When T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was officially introduced as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and later expanded upon in his own eponymous film two years later, the world — read: the white world — understood just how essential it was for him to exist in the canon. Black Panther is everything a superhero should be: righteous, kindhearted, and constantly looking for the good in people.
But for some reason, T’Challa’s genuine confidence in mankind doesn’t exactly hit like it used to given the times.
We’re seven months into the year, and 2020 has been nothing short of apocalyptic. From a global health crisis that just won’t go away to an overwhelming increase in police brutality against Black people to Kanye West running for president (again), the simulation appears to be broken. In light of the chaos we’re currently living in, we don’t need a superhero with a perpetual propensity for positivity — what we need is someone who’s just as fed up with the state of the world as we are. Someone who doesn’t want to do the work yet shows up every day because they know that it won’t get done without them.
World, meet Nile.
In the new Netflix action-adventure film The Old Guard, Kiki Layne stars as a young Marine named Nile Freeman whose life is upended by the violent discovery that she literally cannot die. According to fellow immortal Andy (Charlize Theron), Nile is one of several fighters in human history chosen to essentially live forever, and her purpose is to work alongside the other members of The Old Guard as a warrior for good.
But Nile isn’t really feeling that. She’s already putting her life in danger as a member of the armed forces, and she understandably doesn’t want to die over and over again for humanity’s sake. Nile has a loving family — a mother and a brother — and a life of her own to live, but she would have throw all of that by the wayside as part of The Old Guard. So why would she ever take up the cause?
“I don’t want this!” she tells Andy angrily after learning of her fate. “I don’t want any of it. There isn’t one good thing in any of this!”
All Nile wants to do is go back to work, back to her family, and back to her life. She feels like she shouldn’t have to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders or to be responsible for the fate of humanity. That’s not her job.
Her personal struggle with her supposed “duty” as a hero is one that so many of us can relate to in these turbulent times. We’ve come so far from the most devastating trials and tribulations of this world, yet our present living conditions are still marked by many of those same disturbing realities.
Capitalism continues to shutter the masses into poverty while the one percent enjoy the lap of luxury. Chattel slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but white supremacy persists nonetheless, taking on the form of legal segregation, the school to prison pipeline, the war on drugs, police brutality, and other systems of oppression against the Black community. Women are still second-class citizens in a society that tries to control everything from our salary to our sex lives. Even though same-sex marriage was legalised years ago, the LGBTQ community continues to be denied basic civil rights in addition to suffering horrifying injustices on the basis of their identity. Indigenous people are still being ignored and gaslit on their own land. Things should be getting better, but they’re not.
“It’s really what Andy is struggling with when we open this film,” The Old Guard‘s director Gina Prince-Bythewood shared with Refinery29. “This is a woman who’s lived 6,000 years, through countless wars and conflicts, and the world has just not learned.”
“We do not learn from history, and we keep inflicting pain on each other, on a loop,” she continued. “What is finally going to allow the world to make a turn and understand how connected we are globally? If we work together, how much better the world could be.”
Saving the world is hard, backbreaking work, and it really never ends. Just when you’ve defeated one villain, another bad guy pops up with a nefarious plan — just ask the Avengers or the Justice League. The same can be said of the real world. It seems like we’re stuck in a cycle of expending our energy as superheroes against the same big bads of racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, and more.
Throughout history, everyday people — many of them women — have stepped up to the plate to speak out against injustice, knowing that they’re directly placing themselves in the direct line of fire in the process. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was hunted in the 1800s for helping lead enslaved Black people to freedom. As a member of the Black Panthers, Assata Shakur had to flee to Cuba after being framed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought for gay rights at Stonewall. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head when she was just 15 years old because she advocated for the education of young Pakistani girls. Pre-teen Mari Copeny has spent her entire childhood calling attention to the water crisis of Flint, Michigan. And Patrisse Cullors was labelled a threat to society simply for asserting what should be a basic truth: Black lives matter.
There is always something to fight for, a wrong that that needs to be made right — it makes sense that our superheroes would be exhausted. After all of the destruction that they’ve seen, it would be natural for them to hesitate to give up their sense of normality in exchange for a life of constant battle. Like Nile and Andy, they should be so wary and cynical of the ways of the world that they question if it’s even worth saving at the end of the day.
Under Prince-Bythewood’s direction, Layne and Theron tap into a unique type of superhero that is more relevant than ever: the burned-out guardian angel. The Old Guard protects because they know that they have to, not because they believe that people will somehow become kinder or that one day, they won’t be necessary. Even in the face of the most dismal circumstances, they have no choice but to carry on.
So they get up each time, ancient bones creaking beneath their skin as bullet wounds and bleeding gashes heal on their own. Simply because the fate of world depends on it.
The Old Guard is now available for streaming on Netflix.
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