Black Women Are the Superheroes the World Needs – Maya Phillips

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In different ways and to varying degrees of success, “Watchmen” and “The Old Guard” know that these characters have a much more nuanced understanding of justice.

Regina King as the vigilante Sister Night in “Watchmen.”

A white billionaire playboy spends his evenings fighting bad guys in a cape and mask. A white alien works as a journalist but skips out to take down villains in the city.

Traditionally, superheroes fit a predictable mold: white males who stand as bastions of justice despite their vigilante status. In the riveting recent Netflix film “The Old Guard,” and the masterly Emmy-nominated HBO series “Watchmen,” Black women are the new kinds of heroes, not only breaking this mold but also allowing for a radical shift in storytelling.

A new guard of superheroism doesn’t simply mean diversity. It makes room for the possibility that especially now, as our political systems and institutions are being questioned, there is no absolute moral authority, even for those tasked with saving the day. It presents individuals better equipped to understand the weight of the badge and the mask, and the cost that comes with calling oneself a hero.

In “The Old Guard,” a foursome of immortals are led by the eldest, Andy (a mesmerizing Charlize Theron), a butt-kicking, steely-eyed warrior. As they trot around the globe crushing bad guys, they welcome a new member, a Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne).

When we meet Nile, she’s stationed in Afghanistan, handing out candy to kids in the street. Ordered to get intel on a location where a dangerous man might be hiding, she reminds her fellow troops to “keep it respectful.” She shoots the target but is visibly affected when he survives. She immediately rushes to stop the bleeding, but she is left vulnerable to a fatal knife attack — from which she miraculously recovers.

Movies and TV shows love an optimistic rookie, and the young and empathetic Nile is certainly that. But her race also ropes her into another cliché. Black women are often presented as the standard-bearers of ethical action. They’ve seen miscarriages of justice and have silently borne the pain or valiantly fought back; either way, they are resilience and goodness personified. This carries over to superhero narratives as well: think of Misty Knight in “Luke Cage,” Storm in the “X-Men” films, even the no-nonsense Okoye from “Black Panther.” Though Black women are rarely the protagonists of these stories, they are so often charged with being the pillars of strength and moral foundations of the team. In “The Old Guard” Nile is both the bright-eyed newbie and the strong moral compass, so she can serve as a foil for Andy and the others.

Nile is skeptical of the team’s supposed acts of righteousness. “So you good guys or bad guys?” she asks them. “Depends on the century,” one responds. “We fight for what we think is right,” another adds. The group is immortal but not infallible, and the immortals’ contention that they’re using their abilities to fight for their definition of justice is in line with that of myriad armies, generals and other militant bodies throughout history. Nile herself comes from one such institution — the U.S. military — which is often described as providing an essential line of national defense but in reality is also used to exert power and influence for less ethical and more political reasons. The film even puts the immortals in parallel to the actual military from which Nile comes: Andy outright declares they are an army.

The fact that Nile is a Black woman, someone who isn’t often seen in superhero films and who is often disregarded and disadvantaged — even brutalized — in our culture, makes a statement: This individual, part of a demographic that is so often victimized by discriminatory militant systems, can, in this world, have autonomy and the power to decide what she feels is right or wrong.

But ultimately “The Old Guard” goes easy on its heroes. Though Nile questions their good-guy status and self-appointed hero work, she ultimately joins them. After initially critiquing the moral superiority at work in hero movies by positioning Nile as the group’s conscience, “The Old Guard” won’t let us sit with the possibility that the immortals may not be the guardian angels they hope to be. A final twist reveals that there’s a grand design after all, and they unknowingly execute it.

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