With The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood sets a great example for women directors breaking into the action genre
The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood revealed Skydance approached her after Patty Jenkins delivered a blockbuster in Wonder Woman.
The Old Guard, that dropped on Netflix on 10 July, checks every box for a summer hit. Based on the graphic comic-book series, the film features Charlize Theron as the leader of a badass squad of undying heroes who have fought on every battlefield in history. The globe-hopping adventure is peppered with slick action sequences involving a very diverse cast of women and men, Black and white, queer and straight, Muslim and Christian.
While Netflix does not share any data on how a film or show has performed, that The Old Guard opened on the streaming platform’s #1 position, and has mostly stayed there since, is a testament to its ‘blockbuster’ status. This is a film that celebrates women taking charge, women mentoring other women, and women giving other women a chance to take the lead. And it is no surprise that a woman — Gina Prince-Bythewood, has directed the film.
In a business-as-usual world, 2020 would have seen seven big action films directed by women. Around the time the world was preparing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Cathy Yan’s Harley Quinn: Bird of Prey, a spin-off from the DC Comic Universe was playing in theatres. This run of female-directed superhero movies was meant to continue with Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Patty Jenkins' sequel Wonder Woman 1984, and Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals. There is also Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan that retells the epic lore of a warrior princess with spectacular sword-fighting skills. Regardless of when these films make it to the audience, in theatres or on OTT, it is obvious that there are cracks beginning to appear in Hollywood’s action-thriller-superhero ceiling.
It is no secret that like all film industries around the world, women directors are still a minority in Hollywood. They were even more rare within the action-thriller-superhero genre. Traditionally, rom-coms and emotional dramas were seen as a natural fit for a female director. This very obvious bias was a reflection of centuries of societal conditioning and gender branding — women as nurturers and emotionally-focused, and men as leaders and action-oriented. As far as the powers-that-be in Hollywood were concerned, women cannot direct big-budget, bone-snapping, blood-and-bullet fests.
Within the studio system that drives Hollywood, the only woman director trusted consistently with big budgets on action films used to be Kathryn Bigelow. Through her career spanning decades, Bigelow cemented her identity as the maker of adrenaline-fuelled films that have redefined the genre whether it was the 1991 cops-robbers-and-surfers thriller Point Break or the war film The Hurt Locker, that took an analytical look at how war can change a man. The film won Bigelow an Oscar for Best Director — the only woman to do so in 90-plus years of The Academy’s existence.
It was Jenkins delivering a blockbuster with Wonder Woman in 2017 though that upended conventional showbiz wisdom that female superheroes do not sell tickets or that women cannot direct action superhero films. It gave Hollywood studios the confidence to begin considering women directors for tentpole, big-budget action projects. The #MeToo movement of 2018 brought with it a greater awareness for increased representation of women in all departments including direction.
Last year, we had Anna Boden co-directing Marvel's first female superhero film Captain Marvel, while Elizabeth Banks remade Charlie's Angels. The Jenkins Effect is what Prince-Bythewood credits as one of the reasons why Skydance, the production company behind The Old Guard hired her. “I never thought I'd get the opportunity to make (action movies), given the way that Hollywood is. But all praise to Patty Jenkins, who killed Wonder Woman, and opened the door a crack for some of us to squeak through. Skydance was intentional on wanting to find a female director," she told The Atlantic.
In 2011, Paul Feig broke away from every Hollywood convention about rom-com and female-drive comedy to give us Bridesmaids. He, along with the brilliant women writers and cast of the film, gave us fully realised characters that did not adhere to specific ideas of how women must be. The sleeper hit not only brought in newer audiences to the genre but also resuscitated it. And if it takes the fresh eyes of a man to bring in a little reinvention to a genre dominated by women’s stories, the flipside should also be true.
There is a scene in The Old Guard, somewhere amidst all that high-octane drama — a man declaring his love for another man. It makes one sit up and wonder, “Has this ever happened before?” Joe aka Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky aka Nicolo (Luca Marinelli) sit handcuffed at the back of a van, surrounded by gun-toting soldiers. They have just been kidnapped, and Joe checks if Nicky is okay. One of the soldiers laughs with contempt, and asks, “What is he, your boyfriend?” Joe takes a long look at the soldier, and delivers a romantic monologue of epic proportions. “This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness, and warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrillers me even after a millennium. His heart overflows with a kindness of which this world is not worth. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He is all, and he is more.” What follows is a passionate kiss between the two immortal soldiers as their captors look on with horrified expressions.
This scene is more than just tokenism to appeal to a key demographic or to be considered woke. It comes directly from the original comic book, and writer Greg Rucka stipulated that it had to be in the movie. In interviews, Prince-Bythewood has talked about the scene being one of the reasons why she wanted to direct this story. With The Old Guard, she is given us a superhero film like none other: it allows the viewer time to be invested in the characters, it is intimate, and as real as a film about a 6,000-year-old warrior can be.
Women directors kicking in the doors of this male-dominated genre is perhaps what it needs for its reinvention. More than a phase, this is hopefully is the first step towards what will become an industry standard.
All images from Twitter.
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