Movies

Netflix’s The Old Guard Makes Lots of Little Changes to the Comics—and One Big One

It’s a change for the better.

The Old Guard
The Old Guard. Aimee Spinks/Netflix

Spoilers for The Old Guard lie ahead.

As you might expect given that both are written by the same person, Netflix’s The Old Guard hews fairly close to its comic book source material. In fact, some of its most noteworthy features are the places where it doesn’t depart. Greg Rucka, who wrote the series on which Gina Prince-Bythewood’s movie is based, made it a condition of his deal that certain aspects had to stay put, notably an eloquent declaration of love between two of the story’s quasi-eternal male warriors, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli).* As Bilge Ebiri wrote in Vulture, it’s a moment whose romantic and erotic charge is without precedent in contemporary big-budget superhero movies, which are overwhelmingly heteronormative when they can be bothered to admit that sex exists at all. (It doesn’t hurt that the declaration, delivered after a mocking reference to one character as the other’s “boyfriend,” is followed by the two of them kicking the crap out of their homophobic tormentors.)

Although Rucka borrows some ideas from a second, in-progress volume, Force Multiplied, which wraps up next week, The Old Guard mostly follows the story laid out in the first series, collected under the title Opening Fire. There’s a group of four warriors, led by Andy (Charlize Theron), née Andromache the Scythian, who for somewhere between centuries and millennia have been fighting the good fight, knowing that they can recover from any injury. They’re no stronger than ordinary people, though they do have a lot more practice, and they’re not exactly immortal, but they’re virtually impossible to kill—at least until the day when their luck suddenly runs out. The group hasn’t added to its number since the Napoleonic wars, but as the story begins, they start dreaming about a fifth, an American Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), who gets her throat slashed during a house-to-house search in Afghanistan and is stunned to wake up in a field hospital, not only alive but apparently unharmed.*

As Rucka admits in the text essays appended to the first two issues of Force Multiplied, Nile was something of a plot device, the newcomer who needs to have everything explained to her so that readers can understand it, too. But as he worked on the script, he realized that movie characters and the actors playing them need reasons for their behavior beyond the fact that the story requires it, and Prince-Bythewood felt that Nile, the only major Black character in the comic, needed a backstory of her own. (The movie also changes the race of the ex-CIA agent played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has uncovered proof of the Old Guard’s existence and is hunting them down for profit.) Because it’s an action movie first and foremost, that shift is mostly a matter of emphasis, but it means the moments when Nile agonizes over whether to cut ties with her family—heeding the others’ warning that her superhuman powers will make her personal relationships impossible to sustain—no longer feel like they’re squeezed into the cracks of Andy’s story.

The Old Guard movie makes several other course corrections as well. In the comics, the antagonist, a young pharma billionaire intent on extracting and marketing the secret to the warriors’ immortality—even if he has to grind their bodies into pulp to do it—is a pumped and tatted psychopath who does pushups in the middle of meetings and repeatedly stabs his captives just for the fun of it. In the movie, he’s a pallid weasel (played by iconic millennial weasel Harry Melling, aka Dudley Dursley), more like a sad little internet troll than a hypermasculine master of the universe.

But the most significant change has to do with downplaying a major theme of the comics: the issue of human trafficking and slavery. In both versions of the story, the specter of a group of North African girls being sold into slavery coaxes Andy and her gang out of the shadows, fatefully disobeying their own rule about never doing two jobs for the same client. (It’s a good rule—the job, set up by Ejiofor’s ex-agent, turns out to be a trap.) But in the comic, the theme comes back again and again. In the second book, they’re again hot on the trail of a group of “slavers,” who turn out to be allied with (big spoiler alert) Andy’s old, long-presumed-deceased colleague and lover Noriko. The first scene of the second book, set several thousand years in the past, shows Andy emerging from a victorious battle and describing the sense of shame that sets in as the adrenaline wears off, as she’s ordered to place a steel collar around a vanquished enemy’s neck

The theme of slavery comes to a head in the fourth issue of Opening Fire, when Andy flashes back 200 years to recall her romantic relationship with a Black West Indian slave named Achilles. Achilles, she tells us, was a slave on a plantation in Virginia when the American Revolution broke out, and chose to fight on the British side in exchange for the promise of freedom, because “he liked the sound of that.” (Whether or not this qualifies as an actual choice is glossed over.) In Britain, he was arrested for stealing bread and sent to the Australian penal colony, where he escaped and encountered Andy, then working as a bounty hunter. She catches up to him while he is bathing in a waterfall, but he manages to retrieve a gun, and they stand at a stalemate, with his gun and his penis given equal prominence in the frame. They join together as bandits and lovers, and she says that Achilles “made me want to live again, just so I could stay with him.” He grew old as she did not, and although he never asked why, he understood, and eventually sent her away so that others would not grow suspicious, effectively choosing to die alone rather than risk Andy being found out.

The movie doesn’t make room for many flashbacks, and those that it does include are mostly focused on the character of Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), whose story ends up paralleling Noriko’s from the comic books. But there are a lot of other reasons to excise Achilles, who feels like an exotic ornament to Andy’s story, and whose presence raises way more questions than it answers. (For one, when did our heroine, now so nobly opposed to human trafficking, stop hunting fugitive ex-slaves for profit?) If people grow more conservative as they age, it’s not hard to imagine how a person who’s been alive for more than 6,000 years could hold some pretty retrograde views, so it’s better not to even open up the issue of when The Old Guard’s prehistoric protagonist took up the values of liberal enlightenment. Just let Charlize Theron kick some ass, and leave the thornier moral questions for the sequel.

For more of Slate’s culture coverage, listen to a spoiler-filled discussion of the Hamilton movie.

Correction, July 10, 2020: This post originally misspelled Marwan Kenzari’s last name. It also misspelled Napoleonic.