I am used to the idea of “change” being a comics fan. Comics aren’t only about continuity in a tight-knit fashion, referencing a singular universe with different colorful characters. Comics, especially D.C. Comics, are home to some exceptionally weird characters, which the usual fanbase is unaware of and are, thus, fertile for mutable and original adaptations.
However, as a D.C. comics fan and a fan of this universe and its characters, my disappointment at the divisive nature of the storytelling in the current cinematic landscape of D.C. is only tempered by the original content and the more or less standalone points of view this divisive storytelling actually provides. While calling James Gunn an auteur could seem singularly hyperbolic, there is no denying that Gunn, a man used to working and creating irreverent content on an extremely low budget, has an extremely nasty and mean-spirited sense of humor that covers up the emotional sonority lying underneath it. Surprisingly, this makes Gunn the perfect person to deconstruct and simultaneously reconstruct a character. In that regard, maybe it was fate that Gunn directed “The Suicide Squad” in 2021. While it definitely carried over to his signature style of handling lovable a-holes in a superhero setting, the freedom provided to Gunn due to the divisive and ambiguous continuity produced a movie that is a love letter to the weird aspects of this universe and is unabashedly a James Gunn movie, in all the best, colorful, violent, and gory ways possible.
And then comes this show—”Peacemaker.”
Even when it was revealed that John Cena would be playing the character of Peacemaker, I, as a D.C. Comics fan, was dumbfounded. Gunn’s love for Z-list weird characters in comic books is quite well known. Look at “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” before the MCU movie made the guardians into stars. Closer home, David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man in “The Suicide Squad” comes to mind. I was bewildered not because he used Peacemaker in the film, but because he used that character to springboard a spinoff of the film. Of all the characters you could have chosen, Peacemaker should in no way be anybody’s first choice. Even though Cena’s interpretation of Peacemaker was one of the stronger aspects of the movie, this iteration of Peacemaker is not even the most famous version of the character. The most famous version of the character is his analogue in the “Watchmen,” The Comedian.
But we follow the Peacemaker. We see Peacemaker, an agent of peace who is ready to kill a man, a woman, and children in the name of peace, get out of the hospital, barely managing to get into the taxi. We need to remember that this is a direct sequel to Gunn’s Suicide Squad, where Peacemaker is supposed to have died. But as the show begins, he is very much alive and ticking, ready to get back to his murderous ways.
Then we get the theme song.
There are moments as a viewer where you are left astounded. You are treated to the entire cast of “Peacemaker” dancing in an 80s style music video scored to Wig Wam’s “Do You Wanna Taste It.” Like every viewer in the streaming era landscape, you are supposed to click the Skip Intro button. But you can’t. You are transfixed, hypnotized, laughing in absolute disbelief, and wondering, “Can he do that?”
The short answer-after eight episodes of Peacemaker-is a resounding, “Yes, he can.”
The plot of “Peacemaker” is very comic book-like and does not adhere to modern comic book sensibilities. Christopher Smith, AKA Peacemaker, is re-hired by a fringe group, ex-employees of A.R.G.U.S., to discover and hunt down parasitic-like aliens. It is exactly the kind of weird storytelling in comic books that is, thankfully, being embraced with time. Since this is a T.V. series, not a movie restricted to 120 minutes of runtime, Gunn and his directors have ample time to flesh out the different characters and develop a strong ensemble for John Cena’s Christopher Smith to bounce off. Gunn cleverly does not remove Smith’s worst qualities—he is still a jingoistic bastard and a douchebag. However, the events of “The Suicide Squad” have changed him. Gunn explores the reason behind the worst tendencies of Peacemaker’s character through his relationship with his father. It’s almost a perfect foil to Danielle Brooks’ character of Adebayo, a new member of the team with an entirely different viewpoint to Peacemaker. Their friendship is one of the core beating hearts of the series, – one of the key factors in the emotional quotient for the film, another one being the relationship that Smith shares with Vigilante (Freddie Stroma).
Vigilante, in this series, unlike his comic book counterpart, is not a haunted man driven to vigilantism. He is a self-proclaimed crime-fighter and a foolish sociopath, which makes him the willing partner in Peacemaker’s hijinks and dumb pranks, but he lacks that gear in understanding deeper emotions. But maybe because of that, there is a sweet simplicity to him, making him remarkably fun to follow. Chikuwudi Iwuji plays Clemson Murn, the leader of this fringe group who is on a mission to hunt these butterfly aliens, but is revealed to have a more personal agenda. Jennifer Holland reprises her role from “The Suicide Squad” as Emilia Harcourt, an ex-ARGUS employee who is extremely capable of taking care of herself and her team. There is a love-hate dynamic between her and Peacemaker. While she begrudgingly agrees to be part of the team, she later becomes a quintessential part of it along with John Economos, played by Steve Agee, initially like the guy-in-the-chair character who becomes well-rounded (even if a bit more stupid than previously revealed).
What is interesting about the “Peacemaker” show is that unlike the Disney + Marvel Shows, which are crafted as 6 – 10 hour-long movies broken into chunks, “Peacemaker” is constructed like a T.V. series. There is an overarching plot, but the episodic structure has its own three-act structure with its own climax, which it follows. It is refreshing to see that in a big-budget production of a superhero television show when its opposing counterpart works with precisely the opposite methodology. “Peacemaker” also uses comedy as a great equalizer. Gunn has a penchant for taking funny asides and digressions for 2-minutes straight, like the conversation between Peacemaker and Vigilante about Louis CK, or the selection of names to be used to frame for murder, are all meme-worthy materials that can work perfectly as comedic bits out of context. What is impressive, though, is Gunn’s use of Peacemaker mostly as the person who initiated this digression instead of being the person to end the said digression with a direct question driving deep into the heart of the matter. This juxtaposition of emotions and feelings manages to give these comedic moments added weight, even if the digressions do tend to go on longer than necessary. The humor, too, is derisive and whimsy, leaning towards that gonzo tonality, a staple in Gunn’s Troma features and a feature in “The Suicide Squad” itself. The mean-spirited and sarcastic comedy ensures that Gunn spares no one—from both sides of the political spectrum to established characters in the D.C. universe who are like sacred texts to fandom in general.
But like most James Gunn movies, “Peacemaker” has mean-spirited humor masking a beating heart within. As this is a T.V. series, the exploration of consequences is the primary focus here. Gunn knows how to use Cena well, but this is easily John Cena’s best performance in his entire career. Gunn gives his character ample layers, and Cena expresses them with an emotional alacrity not usually associated with him. The death of Rick Flag in “The Suicide Squad,” the presence of his abusive father physically and in his worst nightmares, and his honest, weird friendship with his pet eagle (yes, there is a pet eagle) give the character we might not have wanted more developed layers. When we see it given, we are moved. Gunn is also suitably interested in monsters and aliens. His fascination with the weirder corners of the D.C. Universe crafts the big bad in the last two episodes in a way that is both laughably surprising and also not surprising at all. It’s gross and yet hauntingly compelling at times, both the monsters and the violence, which are edited with a ferocity befitting Tarantino and Rodriguez.
“Peacemaker” is a D.C. comics property at its best, fully embracing the silly and pulpy nature of its story, not forgetting to construct an emotional story underneath. It is also very much a James Gunn picture, for better or worse. But “Peacemaker” also feels like Gunn’s most refined work from a technical standpoint, free of the constraints of a limited runtime. It is also suitably edgy but self-aware to know when not to be excitable and just let the scenes breathe. With a killer soundtrack, “Peacemaker” is not only one of the biggest surprises of 2022; it is one of the best and most entertaining shows of 2022, barring a few flaws that can only be described as nitpicks in retrospect.