First published on Patreon early access as The Old Guard: A Close Comparison Reading of Netflix’ Adaptation of the Graphic Novel.
What Makes The Old Guard A Unique Action Movie
The Old Guard as a movie a standout feat — in terms of craft, narrative as well as production. The majority of production staff were women, with an above average number being Black or women of colour. Led by a Black female director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and boasting a stellar cast, The Old Guard is entertaining, an exceptionally well-made action movie, and an extraordinary comic book adaptation, to boot. It helps that the original graphic novel (script by Greg Rucka) is unique and exceptionally well told.
Prior to its Netflix release, I saw a few disappointed/disappointing critiques, e.g. from SFX and other outlets. They called the story “laggy” and run-of-the-mill. Two points here: to be honest, I can sort of see where the impression of lag or jankiness comes from. The adaptation takes a few departures from the graphic novel that necessitate quite a bit of freestyling; and whether one knows the original story or not, those detours are a little less tightly scripted than the rest of the movie. However, I don’t feel these departures are dealbreakers. The second point: run of the mill as a critique levelled at an action/superhero movie, I can understand. But it loses both sincerity and severity when it’s levelled at an action movie that features so many subversions of familiar tropes.
Exhibit A: Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari), a gay interreligious/interracial couple whose homosexuality neither negates nor undercuts their skill as soldiers. They’re allowed to be both soft with each other and absolutely lethal anywhere else. They’re gay heroes. Joe is a Muslim hero and the big spoon — and Nicky may be the little spoon, but moreso he’s the knife. The way they fight can be accurately described as Nicky being the “tank” as well as the sniper; which is an interesting juxtaposition in a character — and it works! He’s the more reserved of the two, but may God have mercy on anyone who wrongs him as he acts as protector of the team. Equally, Joe dispatches the man who shot Nicky with the same pathos with which he declares his devotion to Nicky in a van full of walking toxic masculinity metaphors with assault rifles trained on them. The actors take such good care of these characters.
Exhibit B: The immortality arc really makes this story unlike any other I’ve seen before, but apart from that: yes, the setpieces are very familiar — their framing, however, isn’t. Having a female lead in Andy (Charlize Theron), and not a token Strong Female Character, either (though at times it veers close, especially when the subplot of Quynh (Veronica Ngo) comes into play) puts The Old Guard into a, in 2020, quite short line-up that is far outweighed by the mass of Dude With A Gun action movies produced in the past four to five decades. And when we consider that men have been allowed to make hundreds upon thousands of mediocre reiterations of the same concept without pause, then expecting a female-led addition to the genre to reinvent the wheel is highly disingenuous. (Which is my polite way of saying it’s bullshit. Oh, whoops.) The Old Guard is a good action movie, on its own merits. It’s the story, casting, and production that put it over the top.
Exhibit C: Nile (KiKi Layne) is a young Black woman and both the audience stand-in as well as “the baby.” She’s the first new immortal in two centuries, and Andy and her team had kinda forgotten what it’s like to be caring for someone new coming into the fold; and she shakes up the team both by reminding them and with her sort of Millennial approach to things. The villain is a dick? Just yeet the whole man out the window. Literally. Nile is also the reason why it’s so important that, in contrast to the graphic novel, the movie puts a lot more emphasis on the found family angle, in all the ways that it works and doesn’t (even found families are a little bit dysfunctional sometimes). Everyone on their team has a role and specialty, and there is never a question whether someone deserves a seat at that table. They simply have it, if they want it. Which is why Andy does not force Nile to stay when she says she’s out. Nile gets to spend time with Joe, Nicky, and Booker as well, not just Andy, and it makes the movie so much better because it showcases how much caring these heroes put into their team. They’re immortal but they still hurt — which is another facet that also sets them apart in terms of being superheroes. They don’t have extraordinary abilities by dint of experiments or serums or anything like that. Yes, it might be genetic that they cannot die, but their abilities as fighters are learnt and hard-won. It’s all because they’ve trained for it. And they’re far from invincible. Any injury can kill them, one day; there doesn’t need to be That Special Gun. It just needs time, and fate. If you believe in such things.
Three Ways Netflix Changed The Old Guard That Worked And One Way It Didn’t
In adaptations, it all comes down to choices. What to keep, where to diverge, where to cut for time — and where to add and embellish, if the text permits. And sometimes, the reviews become about faithfulness to the original, and sometimes they’re about the power of looking at a text over transformatively.
Netflix’ adaptation of The Old Guard attempts both, and it’s mostly worked out in favour of the story, with only one thing I’d call a miss.
The Old Guard as written by Greg Rucka is collected in one volume that came out in 2017, collecting four issues. (Here’s my review of it that I wrote for Rainbow Bookshelf earlier this year.) For a long time, there was no news on a sequel, but the first issue of the new volume, Force Multiplied, just came out a few days ago. I’ll wait for the collection volume because I love Fernández’ covers, but if you’re a fan of Rucka’s work or liked the movie, I’d definitely recommend picking up the first volume and the new issues.
Introducing an ‘Old Friend’
It now also makes sense that some narrative changes in the movie seemed to serve a potential sequel more than the work itself, and now I understand why. Quynh doesn’t appear in the comic, but she’s inspired by the character of Noriko and her name was changed to Vietnamese at the request of the actress playing her; another immortal who went over board off the Horn and never resurfaced. With her being still alive and being pissed (and probably more than half mad after spending centuries down in the water, drowning and reviving and drowning again), it’s only logical that she would seek out Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) rather than Andy. After all, she very likely believes that Andy abandoned her — and it’s clear Andy believes that, too. It’s a little bit of a cliché, giving Andy additional survivor’s guilt and seeding a revenge plot by tying it in with Booker’s betrayal, but resurrecting Noriko/Quynh is a great move.
This is one way that the movie serves its own continuation more than the movie itself because, as is necessary when setting up a sequel, it removes some of the focus from the main story. In this case, it’s low-key and it fits into the movie well enough, but there is a sense of disconnect because there’s a plothole, there: canonically, the dreams persist until they find each other, they last for years. So Nicky, Joe, and Booker should have still been dreaming of Quynh; so they should have known that she was still alive. I wonder whether they’ll retcon some of this in the sequel or the new issue of the comic.
Expanding Nile’s Backstory and Role Within the Narrative
The movie gave Nile a more detailed backstory, adding her father who’d also been military and who was killed in action. It lets her have more time at the base, with her fellow soldiers, adding an additional twist: suspicious of how she healed, the Army is prepared to ship her back to the US and, presumably, stick her in a lab and dissect her. Her squad already has her bags packed for herm which stings like hell. Changing the narrative here isn’t so much about what they do to her as it is about how she handles it — because it tells us who she is. She’s scared, but she doesn’t lose her head.
She doesn’t lose her cool, either, when Andy puts her on a plane in Afghanistan. She gets one over on her not just once — and that fight sequence is hot. KiKi Layne did all of her own stunts, despite being new to action movies, the director emphasises in this interview with Shondaland; and it’s awesome work. She and Charlize Theron play so well off each other as well, it’s a joy; and so’s seeing Charlize Theron in more roles like this, past 40. (Although I must say that, hadn’t she been cast already when the adaptation was announced, I would have hoped for perhaps someone like Sarah Shahi to come up for it.)
Making Andy Face Booker Alone (well, Copley is also there)
Removing Nile from the scene where Booker’s betrayal comes out does feel a little like sidelining her, but it also sets her up to be the Big Damn Hero riding to the team’s rescue is a nice expansion of her character, but also leaves Andy open to be completely blindsided by Booker’s betrayal. They manage that by having Nile join the entire team after being picked up by Andy, and thus giving her more time with all of them, not just Andy. It then also makes sense that she would want to go her own way, because being dropped into a mess like this isn’t exactly a no-brainer. In the comic, she doesn’t really get the time to think, but here she gets the full story before making a decision. And the full story is enough to make anyone run. But Nile comes back when she realises Booker is full of shit.
The One Thing That Doesn’t Work
Making Andy mortal at the end os what threw me most, to be honest. I’m speculating that it’s their way of having Andy hand over the reins to Nile for the sequel, which makes sense; only I’d wish that they’d thought that Andy’s character development in the story would have been enough. In the comic, it’s seeing the purpose in her actions and abilities that makes Andy continue despite the fact that she can’t die. She’s tired of it, and at the beginning of the story, she doesn’t see the point in going on living. Death gives life purpose in us mere mortals, and Andy has lost that. Through Nile, the first new immortal in two centuries, she finds it again. She does in the movie, too, but her losing the “gift” means that there’s a timer on it.
The writers also remove Nile from the table by having her refuse to go with them against Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Merrick (Harry Melling), which puts Andy and Booker more directly at odds in that scene, outlining their parallels more clearly. They’re both the ones who’ve had strong connections to mortals even after dying again and again. Sadly, the movie didn’t have enough room for Achilles, Andy’s mortal husband. (They sort of merged him and Lykon, a man she’d been with a couple millennia before that.) She had to leave him when the ostensible age difference became too wide — she couldn’t be with him when he died, either, same as Booker with his son. (A story which, incidentally, is made more tragic by making him dying of cancer at only 42 in the movie, whereas in the comic he’s an old man. That’s likely done to make Booker seem more sympathetic, just in case “We can’t die and we’re tired and looking for a way for it to stop,” doesn’t do it.)
Nile figures it out anyway, albeit not because of the tech stuff but because he handed Andy a gun with an empty mag. In the comic, Andy not realising the thing about Booker not being able to get a network connection in a damn cave hinges on her being a bit of a luddite; which is contradicted by her deleting the tourists’ selfie. Which, I wonder: someone as good as Andy, surely she’d have realised she’s handling an empty weapon. That points to how shaken she was not to realise.
Still, I feel like in making Andy mortal, they might’ve missed a trick.
Bonus: One Thing They Didn’t Change, And Thank Goodness
What gives this movie heart is the strong bonds between the members of the team, and the unapologetic depiction of Joe and Nicky’s relationship. Andy’s bi-/pansexuality isn’t made explicit (yet), but Rucka made sure to contractually protect the scene in the back of the van where Joe rips those sneering soldiers a new one for looking down on them. His speech, their kiss, it’s magic captured on film. For all that The Old Guard has guts and gore (and Charlize Theron unintentionally scared the shit of a security guy with Andy’s trademark weapon, which is hilarious), it also carries a lot of warmth. It takes its time to establish those connections, that bond, and that heart. The team welcomes Nile and respects her decision when she makes it, and that can only ring true because that respect between them is text, not subtext. It’s in how they greet each other in Morocco, it’s in how they spend time together in that safehouse in France. That alone sets this movie so far apart from other action blockbusters.