Groundbreaking 'Old Guard' Expands The Possibilities Of The Superhero Genre

Jul 10, 2020
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new movie "The Old Guard," which premieres today on Netflix, Charlize Theron heads an international team of immortal warriors whose attempts to do good are threatened by a plot against them. Our critic at large John Powers is no fan of superhero movies but says this one pushes the genre forward.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Movies come in a great many genres, from crime pictures and rom-coms to musicals and science fiction, but only two are distinctively American. The first is the Western, which dominated 20th-century screens and created a national mythology that remains potent to this very day. The second is the superhero saga, which has become even more supreme at the box office but whose role in shaping values is less certain, largely because so many of them aim simply to thrill the world's teenagers. Although superhero movies usually bore me, I must admit that the best ones have grown more ambitious. They've wrestled with serious subjects - for instance, the dangers of vigilantism in "The Dark Knight" series or "Black Panther's" debate over the role of violence in battling racial injustice. And the genre has grown increasingly bold about tapping into deep, often disturbing, emotions, the way last year's "Joker" won gigantic audiences with its portrait of underclass frustration pushed to the point of murderous derangement.

The desire to address the real world lies at the heart of "The Old Guard," which stars Charlize Theron as the leader of a group of immortal heroes. Scripted from his own comic by Greg Rucka and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, this human-scale new Netflix movie cares less about showing a CGI city that's being pulverized than about broadening our notion of who can be superheroes and how it might feel to be one. Theron plays Andy, a centuries-old warrior who heads the old guard, a quartet of freelance do-gooders whose other members are played by crack (ph) European actors. There's Booker, played by the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts, Nicky, played by Italian Luca Marinelli, and his lover Yusuf. That's Marwan Kenzari, who's Tunisian Dutch. While they all feel human pain - if you prick them, they do bleed - they don't die from their injuries but quickly regenerate. Such immortality brings them into the sights of Merrick, a sinister Brit entrepreneur who enlists the help of a former CIA agent to discover then monetize their genetic secrets.

Yet even as our heroes try to ward him off, their dreams reveal the existence of a newly minted comrade, an African American soldier named Nile, played by KiKi Layne, who has freaked out her unit in Afghanistan by healing overnight from what should have been fatal wounds. Here, after the group has grabbed Nile, she asks them why she appeared in their dreams. And they talk about how very old they all are.

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KIKI LAYNE: (As Nile) How are you all in my dreams?

MARWAN KENZARI: (As Joe) We dream of each other. They stop when we meet.

LUCA MARINELLI: (As Nicky) It used to take years to track a new one. Booker was the last - 1812.

LAYNE: (As Nile) No way.

MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: (As Booker) Yeah, I died fighting with Napoleon.

LAYNE: (As Nile) So you're even older than him.

KENZARI: (As Joe) Nicky and I met in the Crusades.

LAYNE: (As Nile) The Crusades?

MARINELLI: (As Nicky) The love of my life was of the people I've been taught to hate.

KENZARI: (As Joe, laughter) We killed each other.

MARINELLI: (As Nicky) Many times. Yeah.

LAYNE: (As Nile) You're the oldest.

CHARLIZE THERON: (As Andy) Yeah.

LAYNE: (As Nile) So how old are you?

THERON: (As Andy) Old.

LAYNE: (As Nile) How old?

THERON: (As Andy) Too old.

POWERS: As befits our current historical moment, "The Old Guard" is the first superhero movie directed by an African American woman. And in Prince-Bythewood, we get a filmmaker with a knack for taking mainstream entertainment and giving it a sharp political twist. I highly recommend "Love & Basketball," her romance about a Black woman hoopster, and "Beyond The Lights," a musical love story that's like "The Bodyguard" if it had been made by a very smart Black woman. Here, Prince-Bythewood and Rucka expand the superhero genre's sense of possibility. They make the top immortal a world-weary woman and then top this up by having the powerful newcomer be both female and African American. If that weren't enough, Yusuf and Nicky aren't merely a gay couple, itself a radical move in the conservative world of superhero pictures, but Yusuf gives the most ardently romantic speech in any superhero movie ever, followed by the most passionate kiss.

All this makes "The Old Guard" culturally groundbreaking, yet Prince-Bythewood also knows how to capture emotion. She wins another superb performance from Theron, who makes you feel the weight of the centuries on Andy, whose kickass prowess can't protect her from loneliness, disappointment and physical pain. The film also uncovers a toughness in the delicate-looking Layne from "If Beale Street Could Talk." She holds her own as Nile, a 20-something woman who realizes that she has, willy-nilly, been sucked into a life requiring endless endurance.

Now, the limitation of superhero movies is that they must devote way too much energy to simplistic plots and redundant action sequences. And that's true, alas, of "The Old Guard." I kept wishing Prince-Bythewood had more time to explore what's most interesting in her story - the crushing sense of futility that comes from doing good century after century only to watch humanity remain unchangingly stupid, greedy and bloodthirsty. This profoundly human feeling of meaninglessness is a far more powerful nemesis than any wicked businessman. Against that, having a superpower is no help at all.

POWERS: John Powers reviewed "The Old Guard," which premieres today on Netflix. On Monday's show, our guest will be Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who's starring as Perry Mason in the HBO drama that tells Mason's origin story. As the eight-part miniseries begins, Perry Mason is a returning World War I vet with PTSD who gets occasional work as a private eye. Rhys also co-starred in the FX series "The Americans," playing a KGB spy living in the United States during the Cold War as part of a husband-and-wife espionage team. I hope you can join us.

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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Charlie Kaier, Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.