Netflix’s The Old Guard keeps the summer blockbuster alive

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It’s been a strange summer for movies. Late April to July was supposed to be dominated by Marvel and DC superheroes, the over-the-top action of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the inscrutable drama of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, but theater shutdowns due to the pandemic brought all of that to a screeching halt. But in the midst of this cinematic gridlock burst a breath of fresh air for anyone seeking a classic Hollywood summer blockbuster: The Old Guard. It’s the proper popcorn flick we’ve been missing.

The Old Guard, released on Netflix, checks every box for a summer hit. The story of a group of immortal warriors doing good across the ages is pulled from the pages of a popular comic series. The cast, led by Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde star Charlize Theron (and a refreshingly diverse group of co-stars), are undying heroes fighting for humanity for millennia, which promises kickass action from the jump. It’s a globe-hopping adventure filled with exciting vistas and punctuated with slick action scenes of Theron and friends laying the beatdown on nefarious goons — practically a requirement for a modern hit. And let’s not forget the evil big pharma company that wants to harness the immortal’s powers for profit, a storyline that could have been pulled right out of an X-Men movie.

It’s such a summer action movie that it’s easy to imagine a world where The Old Guard fights for a top spot at the box office, instead of Netflix’s streaming charts. It’s not just a good, fun movie graded on a curve compared to the dearth of new releases — it’s a great action movie, period.

The Old Guard wasn’t the only big film to debut this weekend outside of theaters, though.

Maybe you were hungry for a rom-com and turned to Hulu’s whip-smart Palm Springs, a fresh spin on the Groundhog Day scenario with a pair of charismatic leads. Or perhaps you wanted a more serious drama, in which case you might have put on Apple TV Plus’ Greyhound.

Palm Springs movie image

Image: Hulu

It’s no accident that these streaming movies are starting to feel a lot more like summer blockbusters: some of them were intended to be just that. Greyhound was originally set to debut in theaters before the pandemic hit, and Sony sold the rights to Apple to try to salvage its investment. Palm Springs was headed for the big screen, too, until Hulu bought the rights as the most expensive film ever purchased at Sundance. And The Old Guard — while almost always slated as a Netflix exclusive — was produced by Skydance Media, the same hit factory behind a laundry list of popcorn pleasers, including the recent Mission Impossible, Jack Reacher, and Terminator films.

The pandemic and subsequent shutdown of theaters have created a perfect storm for streaming success. Almost everyone is stuck inside, and most of the films with bigger box office potential are caught in a strange limbo: they’re too big to write off with an internet release, so the only move is to keep pushing them off further into the hazy future where things are “back to normal.” That leaves an audience that’s hungry for Hollywood spectacle like The Old Guard — and unlike closed theaters, Netflix is always open for business.

In that vacuum, films like The Old Guard aren’t just keeping the spirit of the summer blockbuster alive. At a time when going to a theater with a crowd of people seems impossible to imagine, it’s proof that traditional films might not only survive if they skip theaters, but could even thrive with a home release. It’s too early to say what the new normal will look like when all the dust settles, but the balance between theatrical releases and streaming titles will look very different whenever theaters do reopen.

This past weekend is probably the closest we’ll get to a “normal” summer weekend at a multiplex in 2020. And it’s possibly a look at what the future holds for major films as the pandemic continues to change how we relate to institutions like movie theaters and streaming services alike. But in a year with nowhere to flock to, The Old Guard is the summer blockbuster that might not depend on a movie theater at all.

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