We Weren’t Made to Endure This

Empathy, Pain, and Connection in The Old Guard

The Old Guard | Netflix
Netflix

In preparing us for our first on-call shifts as hospital chaplain interns, our supervisors repeatedly told us, “If you’ve seen one death, you’ve seen one death.” The intent was to disabuse us of the illusion that there would be some point at which we would know exactly what to do when confronted with grieving family members, that there could be tricks or patterns we could fall back on to deal with death. If we were going to be hospital chaplains, we needed to be prepared for the myriad ways in which grief could surprise us. Our challenge was to be present, to bear witness, to be empathetic to the grief that we were about to encounter. 

Of course, it can be tempting to turn away from grief, to pretend that pain—of people who just lost someone, of people grappling with illness, of health care workers who tend to the dying—is nonexistent. At a policy level over the past year, that’s certainly been the strategy for dealing with the pandemic. In the wake of such institutional apathy, it might be necessary to either leave jobs where one feels like a band-aid on an axe wound, or try to find other ways to shut out the pain. In some cases, rejecting empathy might seem like one of the only viable pathways for self-preservation. 

Each superhero movie, on some level, faces the problem of exactly how much carnage they want to expose you to, given that people are usually coming to them to have a good time. In the age of the ever-bloating Marvel and DC cinematic universes, there’s plenty of variance in what exactly constitutes “a good time.” In the expanding superhero genre, there may be allowances for a darker tone, more explicit explorations of social issues, or even deep dives into the particular type of grief that comes with being, for lack of a better term, a first responder to catastrophe. The ongoing physical effects of a superhero’s vocation might be part of the film’s text, but it wasn’t until last year’s The Old Guard that I saw a superhero film concerned with emphasizing both its heroes’ physical pain and the psychological toll that comes with being surrounded by the suffering bodies of others. 

I came to The Old Guard to have a good time, by which I mean I came to The Old Guard for Charlize Theron in cool outfits. I joked after watching it that the movie had been sold to me as a fun action-adventure movie with an attractive cast, when, really, it’s a fun body horror movie (with an attractive cast). The film seems to realize that the best way to get you emotionally invested in its group of unkillable superheroes is by making you very aware of all of the pain that they experience. Most superhero movies traffic in action-adventure set pieces (and, to be fair, The Old Guard has plenty of those), but director Gina Prince-Bythewood is more invested in having you hear every sound of a bone snapping back into place, watching skin regenerate, or trying to figure out how a body bent that way can possibly become a walking, breathing person again. From the outset, as the four leads get blown to pieces and then slowly regenerate, the audience is made to bear witness not just to these particular super bodies, but to how bodies in general experience pain. 

Charlize Theron as Andy in The Old Guard (2020)

That pain is not limited to the physical. All of the immortal characters are mired in loss. Andy (Theron) tells the newly immortal Nile (KiKi Layne) that the curse of immortality comes from the imbalance in the violence they remember, and the loved ones they eventually forget. There is a question for Nile throughout the film of whether the best course of action would be to cut herself off from her family completely or watch them age and die without her. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) must deal with the grief of watching his children die. Andy has to deal with the lingering trauma of losing one of the few people she was able to maintain a close relationship with, after watching one of her immortal comrades die violently (the immortality of the group is not permanent and eventually wears off.) The entire group shares a psychological bond with Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), another immortal who was drowned alive inside an iron maiden, thus trapped in an ongoing cycle of incredible painful death and rebirth. As a result all five of them experience the psychological and physical effects of dying repeatedly. The view The Old Guard presents of its heroes is surprisingly holistic, connecting the ways in which experiencing physical pain and psychological pain intermingle and pile on top of each other. It doesn’t matter that their bodies heal, because trauma is felt all over. As Booker explains: Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting. 

This is not necessarily a description of a “good time.” But my definition of a “good time” has shifted since I no longer watch big superhero movies surrounded by people in a theater, but instead watch them in isolation on my couch at home. The stories I’ve hungered for in quarantine have been ones that acknowledge the hardships of being but that also contain glimmers of hope, even if that hope might be fantastical. I haven’t necessarily wanted to consume plague stories, but I have wanted to consume things that acknowledge pain and alienation, while also not letting them be the final word. And I’ve wanted to consume those things in fare typically viewed as escapist, including superhero movies.

The Old Guard is a movie whose protagonists experience pain and whose antagonists want to avoid pain. The central theme is not that pain is good. I’ve been frustrated in the past by narratives that focus on pain which come off as either somewhat voyeuristic, or worse, find a nobility in suffering. In contrast, I appreciate that The Old Guard frames pain as something to confront rather than to extol, a reality to be lived with but not valorized.

In some ways, The Old Guard was fortunate to be released during a pandemic. So many superhero films from the past 15 years have been ride-or-die on their villains, and I’m not sure The Old Guard would have convinced me to care about its conflict if we weren’t currently living through a constant object lesson in medical ethics. The big pharma company hunting the gang to use their genetics to engineer super cures is largely a blank slate for the team to bounce their own angst off. But the argument that Harry Melling’s Merrick, an over-the-top pastiche of Elon Musk and Martin Shkreli, makes—that he’s ethically obligated to take the genetics of immortal beings in order to engineer cures—does have some resonance in a pandemic. And while Merrick is easy to despise, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Copley is devastated by caring for his wife’s ALS, and his alliance with Merrick is focused on preventing others from undergoing what he is experiencing. Booker’s eventual betrayal of the group is preceded by him confiding in Nile the horrific experience of watching his own son die of cancer. Both men have relatively uncomplicated motives, and their transformations are not the result of unique traumas, but comparatively commonplace ones. 

There is sentiment that I’ve seen shared among friends and on social media right now that amounts to “we are undergoing things that no human being should have to experience.” We are watching healthcare and essential workers go into dangerous job environments and receive no policy or institutional support. We are cut off from our loved ones with little confirmation of when we are going to see them again. We’re living with so much uncertainty about the future viability of our health, our jobs, and our communities. Meanwhile, frontline workers are held up as heroes—a type of label that comes with a sort of invitation to treat them as if they are immune from the risks and demands of their job. 

This is why I feel such an attachment to The Old Guard and its characters in this moment: because it engages with what it might be like to be trapped watching people die for a prolonged—and uncertain—amount of time. The Old Guard posits that, even if heroes are immune to dying, being forced into the role of a hero still really sucks. Three of the members undergo torture because the ideology behind Merrick’s pharmaceutical company is that the public is entitled to their bodies. The group deals with the continual decision of whether to offer up their bodies with increasingly diminished returns. When the rescue mission the group is sent on at the beginning turns out to be a set up, Andy’s reaction is not just disgust at their security being compromised, but a feeling that their actions are no longer effective. Despite the moral compass guiding their actions, Andy dejectedly declares: “We’ve done nothing. The world isn’t getting any better.” And it feels like we are all Charlize Theron lately: defeated, tired of the world’s shit, grimacing in a black outfit worn for too many days straight.  

The “good time” of The Old Guard, its escapism to an extent, is that even in deepest isolation, connections can be forged with other people. When Nile wakes up from being fatally wounded, the instinct of the group is instant compassion for what she is about to endure and an immediate instinct to go to her. Nile functions as the audience guide, introducing us to the rules of the group’s powers as they refuse to let her experience her newfound role in a confusing world alone. After it is revealed that Andy is in the process of losing her immortality—which will eventually happen to all the characters—she discerns that perhaps part of the reason Nile became an immortal at the same time is so that she can both empathize with Nile and, I think, be kinder to herself. Her first reaction upon realizing Nile has joined them is to think about how lonely she must be. Nile sees the loneliness of the group with new eyes, their isolation both from other people and from the world at large. On the run, Nile reflects back to Andy her own skepticism that their lifestyle can lead to anything fruitful. “Is that supposed to be me?” Nile asks. “Is that what we’re supposed to do, and we don’t even know why?” Nile is able to see how the repeated act of killing has limited Andy’s ability to empathize with others, and to some extent herself. In response, Andy chooses to let Nile go back and try and restart a relationship with her own family, to preserve her own connections to the world. Her relationship with Nile forces Andy to turn back to both the world and her companions. Andy’s ending is one of both reconnection and reinvestment, the conclusion that it is better to be with people than to be apart from them. 

The hope of The Old Guard is that if we are willing to be present with suffering, we might be able to affect some sort of change. It’s important to live with that hope while also being honest about the costs. The role of Copley is to connect the work of the heroes to a sort of exponential outgrowth of positive change. There is a sense that by going into places of pain, Andy and the others are able to create ripple effects of healing and rebuilding. His character illustrates for Nile, Andy, and the others that while they may not see or feel the immediate impact of their work, it is still there. In a way, it serves as an explanation for one of the gaps in the movie, which is that we never actually see any of the Old Guard help other people. Like the heroes themselves, the audience must take it on faith to some extent that their actions do have far reaching implications. What we do not take on faith is the importance of receiving help: while we don’t see the heroes giving help, we do see others helping them. At a time when so many people are making personal sacrifices for the safety of others without seeing them stem the rising tide of illness, the only hope we may have is the empathy we receive from other people. 

Like many superhero films, The Old Guard is a meditation on heroism, but rather than asking what qualities make someone heroic, it questions how acts of heroism actually change people. In a few months, I’m planning on returning to healthcare chaplaincy, and while it’s likely that I will be working in a far less stressful environment than those who have been working in healthcare for the past year, I still wonder how my colleagues will have been changed by their experiences. Seeing one death is hard enough. I have colleagues who have held iPads to livestream people’s goodbyes to their loved ones. Nurses and other healthcare workers have had to fight for PPE, have had to fight for their higher ups, for their representatives, for their communities, to take their safety seriously. As I get ready to re-enter this workforce, I’m left wondering what it means to be present not just for the people who are sick, but for the people who have been with those who have been sick. Along with badly needed institutional changes to our healthcare systems, I’m questioning how to foster connection, how to make these environments safe again for people to extend empathy. The Old Guard was my pandemic escapism from these questions because it offered up at least one ingredient in an answer. It highlights the need to have faith in our own relationships, to accept the empathy of our friends, our lovers, the people willing to be present with us in our lives. After all, it’s only by being in relationships with others that we can see how our actions affect people, how they ripple out towards a better world.