‘The Old Guard’ Finally Gives Us Gay Superheroes—And It’s More Beautiful Than We Hoped
The new Netflix action movie depicts a millennium-long romance between two kickass immortal male mercenaries—a major first for the genre. Your move, Marvel.
People might debate whether The Old Guard is a superhero movie, what with its blessed existence outside the Marvel-DC dick-measuring contest and not a swatch of spandex to be found.
To me, the film is as if the Avengers and the Justice League met up with the Fantastic Four and teamed up with the X-Men. It did the thing the superheroes movies are supposed to do—present a world where the best among us fight for what’s right—but which none had done before: present a world that feels like my own.
The first time it’s acknowledged that the characters Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are in a relationship, you almost don’t realize it.
The Old Guard opens with a violent shootout, after which you discover that its group of four mercenaries, led by Charlize Theron’s Andy, are immortal.
After being turned into swiss cheese by a flurry of bullets, their bodies heal. Exhausted from the whole ordeal of dying and coming back to life, they all nap in a train car, and the camera pans across Joe and Nicky spooning each other.
Are they…? Could they be…? Is that two male badass action stars cuddling??? Even if it was left at that, it would be profound. But then it became so much more.
Gina Prince-Bythewood's new Netflix action movie lit up social media over the weekend, with audiences marveling over the feeling of having just watched a good old fashioned summer blockbuster in the middle of a pandemic, proof that popcorn flicks do have a future in at-home release as cinemas remain closed; that “feeling” can be replicated.
Whether or not you classify the film as a “superhero movie” depends on how much of a stickler you want to be about the definition of “immortal mercenaries.” But either way, The Old Guard is revolutionary. Depending on how you look at it, it is the first movie with out gay superheroes, or the extremely (extremely) rare action film to feature queer characters and acknowledge their romance.
The scene that’s been getting the most attention, especially among gay audiences who never thought they’d watch something like it in a movie like this, comes when Joe and Nicky are kidnapped. They’ve been knocked out by gas and Joe, who comes to first, pleads with Nicky to wake up and let him know that he’s OK. He’s mocked by one of their captors, who homophobically scoffs, “What is he? Your boyfriend?”
Incensed, Joe calls the guard a child and delivers a moving speech explaining that what Nicky means to him is so much more.
“This man is more to me than you can dream,” he says. “He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness and warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me, even after a millennia. His heart overflows with the kindness this world is not worthy of. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s all and he’s more.”
He claims their love. And then they kiss. As audiences’ hearts shattered, gay viewers especially couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “I rewatched this scene four times to be sure I was really truly actually seeing a prominent gay love story in a major action movie,” wrote Marc Snetiker on Twitter.
(That Joe is played by the same actor who portrayed Disney villain Jafar in the live-action Aladdin, a prissy queen who ranks among the most obvious of Disney’s long tradition of coded gay villains, is the chef’s kiss to the whole gay meal.)
As the movie continues, it doesn’t lose track of their relationship. Little moments end up being more meaningful than you’d expect, like the very logical sight of the two of them checking in on each other after every violent shootout, making sure the other is OK before moving on. If details like that seem obvious, tell that to Hollywood.
Moreover, there is the entire backstory for Charlize Theron’s character, who spent hundreds of years in her immortal existence with another woman as her partner in life. It’s not explicit whether they were romantic, but the intensity of their love for each other was telegraphed loud and clear.
There’s a valid inclination to, as wonderful as these scenes are, be cynical, to be both pleased by these characters’ presence but suspicious about how obviously the movie wants a cookie for their inclusion. (Could you name any other character traits for Joe and Nicky other than “gay,” for example?) It’s a fair criticism. But sometimes you do just want to give the cookie. That speech was enough to earn it.
That a heartrending warmth swathes the whole movie with a palpable emotionality makes sense if you know Prince-Bythewood's often undersung work, from Love & Basketball to Beyond the Lights. It’s fitting, too, that the first Black woman to direct a comic-book film would bring with her such groundbreaking representation.
The discourse surrounding why there hasn’t been an explicitly LGBT+ superhero is exhausting. Thor star Tessa Thompson made headlines when she confirmed that her character, Valkyrie, is bisexual, alleging that you will see her “find her queen” in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, but there has been nothing on-screen that acknowledges this yet.
(She’s also said that a woman in a flashback scene is a past lover, but, again, that was never spoken of explicitly, only implied. Or having to eventually be explained after the fact in an interview with the actress.)
It’s almost laughable. Back in 2015, Marvel president Kevin Feige announced that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would get an out LGBT+ superhero within the next 10 years—a literal decade—and we were supposed to applaud that. 10! Years!
Thankfully, that moment seems to be coming sooner. It was announced that the studio’s first openly gay superhero will debut in Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals, which is currently scheduled to be released in 2021. More, he’s going to have a partner and kids, too.
It’s no doubt that we got Joe and Nicky and those beautiful scenes in The Old Guard because the film exists outside the Marvel or DC Universes, which tracks: Progress has always been forced to happen outside the confines of mainstream power structures.
The best we could do was claim the campiest moments of these movies as ours, and make the rest of it fodder for what we do best: comedy and snark. Case in point is Kyle Buchanan’s hilarious ranking of “What Is the Gayest Marvel Movie?,” which introduces this salient point: “I’ve never quite understood Marvel’s reluctance to introduce a gay character in their movies, mostly because have you seen those movies? They are gay, honey.”
It’s not that a movie needs to have gay characters for the community to identify with it or embrace it. But, for the love of Ragnarok, it would be nice for at least one to have a gay or two flying about.
Identity in superhero movies is important because the entire concept of superheroes is inherently about identity. These are extraordinary people forced to, at one point or another, confront the unique parts of themselves that make them different from everybody else, things you can’t change but others might judge. They work through the shame and resentment over these traits, evolve into celebrating and being empowered by them, and reckon with the burden that comes with embracing them.
There are many reasons that fans of the genre so deeply connect to these stories, but chief among them may be the intense emotionality of that journey. With that there might be some envy, too. How wonderful would it be to take that thing about you that makes you different, that you even feared, and wield it like an actual superpower?
Recent years, then, have brought watershed moments when it comes to identity in superhero movies. The celebration of Black culture and power in Black Panther. The renegade depiction of female strength and tenacity in Wonder Woman.
After years of isolated examples of gender and race representation in superhero movies—examples that fans of these characters seized and protected—these two films were like manna from heaven, an unexpected abundance so rewarding it felt nothing short of miraculous. Especially with Black Panther, the culture arrived pure and unfiltered, the way that the most impactful superpowers are.
I don’t think there needs to be an “all-gay superhero movie” necessarily. (Though I wonder what that may actually be like.)
One could argue that it’s more powerful for representation to exist in the form it does in The Old Guard. The sexuality of the characters is matter-of-fact and inconsequential to their ability to kick total-and-complete ass, yet also given the dignity of expressing and showing their love, which is extremely consequential to their daily lives—and has been for a millennia. Which is just about as long as it felt like we’ve been waiting for this