I had no idea The Old Guard was a comic before it invaded my Netflix recommendations, but I am loving all the comic books beyond capes and cowls that are sneaking into mainstream media — especially when they involve older women kicking ass on screen. Having now read The Old Guard Book One: Opening Fire after watching the the movie, the comparisons will inevitably pepper my review.
The Old Guard Book One: Opening Fire
Alejandro Arbona (editor), Leandro Fernández (artist), Daniela Miwa (colourist), Greg Rucka (writer), Eric Trautmann (designer)
August 30, 2017
I might as well get this over with: I like the movie better than the comic. That’s not to say the comic is bad. Had I read it first, I’d probably feel more strongly about it. However, I am particularly fond of screen adaptations that involve the original writer and the opportunity to retell their story in a fresh way. Writing for the different mediums requires different approaches to many elements, and working in a broader medium such as film means Greg Rucka was likely bombarded with input from others, including the director and actors. It’s an opportunity for the writer to “fix” and expand on things, while excising others that simply didn’t work. Sometimes this process goes very well, as it does with The Old Guard. Other times it fizzles into a shambling undead mess that should have been put to rest long ago.
The differences come right at the start. The Old Guard Book One: Opening Fire introduces us to Andy, a 6,000+ year old woman who is tired of going through the motions of living. She leads a group of four (herself included) technically* immortal warriors who are, at their youngest, two centuries old. Soldiers in various wars who discovered that they could not die permanently, they have banded together to fight the good fight over time. There have been others among them, but *the key to their immortality is that it can come to an end at any point. Some day, a mortal wound will simply not heal itself and their time will be up. This spin on the immortality archetype lends the story necessary tension.
The movie takes its time to focus on Andy’s introspection about her inability to remain dead, but, as with many aspects of the comic, the first few pages leap quickly from panel to panel to reveal the many battles she has died in, alternating with the lovers with whom she has found only fleeting moments of satisfaction. In three pages, we see her domination over sex and violence, and just how meaningless it all is to her now. It’s an effective statement, but not a particularly creative one, and I am thankful that it was removed for the film. Andy’s soul-deep exhaustion remains, but her life is not completely void of pleasure. Instead, sex is not the focus of those moments of pleasure as it too easily could be.
Not that I take issue with the sexuality in the graphic novel. Rucka typically writes women well and with deserved respect. I couldn’t imagine him working with an artist who would be any different. There are a few moments of bare breasts (as well as a full-frontal penis), but there is nothing gratuitous or objectifying about Leandro Fernández’s work and the moments where nudity is prominent — none of which have to do with sex.
When it comes to action scenes and the characters’ immortality, Fernández focuses on body horror, with gaping head wounds and dangling eyeballs. Daniela Miwa generously slops on the reddish browns of blood that permeate many of the panels. Here is another area where the movie surpasses the comic — ironically so. Given that a film has to work within a time limit, The Old Guard does an excellent job of taking its time. It does so with the relationships it depicts and builds, as well as the pain of their immortality. In the movie, we understand that every wound HURTS. And we understand that every time the team steps into battle, they are taking chances with their lives, as, even after hundreds of years, this one might be the finale. We see them die, and we see the controlled panic from the others when their companion doesn’t get up fast enough. Yet they are still willing to use their bodies as shields and weapons when they have nothing else left. In the comic, that tension isn’t there and the pacing is too fast. We rarely see the characters die from things like gunshots to the head, and when we do, they are up a panel later, sometimes with one jokingly poking at a gaping wound. There is no sense of pain and risk of loss from a medium that could have taken a little more time to add the true emotional weight of their burden that we otherwise only see at the beginning with Andy’s tired sex-and-battle moments.
The relationships between the characters are at the heart of this story. Andy sets herself apart from the others, having experienced too much loss in her 6,000 years to be compelled to make any more BFFs or lovers. But she doesn’t have a choice when they find their newest immortal, Nile, a marine killed in combat in Afghanistan. Nile’s newness obviously serves as a counterpoint to Andy, but on the pages, we don’t get to see enough of the character. There are some delightful moments towards the end where we see their relationship forming, but we don’t get to see much of Nile’s struggle to come to terms with what and who she is now that she can’t stay dead and has been taken in by a group of mercenaries for hire. Again, this is better done in the movie where Nile is actually written as Andy’s equal in terms of screen time and potential, paving the way for sequels where, perhaps, lead actress Charlize Theron can step back and let a young Black woman (Kiki Layne) take the reins.
But as far as relationships go, it’s not just about Andy, and this is where the book edges out the film for me. We get to see a lot more of Andy’s teammates, Joe, Booker, and Nicky. We learn about their history through pithy flashbacks that focus on the meat of their character development. The time not taken elsewhere in the comic works effectively here, with Fernández packing lots into each panel, particularly with Nicky and Joe’s profound history together and the beauty of a relationship that has stood the test of time and murdering each other.
Finally, what’s a team of soldiers trying to do good without a villain? That comes in the form of Merrick, a thuggish big pharma billionaire who wants to bottle and sell the secrets of immortality, which he has learned of thanks to the research from a man named Copley. Merrick is a savage, two-dimensional bad guy that serves his purpose well enough. Copley doesn’t get to do much more than be the instrument of that purpose, but again, the way the film gives Copley much more to work with in terms of character motivations allows for greater development overall for both the character and the story.
Opening Fire is expected to wrap up with a third book that Rucka is currently working on, with the current film drawing from plot elements in this and the second book. I am curious now to see how the third book shapes up based on what he has learned from the experience of revisiting his work.