A year ago this week, one of 2020’s surprise hits, The Old Guard, dropped on Netflix. Tucked in among the rest of the streaming giant’s relatively tame 2020 action slate, the film could easily have sailed under the radar — coming and going like other less memorable Netflix titles including Project Power and Mile 22. But against the odds, The Old Guard rose above many of its contemporaries — thanks to the power of a vocal fanbase that developed around the film’s inclusion of out and proud LGBTQ+ superheroes.
Now, just shy of the film’s first anniversary, The Old Guard was finally greenlit for a sequel. It’s a welcome and crucial bit of news, because if superhero media in 2021 has proven anything, it’s that there’s still a significant need (and demand) for films like The Old Guard — movies that assert that there and should be a space in the genre for LGBTQ+ superheroes leading franchises.
Though before the film’s release, most impressions of The Old Guard could be chalked up to “Netflix Charlize Theron action vehicle.” Once the film actually dropped on Netflix, though, fans quickly flocked to it, creating a passionate and vocal community that shot the film into the Top 10 of Netflix’s most-watched original films. It’s certainly the most significant fanbase to pop up around other comparable Netflix original action flicks, and it’s all thanks to its willingness to feature LGBTQ+ superheroes front and center. Fans (and critics) specifically praised the film’s portrayal of Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), who stand as the first gay superhero leads in a major action blockbuster — beating Marvel and its 20+ movies to the proverbial punch.
I mention Marvel because (despite Kevin Feige’s promises that an LGBTQ+ superhero is on the horizon for a Marvel film), 2021 saw (at long last) the franchise’s first mention of an LGBTQ+ character who wasn’t an unnamed supporting role, via the revelation of Loki’s bisexuality in episode three of the Disney+ series of the same name. While the reveal is certainly cause for celebration, it’s worth noting that it was still just one line, and the creators made it clear that the series won’t explore his sexuality in any further depth this season. It’s progress, for certain, but it continues the longstanding trend of franchises alluding or hinting at superheroes being LGBTQ+ without further pursuing any queer relationships onscreen.
By comparison, The Old Guard is also a comic book-based superhero flick (it’s based on a 2017 Greg Rucka comic). The film lifts its LGBTQ+ characters from the source material, but instead of cutting the queer storylines entirely or diminishing the representation to a single line that can be easily edited out for more conservative markets, the film wholeheartedly embraces its LGBTQ+ heroes — and flourished with fans because of it. Nicky and Joe are affectionate, flirty, and share a number of kisses, including a grand romantic lip-lock that comes after Joe’s passionate monologue and declaration of love for Nicky after being mocked by a homophobic thug. It’s not coy, shy, or in any way reluctant to celebrate Nick and Joe’s love — queer love — something that a number of other major franchises would do well to take a page from.
What’s more, is that Nicky and Joe aren’t the franchise’s only queer characters either. Though it isn’t explored in the first The Old Guard film, a recent comic continuation, The Old Guard: Force Multiplied, reveals that Andy (Charlize Theron) and Quynh (Ngô Thanh Vân) were also lovers who shared a decades-spanning romance akin to the one Joe and Nicky share in the film. This revelation not only opens the door for lesbian and/or bisexual representation going forward, but it also adds another layer to Quynh and Andy’s closeness in the film, tragic separation, and the surprise reveal that Quynh is alive in the film’s post-credits scene. Now, with the news of a sequel (finally) being greenlit, exploring Andy and Quynh’s romance could certainly be a compelling direction to take the franchise, especially if being trapped in an iron prison under the ocean for hundreds of years took a toll on Quynh’s sanity.
Between Joe/Nicky and Andy/Quynh, The Old Guard has set the bar going forward for LGBTQ+ representation in superhero films. The film proves that, without a doubt, queer characters can and should be world-saving, army-defeating, butt-kicking superheroes, and do so without having their queerness underplayed or limited in any capacity. In turn, it forces other mainstream franchises to re-examine how they handle LGBTQ+ representation, because although baby steps are good, there’s now an established standard for what truly impactful queer representation in superhero films can look like - and it makes other attempts of the past look weak and half-hearted by comparison.
Even further, The Old Guard’s viewing figures and streaming success also disprove the outdated notion that audiences don’t want to see (or aren’t ready for) LGBTQ+ superheroes leading major films. One of the reasons why The Old Guard is one of the few Netflix action flicks from 2020 to score a sequel (and why it did so well in the first place) was because of how LGBTQ+ fans rallied around it, celebrating that long-awaited representation, and campaigning online for a continuation of the franchise to see more of these already beloved LGBTQ+ superheroes.
Now that the original was a proven success, it also gives the sequel more creative freedom to explore plotlines like Andy and Quynh’s love story, or a number of other plotlines that the significant volume of Old Guard comics explore. The film also boasts one of the most impressive casts in the genre — though Charlize Theron is probably the most recognizable name for mainstream audiences, the rest of the ensemble is filled out by indie darlings (Kiki Layne), foreign film stars (Luca Marinelli, Marwan Kenzari) and reliable Hollywood heavy-hitters like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthias Schoenaerts.
Between The Old Guard's all-star cast, diehard fanbase, and critical and commercial success, a sequel would be a crucial continuation of the original film’s legacy, proving once again that there’s more than enough space for queer leads to be featured front and center in superhero films. Though the rest of the genre might not be there yet, The Old Guard continues to shine as a reminder that LGBTQ+ superheroes can and should be celebrated in film.