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Read this before you watch The Old Guard

This content was paid for by Netflix and created by Looper.

In 2017, acclaimed comic book creators Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez debuted a new story based on an instantly memorable concept: A team of soldiers who seemingly can't die and have been fighting various battles for centuries. The Old Guard soon attracted critical acclaim and loyal readers, which meant it was only a matter of time before someone thought of bringing it to the screen. In The Old Guard's case, it happened very fast, with Netflix producing a feature film adaptation of Rucka and Fernandez's story in time for a July 10, 2020 release.

Now that we've had a chance to see Charlize Theron in action as an axe-wielding ancient warrior, The Old Guard stands to gain many more fans. If you're one of those people, you might have quite a few questions right now about the comic, the movie, and the immortal characters at the heart of this story. With that in mind, we're here to help. Here's what you need to know about The Old Guard before you watch.

What is the Old Guard?

The Old Guard began life as a five-issue miniseries created by writer Greg Rucka (Gotham Central, Lazarus) and artist Leandro Fernandez (The Discipline, Deadpool) and published by Image Comics. The first issue of the series arrived in February of 2017 with a high-concept hook that quickly drew fans in.

The story is called "The Old Guard" because it follows veteran soldiers now living their lives as world-traveling mercenaries. But we're not just talking about people who've been at it for decades here: This particular band of mercenaries is made up of functionally immortal humans who have been around for hundreds, and in one case thousands, of years. When someone tries to kill them, they just heal and keep going, and while it is possible for them to die, none of them know exactly when or how that will happen, if ever. They've lived countless lives over the various ages of human history, had countless adventures, and known countless people who've long since died. Their lives are lonely apart from their connection to each other, and the eternal question of why they haven't died lingers even as death tries to claim them time and time again. They spend their days taking on mercenary missions and keeping an otherwise low profile, until one day an operation is revealed to be an elaborate setup. Someone out there knows who they are, and they want the secret to the Old Guard's immortality by any means necessary.

Who are the Old Guard?

As The Old Guard begins, the band of mercenaries at the heart of the story are a quartet led by Andy, once known as Andromache of Scythia. Andy has seen millennia come and go, and it's made quite an impression on her character, as Rucka has explained.

"You know, she is six to seven times as old as the next oldest member of the Old Guard when we meet them in the movie. And that's an astonishing age," he told Looper. "I sometimes describe Andy as the world's crankiest grandma. She wants the whole world to get off her lawn."

Joining Andy on her missions are a trio of younger, but still impossibly old, men. Joe and Nicky met as soldiers on opposite sides of the First Crusade almost 1,000 years ago, and discovered their immortality when they couldn't kill each other time and time again. Their violent first encounter eventually blossomed into love, which means they both have someone to spend eternity with. Then there's Booker, a French veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who realized he couldn't die after they tried to hang him for desertion. When the story begins, it's been ages since the Old Guard have met anyone else like them. Then they discover Nile, a young soldier who's just discovered that she can come back from the dead. As Nile realizes the implications of her gift, it's up to Andy and her crew to prepare her for the often brutal life of an immortal soldier.

How does immortality work in the Old Guard?

The form of immortality that members of the Old Guard are gifted with is apparently rare — so rare that Andy and her team haven't met another like them in a very long time when they first encounter Nile. They connect with each other through dreams, and sometimes dream of each other's faces for years before they actually meet in real life. When they're mortally wounded, their bodies simply heal and they move on, no matter how gruesome or seemingly life-ending the injury might be. Despite all that, it was important to Rucka to introduce another key rule into this world: The characters are not fully immortal. They can die, and their death might come at any time. They just have no way of knowing if the next bullet will be the one that kills them.

"There was always the sort of existential uncertainty that at some point, it may end," Rucka explained. "And for Andy, who is extraordinarily old, the question has really become, 'Why hasn't it ended?'"

Though there are several clear rules that govern the world of The Old Guard, that question of why lingers over everything. Why can't these people die? Why does their time one day even if it's been centuries? And why has Andy, who has seen so much death around her, managed to avoid it for millennia? These are the questions at the heart of the larger narrative of the comic book series.

The road to an Old Guard movie

It didn't take long for Hollywood to take notice of The Old Guard and its clever high-concept hook. Skydance Media picked up the rights to the comic in March of 2017, before the second issue of Rucka and Fernandez's first five-issue miniseries had even been released. To make things even more exciting for fans of the comic, they also tapped Rucka to write the screenplay himself. By the summer of 2018, the project landed a director in Gina Prince-Bythewood, best known for films like The Secret Life of Bees and Love & Basketball.

In working with Prince-Bythewood on the story, Rucka found it important to focus more on the team aspect of The Old Guard, and specifically on the story of newcomer immortal Nile. Giving her character more focus in the film version became a key to getting the script to work.

"In revising it and getting it to a place where Gina could shoot a movie," said Rucka, "really being able to dive in on Nile and give her the story that the comic sort of denied her, that was enormously rewarding for me."

In February 2019, Netflix announced it would partner with Skydance on the film, and The Old Guard began filling out its cast, which was at that point already led by a major star.

Who plays the Old Guard?

By 2019, The Old Guard was well on its way to becoming an action movie spectacle, thanks in no small part to a key bit of casting. Though he didn't participate in casting the film, Rucka said he was "overjoyed" when he learned that Oscar winner Charlize Theron signed on to play Andy.

"She is one of the most courageous actors of this generation, in my opinion," Rucka said. "And I mean that in the sense that, she does not take easy roles."

With Theron in place as the film's millennia-old leader, it was time to bring in the rest of the Old Guard. Kiki Layne joined the cast to play Nile, the newcomer to the crew who's just discovered her immortal nature and all it implies. Matthias Schoenaerts became the Napoleonic deserter Booker, while Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari joined as First Crusade opponents turned lovers Nicky and Joe, respectively. Outside of the Old Guard themselves, the cast also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor as Copley, who hooks the crew up with missions, and Harry Melling as Merrick, a mysterious and powerful man who wants to know their secret to immortality.

The future of the Old Guard

The first five-issue arc of The Old Guard, subtitled Opening Fire, was released in its collected form in August of 2017. The film written by Rucka and directed by Prince-Bythewood is a direct adaptation of this story, which follows the crew as they discover Nile and try to fight their way out of a trap set up to learn their secrets.

Opening Fire represents a complete narrative on its own, but it isn't the end of The Old Guard story. Rucka and Fernandez have planned a trilogy of stories following these characters, and the second is already making its way out into the world. The second volume of The Old Guard, subtitled Force Multiplied and following the continued adventures of the crew, released its first issue in December of 2019. Does that mean another movie could follow?

"There is a complete three-part story that can be told and, God willing if it's a success, Netflix comes back and says, 'Hey, let's do it again,'" Rucka said. "There's more to tell, and there's questions that we want to answer. But right now, I gotta tell you this: If this is all we get, I am going to be a very happy guy."