I hope it does.

Other notable 2020 superhero movies: There aren’t many: Birds Of Prey is the only one that got a real, non-pandemic-affected theatrical release, and it’s a nasty little delight full of gory visual humor and slapstick charm. Margot Robbie’s central performance is a true star turn, a wildly charismatic take on the sort of edgelord jokes that could be tiresome from almost anyone else. Pretty good action scenes, too! Birds Of Prey doesn’t turn the genre on its ear or anything, but its theatrical silliness is a fun time.

The Vin Diesel joint Bloodshot, weirdly, is another adaptation of a lesser-known comic book about a guy who keeps coming back to life about dying. It hit theaters two days after America started shutting down, and it wasn’t really lively enough to make fun quarantine viewing when it hit VOD. Similarly, the Netflix joint Project Power just feels like a trashy straight-to-streaming B-movie with plot points about superpowers unconvincingly grafted on. And then there’s The New Mutants, the sad end of Fox’s X-Men franchise, which finally limped into theaters after years on the shelf. In the best-case scenario, a superhero film is supposed to be an event—a reason to get fired up and join a cheering crowd on opening night. Most of this year’s slate just seemed to underline how depressing that absence is.