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The profound gay love stories of The Old Guard and Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles is like if The Old Guard was just about Joe and Nicky.

Joe and Nicky in The Old Guard.
Netflix

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

The Old Guard, Netflix’s newest blockbuster, is actually multiple love stories in a big action flick coat.

Based on the 2017 comic book written by the indomitable Greg Rucka and drawn by Leandro Fernandez, The Old Guard is ostensibly about a group of killing machines who can never die. But it’s really about the aching loneliness of being a killing machine who can never die.

“Andy” (Charlize Theron), a.k.a. Andromache of Scythia, has been alive long enough to know this better than anyone. The story is set in the present day, but Andy’s birth predates the ancient Greeks. She has over time learned that the only way to survive forever is to never let mortals get too close to her. Booker, another of Andy’s fellow immortals, tells Andy from personal experience that watching your kids die isn’t something you want to reckon with. And it becomes one of the first things Andy teaches Nile (KiKi Layne), the newest addition to her chosen family of immortal soldiers.

Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), the couple that rounds out Andy’s never-dying family, are the lucky ones among the group — because they have each other, forever and always.

Joe and Nicky aren’t the main protagonists in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film, but since the film’s release on July 10, they’re the characters who have garnered a lot of attention because of how rare it is that gay men are featured in action movies. Even rarer is that we’re allowed to watch Joe and Nicky share a passionate kiss and other physical moments of affection throughout the film.

And The Old Guard takes their love story a step further. Straight people are regularly part of myths and legends, but LGBTQ people rarely feature in them. The times that queerness does pop up in popular, mainstreamed ancient histories, myths, and legends, it can sometimes come across like it’s written in code, or is found buried in footnotes, or is glossed over as “brotherly” love or friendship, not romantic affection.

That The Old Guard’s Joe and Nicky are unapologetic about their love allows queer people, and gay men in particular, the opportunity to see that throughout all of history, we’ve been there all along — and in such a mainstream, typically heteronormative medium, no less. That representation in itself is not just thrilling, but revolutionary.

Joe and Nicky’s love is one of the most compelling things in The Old Guard

Since the movie’s Netflix premiere, there’s one scene in particular that viewers have discussed over and over, rising above the battle axes and bullets. Midway through the movie, the villains — who are seeking to steal the secrets of immortality — capture Joe and Nicky after an all-out assault on Andy’s team. While transporting them to the lab where scientists plan to poke, prod, and experiment on them, a security guard mocks Joe and Nicky, asking if they’re boyfriends. It’s likely that to some queer people watching, the mocking isn’t unlike stuff we’ve heard on playgrounds or even in adulthood.

“You’re a child,” Joe snaps back. “He’s not my boyfriend. This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness, and warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me even after a millennium. His heart overflows with a kindness of which this world is not worthy. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He is all, and he is more.”

Joe’s response is equal parts snappy retort and love poem. At its heart is a simple message: that straight people might not ever fully understand what it’s like to be gay and to find love. Their love is not better nor more profound, but innately different. Their love is forged from generations of being taught that it’s unnatural, forbidden, and wrong by a society that, for many centuries, has relegated queer people to the margins and encouraged us to be people we aren’t.

The Old Guard gets at this adversity through Andy’s own broken love story, another queer romance. Andy and Quynh fought together through thousands of battles, and it’s implied that the two women’s love is more than just platonic. When captured and tortured for being witches, Quynh is separated from Andy and thrown into an iron coffin at the bottom of the ocean.

“You are too powerful together,” the guard tells Andy, as Quynh is pulled away.

The guard could have meant that their combined immortality was too frightening. But he also could have meant that these two women and their love for each other is something to be feared, too. From then on, Andy lives every day carrying the weight of losing Quynh.

It’s so clear that neither the guard who separates Andy from Quynh nor the one who taunted Nicky and Joe can even begin comprehending that queer love is just as powerful as any other kind. It may not immediately look like a heterosexual romance, but it is no less meaningful.

Joe’s declaration of passion for Nicky also invites the viewer to imagine the thousand or more years they’ve seen and spent together. I, for one, hope they got to see spectacular, silly, beautiful things. We learn that they met fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades, have been by each other’s side for so very long, and will ostensibly continue to endure even after all of us turn to dust.

Thankfully, Joe and Nicky’s mythic queerness is far from the only foray into the genre — in fact, The Old Guard has a perfect complement in the novel The Song of Achilles.

If you loved The Old Guard, you should be reading The Song of Achilles

A week before Netflix released The Old Guard, I was on vacation — at home, because that is how we vacation now — and finished reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. I was already a fan of Miller’s after reading Circe, her retelling of the immortal witch and temptress from The Odyssey.

The Song of Achilles is Miller’s first novel, from 2012. She gives life to the myths of Achilles from his companion Patroclus’s point of view, telling a story about love that endures when forces of nature, fate, and war are determined to tear you apart.

Growing up, I knew Achilles had that pesky foot thing and played a part in the Trojan War, but all I really knew about Patroclus was that he was really good friends with the very heterosexual Achilles in 2004’s Troy.

Beyond that not-great movie, Achilles and Patroclus’s homosexuality has been debated over and over, usually coming down to dissecting ancient Greek culture and the semantics of “gay”. Miller sees it as simpler than that.

“I would also add, more specifically, that I think the culture is ready for the kind of love story that transcends gender and time,” Miller said in a Q&A about the book on her website. “I did not deliberately set out to tell a deliberately ‘gay’ love story; rather, I was deeply moved by the love between these two characters—whose respect and affection for each other, despite the horrors around them, model the kind of relationship we all can aspire to.”

Miller has an uncanny ability to make you nostalgic for voices you’ve never heard, places you’ve never been. Her novels leave you wistful for true love you’ve never had the chance to lose.

The Song of Achilles is something you should read if you think that The Old Guard, which spends most of its runtime focused on Andy teaching Nile about life, should have been about Joe and Nicky’s infinite love above all else. It expands on the themes touched upon in Joe’s speech and the supernatural aspect of immortality thanks to gods, goddesses, and deities.

But The Song of Achilles is easily beautiful enough to stand on its own. Though Miller says she didn’t deliberately set out to create a gay love story, it’s a fantasy that unravels and justifies the feelings and vulnerability of the LGBTQ experience, and of gay men in particular. Just as The Old Guard does for new Netflix viewers or longtime comic book fans, this novel indulges the desire to want and be loved, no matter your sexuality. And The Old Guard and The Song of Achilles both reassure queer readers that we’ve always existed — even when we haven’t always been seen in the ancient history books.

The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix.