Releasing a superhero film these days must be daunting. Just last year Marvel’s domination of the genre culminated in the record-breaking, $2.7 billion-grossing epic Avengers: Endgame, meanwhile the DCEU has recently hit it out the park with the likes of Shazam! and Birds of Prey. It’s a crowded market, with the main competition undoubtedly being between these two comic book movie juggernauts.

But that could all change with the arrival of The Old Guard – the latest directorial effort from Gina Prince-Bythewood, who is branching out into action after mainly working in the romance genre (Love & Basketball, Disappearing Acts, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights). And she has done so with a completely unique and exhilarating film that shakes up the genre and redefines the ‘superhero.’

Adapted from the comic book of the same name – created in 2017 by Leandro Fernández and the film’s screenwriter Greg Rucka – The Old Guard may be new, but its story is rooted in the past. The eponymous group is a team of immortal mercenaries who have been covertly protecting people around the world for centuries. Key to their immortality is the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how big or small.

While the Avengers might fly through the sky and fight alien creatures in plain view, these vigilantes work underground in the shadows, tackling injustice and saving lives without leaving a trace. The people they help will never know, and there will be no recognition given or monuments built in their honour. The group’s leader and eldest member is Charlize Theron’s Andromache of Scythia – aka Andy – a warrior from ancient times, who is as efficient with a gun as she is with her signature double-bladed axe. Following her lead are soulmates Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), whose love for each other provides some sweet moments in the film, and the group’s youngest member, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts).

Upon their return from a humanitarian mission in South Sudan, the group catches wind of a new immortal: a young US Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne). Andy takes Nile under her wing, but with that comes great risk. A pharmaceutical company headed by Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) soon discovers their powers and seeks to use them for financial gain under the guise of scientific progress. Stuck in the middle is Copley, a conflicted ex-CIA agent with a hidden tragic past, portrayed compellingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor despite his more minor role in the story.

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne in The Old Guard (2020) | © Netflix

Introducing five new superbeings with different origins and hundreds of years of backstory means there’s a lot of ground to cover. However, we learn enough to start to get to know them – particularly Andy and Nile – without too much being revealed. It seems that, should this turn into a full-blown franchise, there will be so much more to find out about them. This will be especially warranted for Joe, Nicky and Booker, who are noticeably less of a focus than the leader and the new recruit.

There are no big and bold personalities here, but rather a band of likeable characters who, despite their superpowers, just seem like normal people. Flashy high-tech suits and CGI spectacle are left by the wayside, and in their place are unostentatious fight scenes with our heroes sporting plain jeans and T-shirts. The visuals might be toned down in comparison to the usual superhero fare, but the super slick choreography and often-handheld camerawork make the action scenes incredibly enthralling.

While the film generally subverts genre expectations to make for something original and exciting, at times it’s predictable and falls prey to the ‘one-note villain with a master plan’ cliché. Merrick has little motive beyond wanting to make money, which makes him come off as being evil for the sake of it. Regardless, Melling – who many will remember as the bratty Dudley Dursley from multiple Harry Potter films – plays him well and seeing him in the role was quite the pleasant surprise.

The Old Guard might be a superhero film by name, but by nature it’s more than that. It’s based in the realm of fantasy and the supernatural, layered with elements of a spy thriller, and topped off with moments of stirring drama.

It stands out from superhero films that came before it by not having the stakes be a matter of life and death. Instead, it’s their freedom that’s at risk. Capture is the ultimate threat for Andy and her team; an eternity spent at the mercy of somebody else’s will is a fate even worse than death. As such, the film doesn’t take the concept of immortality at face value. It treats it as the thought-provoking issue that it is and discusses it in a serious but engaging way, which is perhaps one of the many advantages of the comic’s own co-creator taking charge of the screenplay. If anyone was to take the source material seriously, it would be him.

Above all, it takes a swing at the glass ceiling that has long been a fixture of the superhero genre both on-and off-camera. With two women at the forefront and a Black female director at the helm, The Old Guard has already done what the MCU and the DCEU took years to do. It shows that women can direct and lead action-packed superhero films with all the blood, gore and violence that come with them. And they’re damn good at it, too.

Rating: ★★★★

The Old Guard releases on Netflix 10th July

Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Written by: Greg Rucka

Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts