If ever you should experience the odd twinge of optimism these days, one of the superheroes in Netflix’s The Old Guard offers a stinging, very 2020 rebuke within the film’s first 15 minutes: “Have you been watching the news lately?”
Indeed, the titular band of immortals led by Charlize Theron’s Andromache the Scythian (you can call her “Andy”) starts the film in the throes of a rather unsuperheroic emotion: despair. No matter how much this crew strives to make the world better, it keeps getting worse.
Their exasperation is occasionally shared in real life by the film’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood.
“It really does feel like the world does not learn from history,” she says in a recent call with Fast Company. “And now, even in this time where we are in this global pandemic, you really understand how connected we are globally, and the constant conflicts, the wars and divisions are really exacerbating it at the time when we should be coming together to alleviate it more quickly. I think there’s a spotlight on that now.”
The declining state of the world figures prominently in The Old Guard, even though it was made well before the pandemic. It doesn’t namecheck any specific malady, just the constant trauma of modern geopolitics and a glancing reference to “the current administration’s policy to deny aid to any nonstrategic allies.” Based on the Image Comics series by Greg Rucka, who also penned the script, the film follows a roving band of unkillable warriors (and its newest recruit, Nile, played by KiKi Layne) as they try to save the world, undetected, guided by their own sense of morality. If they have to team up with drug runners sometimes, or kill a flotilla of mercenaries along the way, well, that’s just the job. It’s an unconventional vibe for a superhero movie, and that’s even before you realize the only romantic relationship in it is between two immortal men. (Rendered beautifully, at that.)
But Prince-Bythewood is an unconventional choice to direct a superhero movie, too.
Setting aside the fact that she is the first Black woman to ever direct a movie in this space, Prince-Bythewood made her name in Hollywood as the auteur of romantic classics like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, after years of writing for TV shows like A Different World and Felicity.
Playing around in the big-budget superhero sandbox, though, is something she’s wanted to do for years. She watched from afar as the genre evolved toward action-dramas like Logan with the moral complexity of Black Panther. This cinematic world suddenly seemed to have space for the kind of superhero movie she might make—and she wanted to be a part of it.
“I did not share that desire for a very long time, until [2017’s] Wonder Woman,” Prince-Bythewood says. “[Director] Patty Jenkins rocking that absolutely cracked the door open, and I was very fortunate to be able to slip through.”
The director set herself on an intentional path toward the helm of a superhero movie, directing the pilot of Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger for Freeform in 2017. Not long afterward, she became attached to direct Marvel’s Silver & Black, a Spider-Man spin-off following the characters Silver Sable and Black Cat. She spent a year and a half working on that film, deeply immersed in the process of making action scenes come to life, but it never got out of the development stage. She walked away from the project, and almost immediately received the script for The Old Guard from her agent.
“Honestly, what I believe is everything happens for a reason, and everything I wanted to do with Silver & Black is in The Old Guard,” the director says. “It’s a story about two women, one of whom is a young Black female. It’s an action-drama that is organically diverse. And it seemed to drop in at the exact moment it needed to.”
The story of ancient Andy teaching newbie Nile the ways of the undead warrior also asks some seriously tough questions that go beyond the usual scope of superhero fare, which appealed to Prince-Bythewood. Although there’s a healthy body count in The Old Guard—or, more accurately, an extremely unhealthy one—every dead body counts.
Nile can’t believe how cold and unfeeling Andy must be to dispatch henchmen as efficiently as she does, which serves as one way the film explores the murky territory of ends justifying means.
“What was most important to me in telling the story is the complication of it—the Old Guard will kill one to save many, but I wanted to just deal with the true toll of that,” Prince-Bythewood says. “And in my research for this film, I read this great book called On Killing that talks about how, for soldiers, the act of taking a life is as damaging psychologically as the fear of losing one’s life on the battlefield. And I thought that was something we hadn’t really seen in the genre before that I wanted to bring that really felt true to a character like Andy, who is compelled to kill. Even though there’s a good reason for it, there has to be a toll.”
Even the violence in The Old Guard makes a statement. It comes in balletic bouts between our conflicted heroes and various mercenaries, highlighting their opposite fighting philosophies. One group has clearly been around since long before the invention of guns, and its members perform lightning-quick, close-up beatdowns on the other group, who were trained to spray bullets from a distance. (Very few would guess that these kick-ass, kinetic, John Wickian fight scenes come from a first-time action director.)
The other main way that the movie wades into the philosophical muck of whether noble ends justify brutal means is by examining the world of medicine.
One of the film’s villains is the brilliant scientist Merrick (Henry Melling), who presents as a harmless Silicon Valley dweeb but is hell-bent on using the DNA of immortals for new pharmaceuticals.
What he is willing to do to get that DNA, however, reflects a complicated moral question that has plagued humans for centuries—and has new relevance right at this moment.
“[Merrick] has the power potentially to keep people from dying—and why wouldn’t you want to do that?—but as we know, pharmaceutical companies have corrupted what should be such an easy moral question,” Prince-Bythewood says. “Which we’re even dealing with now, with this question of ‘should people pay for a vaccine, if one is developed for COVID?’ Of course, it should be free! But there’s an argument about that, and it was something I wanted to explore.”
As we wait, nervously, for a vaccine to save us in real life, it’s refreshing to see some superheroes onscreen who have a similarly fraught journey toward saving the day.