Two weeks after its debut, Netflix is hailing The Old Guard as one of its biggest successes ever. All Netflix viewer data comes with a grain of salt, though, because there is no independent verification of Netflix’s viewership, and their own “watch” metric is measured in mere minutes, so you don’t have to watch even half of a movie for your view to count. Though we may never know how many people actually FINISHED The Old Guard, it is clear this movie is making an impact in pop culture. There are multiple tags dedicated to it on Tumblr—which means young people are watching it—and already over three hundred fanworks on Archive of Our Own, one of the biggest fanfiction sites on the internet (fanfiction means people not only have seen the thing, but that they care about the thing). Most of this online enthusiasm is focused on Nicky and Joe, because they are the best, but let us not forget that The Old Guard is a Charlize Theron vehicle. She not only stars in the film, but she produced it, too, and this is just the latest example of Theron creating interesting, often action-oriented work for herself.
Theron established her production shingle, Denver and Delilah (named for her dogs, aww), back in 2003. Her first produced feature was Monster, in which she delivered her Oscar-winning performance. Since then Theron, along with her producing partners Beth Kono and AJ Dix, has produced a range of films, and the occasional TV show—including Mindhunter, which we do not talk enough about—which sometimes star Theron and sometimes do not (Rosamund Pike recently starred in the D and D-produced A Private War, the biopic of slain journalist Marie Colvin). What is interesting about Theron’s producing career is that despite the diversity of genres backed by Denver and Delilah, it is action movies that are coming to define her career, and not just as an actress. Before The Old Guard, Theron produced Atomic Blonde, and as we head into the 2020s, it is these films, and not so much more existential work like Young Adult and Tully, which define her.
It starts with Atomic Blonde, which Theron began developing in 2010 from a then-unpublished graphic novel called The Coldest City. Five years later, the success of Mad Max: Fury Road gave Theron the juice to push her passion project action movie through, and the one-two punch of Fury Road and Atomic Blonde made Theron one of the leading action stars in the world. It took a decade to get there, after 2005’s Aeon Flux halted the momentum she built off The Italian Job, but in the 2010s, with herself in the driver’s seat, Theron found action projects that suited her and made herself an action star. But she isn’t just adding to the pile of mindless action flicks; with each project she brings to fruition, Theron is pushing the boundaries of the genre in some way. It’s like she isn’t content to just fashion star vehicles for herself, she wants these movies to feel distinct even as “Charlize Theron movies”. The result is an increasingly identifiable brand of character-driven action movies that offer more than just cool punches and kicks.
With a relatively lo-fi approach to practical stunt work, and with a focus on character and not just style, Theron has become one of the most interesting and reliable producers in the action space. At this point, she doesn’t even have to star in the movie herself—if a project catches her eye, I definitely want to see it regardless of who is starring in it. And with an Atomic Blonde sequel in development, and the potential for more Old Guard with Netflix, Theron could become that rare creature: an actor-producer who grows herself two viable franchises. She is carving a niche for herself in a space usually reserved for explosion-happy dudes with big budgets. Charlize Theron is putting the “power” in “power producer”.