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Charlize Theron’s ‘The Old Guard,’ Netflix’s Most-Watched Movie, Is Another Franchise-Starter That’s Just Set-Up For The Sequel

Netflix’s The Old Guard is a $70 million prologue to a sequel that, even with strong initial viewership, may never actually get made.

As expected by everyone paying attention, The Old Guard, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka (and adapted from on his comic book), is this morning’s most-watched movie on Netflix NFLX . It would be something of a calamity if the film wasn’t at least in the top ten, considering the media attention and star power (specifically Charlize Theron in the lead role) for this $70 million comic book/superhero movie, although the idea of it earning mostly positive reviews and still ending up behind the likes of Unsolved Mysteries and The Lorax would have qualified as an all-too-fitting metaphorical irony. Nonetheless, we’ll see if it has any more staying power than, offhand, Eurovision, or whether it’s a one-week wonder.

If it continues to stick around, then I’d argue that the film will be an example of a rare movie that broke the cardinal rule of franchise-building and got away with it. There’s plenty to admire about The Old Guard, such as the strong performances (Chiwetel Ejiofor gets several lovely moments), an emphasis on character interaction over spectacle and the unapologetic LGBTQIA representation that plays like a dare to “old Hollywood” to get its act together. However, I didn’t care for the film as much as many of my (very smart) peers because it played less like a movie and more like a TV pilot or feature-length prequel to the next chapter. Yes, in a skewed way, it played the same game that usually dooms franchise-starters.

To be fair, the film, which stars Theron as the unofficial leader of a small group of seemingly immortal mercenaries, doesn’t quite err as badly in this regard as Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, Jon M. Chu’s Jem and the Holograms or Kenneth Branagh’s Artemis Fowl. The 124-minute, R-rated actioner does give you enough of “what you came to see,” namely Theron and her team (along with new recruit Kiki Layne) killing bad guys and looking cool while doing it. Its sins in this “glorified TV pilot” arena are more about how much of the film is spent with past-tense exposition and world-building, as well as leading to a conclusion that merely teases a more interesting status quo/more interesting movie than the one we got.

I didn’t think the action scenes were all that engaging, as there seemed to be a disconnect between the poignant conversations about morality and mortality and the deluge of faceless murdered goons who may be less “bad guy” and more “security personal just doing their job.” That’s always been a pet peeve with me (see also: The Matrix lobby massacre). Otherwise, the action sequences are indeed well-staged and well-edited by Terlyn Shropshire. But the core issue, to the extent that it matters, is the fact that The Old Guard didn’t feel like a singular feature. No spoilers, but it felt like set-up for the actual movie, with (like Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels) that obnoxious “You’ll get to see this cool adventure… next time!” tease.

The question is whether that this film debuted on Netflix and not in theaters merited the presumption that we’d get another one of these. You can argue Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom acted as glorified set-up for Jurassic World: Dominion, but A) Fallen Kingdom felt like a stand-alone movie and B) Jurassic World earned $1.671 billion worldwide so its sequel being successful enough to merit a third film felt like a safe bet. And it’s entirely possible that Netflix will announce on Monday that The Old Guard 2 is “in development.” Save for (offhand) To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You and The Kissing Booth 2 (debuting July 24), it’s not like Netflix’s library is filled with sequels to their successful originals.

It’s a little ironic that The Old Guard premiered just days before the 20th anniversary of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, a film that felt like a new kind of franchise-starter, one that played like a TV pilot that ended with a glorified “To be continued!” The whole “first movie is set-up” gambit, inspired by comic books and episodic TV which can spend the first issue/episode on table-setting, is now almost a sub-genre unto itself. What was unusual in 1985 with Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (still waiting for that adventure to begin…) is now almost par for the course. But its application in cinema (Jem, Warcraft, Fantastic Four, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) almost always results in a one-and-done franchise.

I like the folks involved with The Old Guard. Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights and Therons Atomic Blonde are modern genre classics and I loved Rucka’s run on Detective Comics in the early 2000s. I will express artistic disappointment and still cheer commercial success. If we do get The Old Guard 2 which gives us an adventure based on the notions teased out at the end of this movie, it will be a somewhat unprecedented victory. However, if The Old Guard is a hit but the sequel still ends up in the same development hell as Bright 2, then it’ll be just another feature-length tease for a franchise that never actually came to be. Considering Netflix’s self-proclaimed status as a Hollywood disruptor, that would be bitterly ironic.

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