This is probably bad form for an author to say, but I watch a lot of movies.
I’ve watched more this year than usual. With the theaters closed, I figured it was a unique opportunity for me to actually be up on new releases. Pursuant to that end, I have seen 33 movies released this year so far, and tried to gather storytelling lessons from them, the bad as well as the good. Netflix’s The Old Guard, mercifully, is one of the good.
On its face, it’s a familiar package: grimdark superhero-ish science fiction that’s heavy on violence and cynicism. That description is basically correct (if overly dismissive), but despite that familiarity, it has connected with a lot of people. From a critic standpoint (critics are people, you know), it has a 81% on the tomatometer and a lime-green 70 on Metacritic. The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is also high, at 73%. And much as I loathe using these average rating aggregators as indicators of quality, it does make the point here that a superhero Netflix film not based on a Marvel or DC property is doing well. Why?
I think the answer here has to do with the character focus of The Old Guard. The lead characters are blessed/cursed with a near-immortality, living for centuries upon centuries. The plot itself features a very bland Big PharmaTM villain who wants to use their genetics or something for drugs or life or whatever and you get the picture.
But that plot is mostly window dressing, subordinate to the real story. And the real story is how world-weariness cuts at your sense of purpose, and loss of that sense of purpose can result in a debilitating cynicism. That cynicism eats away at you, destroying your spirit, and eventually, the rest of you follows. Completely coincidentally, this is exactly the conflict that I had already written for Eli to face in the third book of my Rogue series. It’s a much more interesting and human idea than your hero fighting a vague “take over the world” plot from a mad scientist in neon-colored tights.
Which is to say that, even though the action is well-directed and Theron is convincing as an action heroine, it’s really the tension of her character that sells the story. The script reflects this well with the young and more hopeful Nile, played by KiKi Layne. It’s their relationship that cements the film and draws you in, much more so than the action itself (which doesn’t rely on superpowers – aside from their healing factor and long lives, no additional superpowers are on display).
This itself is not a new thing in the superpower genre, by the way. One of the best comic stories I’ve ever read is Old Man Logan, which, in its own way, has a conflict that is very similar. It was one of the inspirations for James Mangold’s 2017 film Logan, one of the most character-centered Marvel films to date. Even outside of the superhero genre, the best action films are almost invariably ones that have both good action and good character. Some of my favorite examples have heroes that I am fascinated by, or at least characters who I’m drawn to because of their struggle to maintain their innocence (The Fugitive), or attempts to redefine themselves (The Bourne Identity)
The lesson here is simple: good stories have interesting characters, even in genres that are not drama or literary fiction. Even in action films, and in thriller novels, your characters are absolutely essential to the story. Action, like any genre elements, is used most effectively when it is in service of your characters and your themes. I hesitate to use specific examples from the film for spoilery reasons, but suffice it to say you can frequently find a fight scene when Andy (Theron) is facing another challenge or source of tension in her arc as a character. in this way, those fights are imbued with personality, giving physical force to her emotional experience, likely giving the actors more emotion to embed in the scene as well. The same can be done with characters in written fiction.
Logan Judy (that’s me) is a science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia author. His newest novel, The Prison in the Sky, is slated for release in September 2020. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon, and you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free ebook.