Peacemaker and the Absolute State of the DCEU
This article contains spoilers for both The Suicide Squad (2021) and Peacemaker (2022).
The DCEU, or DC Extended Universe, has always been the MCU’s awkward little brother, trying and failing to pull off all the cool stuff they do and reach the same great heights. At the risk of sounding even more like an MCU shill than I already do, the best DCEU films probably rank in at about mid-tier by a Marvel standard. Given, a lot of DCEU productions tend to see pushback from their producers, Warner Bros. From reshoots to creative differences, WB has thrown a wrench into the cogs of the DCEU on more than one occasion and for evidence look no further than the studio’s film line-up. In 2016, they released Suicide Squad, a notoriously bad film that director David Ayer claims he had originally intended to be a serious character-driven drama. However, WB, witnessing the success of Deadpool, got nervous that the movie wasn’t funny enough. One thing led to another and Suicide Squad was released to critical panning and is regarded as one of the worst comic book movies in recent history. Five years later, we got The Suicide Squad; mind the fact that there is now a “The” in the title as these two movies are of starkly different calibers. This movie shares the same general premise as its predecessor but this time it’s actually a good movie. Why? Because Warner Bros. kept out of it and let the director, James Gunn, have actual creative control.
It’s a common misconception that James Gunn's The Suicide Squad is a reboot of the first Suicide Squad, a take two if you will. But no, in actuality 2021’s The Suicide Squad is really a sequel to Suicide Squad 2016. This means that the garbled, self-uncertain narrative DCEU shat out back then is still considered entirely canon and the events of 2021’s rendition are technically a follow-up to those events. This is never made clear through the events of Gunn’s The Suicide Squad outside of a few small throwaway lines wherein Harley Quinn is sad when Captain Boomerang gets eviscerated by a helicopter blade because they're two of the four recurring characters who showed up in the 2016 film. There are no references to 2016’s plot or anything else that might make it understood that this is actually a sequel. James Gunn is very obviously trying to distance The Suicide Squad as best he possibly can from its unpleasant forebearer. The fact that the DCEU made a movie over again and tried to hide the fact that it was a sequel because a reboot would have been too complicated is a prime example of how messy its filmography is. And that’s not even talking about the four-hour-long rerelease of Justice League after, among other things, the first time around the block got low scores.
Enter Peacemaker, a 2022 HBO Max Gunn-directed spin-off series following Christopher Smith aka Peacemaker, a character introduced in The Suicide Squad. I originally had no plans to review this series let alone even watch it in the first place. Now, I loved The Suicide Squad. I thought it was a great movie that showed off Gunn’s talents as a director while working off the smoldering trainwreck left over by the last Suicide Squad. Despite that, a certain stigma tends to come with side character centric spin-off series that kept me wary of this show. On top of that, John Cena’s titular Peacemaker “died” during the events of The Suicide Squad only to be revived during a rather abrupt and off-putting post-credits scene that confirmed the character had miraculously and in no certain or elaborated terms survived the bullet to the jugular that audience’s had been led to believe killed him. This struck me as a strange decision for the director to make for more than one reason.
First of all, as far as the audience was concerned, Peacemaker had already served his purpose in the movie as a character death typically insinuates the curtain-call for a character’s personal arc. If that post-credits scene hadn’t been included and the HBO Max series never announced and released I really doubt anybody would be clamoring for more of this character. He was fine as was, there wasn’t a necessity for audiences to see more of him nor was there any substantial set-up that might have led audiences to think or say “hey, they could do a whole spin-off on this guy!” Secondly, the act of undoing a character arc is kind of a big no-no and always feels like a cheap fake-out for audiences, especially when the character A) wouldn’t be particularly missed and B) effectively completed everything their character needed to do to play their part in the story, both of which apply to Peacemaker. On top of all of that, Peacemaker wasn’t a particularly heroic or morally upright character, his character died betraying the Suicide Squad and becoming another obstacle for the protagonists to confront. Bringing him back to life and then later (in the spin-off series) having him cry because he feels bad about killing Rick Flag and betraying the team after they all bonded felt like a hasty reset for this character and his arc.
You can see why the concept of an eight-episode series that not only chooses this character to follow but also has the task of providing a cast of secondary characters to accompany him seemed conceptually dubious at the onset. The thought of them trying to redeem Peacemaker irked me. He is a character designed to be a politically incorrect misguided manchild whom I was perfectly content with watching shot and killed. So the act of doubling down and exploring this character more was concerning. Now, understand that I don’t condone misguided manchild assholes but I am a fan of seeing them portrayed for the purpose of having them snuffed out and defeated for their hateful and/or indecorous ideals. The show chooses to delve into this by introducing Peacemaker’s father, a blatant and belligerent bigot who used to masquerade as the white supremacist super-villain, White Dragon. This is probably one of the show’s strongest throughlines.
I imagine a lot of media in this vein of comic book movies and action flicks is hesitant to bring in hate groups to their narratives; there’s a reason we’ve never seen Iron Man or the Hulk duke it out with white supremacists and it’s probably because of big studio executive’s choosing to “play it safe.” Peacemaker doesn’t cower behind any similar regards and chooses to literally have the KKK as a major antagonist present in the show’s climax, white hoods and all. Now again, I don’t condone the KKK or white supremacy in any form, it’s the portrayal of them getting curb-stomped that I’m a fan of. Seeing racists getting their asses kicked and their faces spat in is incredibly satisfying and it’s also a major part of what makes Auggie Smith, Peacemaker’s father, such a strong villain. He’s exceedingly hateable and the show never makes any attempt at making it seem otherwise or redeeming him in any way. Adding to the catharsis of watching the KKK be brutalized by ludicrous comic-book violence, he acts as an effective scapegoat for all of the worst parts of Peacemaker’s character that initially had me hesitant to the thought of him stepping into the role of a primary protagonist. Confronting his father and his abusive upbringing allows Peacemaker to face the worst parts of himself. It’s a compelling source of inner conflict as despite his father being, in every conceivable way, an extremely awful person, Peacemaker has a hard time killing him because ultimately he’s still his father and a part of him. This was a clever play made by the director’s to shoulder that politically incorrect and unlikable part of Peacemaker by introducing a bigger, more despicable fish while also allowing Peacemaker to confront and process the flaws of that facet of himself.
By the series’s finale, Auggie is killed during a confrontation with Peacemaker. This effectively allows him to shed the parts of his character that make him unlikable in a way that’s satisfying to watch and avoids coming off as too abrupt in the same way that he goes from being shoe-horned back to life to sobbing over his past crimes. So, good job, James Gunn! You’ve actually managed to make Peacemaker an enjoyable enough character to justify him as a primary protagonist! But with every protagonist comes side characters and that was another variable that scared me coming into this show. By its nature, a spin-off brings a secondary character into the position of primary, and with that they have to introduce new characters to fill those now empty secondary character positions. It’s at risk of serial recursion, introducing more unnecessary characters with dull or samey personalities that aren’t worth watching or remembering. The first time I saw the Peacemaker cast, I was afraid that this was the case and that the showrunners had given Peacemaker a supporting cast of unmemorable nobodies. Luckily, I can say that these side characters are all written to be enjoyable characters that are pleasant to watch bond with one another. The audience gets to watch them go from a bickering and angry group of people constantly bitter with one another to developing an actual sense of friendship with each other which, while on paper sounds cheesy, was honestly quite heartwarming.
Among its veritable cast of charming secondaries, Peacemaker introduces Freddie Stroma’s Vigilante. Vigilante is a different take on the Deadpool archetype of character with the benefit of trading the snide and tired sarcasm of Ryan Reynolds for a clueless and awkward yet genuine friendliness. While not every single joke of his lands, he still manages to be a refreshing and enjoyable take on the goofy masked mercenary character who plays player two with Cena’s Peacemaker. He, along with the rest of Peacemaker’s team, managed to stay consistently compelling as characters and never really came off as dry as I had feared. In fact, the dynamic of the team is one of the best parts of the show. James Gunn has a skill for tying an ensemble cast together into an endearing and cooperative team (see the bar scene in The Suicide Squad or just either of The Guardians of the Galaxy movies) and Peacemaker is no exception. There’s a scene where the team just has a simple moment to jam out when a rock song comes on on the car radio that they all enjoy. It’s a cute bonding moment that goes to show how effective it can be when directors let their characters just have moments to be friends with one another outside of their conflicts.
The show is backed by a soundtrack rife with 80’s glam rock, which typically wouldn’t appeal to me but it ended up feeling very at home with this series’s ugly American vibe. It has a very in-your-face crude and unsubtle style that’s both unique and can be easily deduced from the first few seconds of watching. James Gunn has said that he wanted to make the opening so extravagant and zany that nobody would ever skip it and honestly? He did a pretty good job of accomplishing that. I think if I heard Wig Wam’s “Do You Wanna Taste It?” before seeing it in Peacemaker I would have passed it up without a second thought but after having it ingrained in my mind via the show’s entire cast doing a campy choreographed dance number at the start of every episode I can’t help but be a bit fond of it. The song perfectly encapsulates that “rock-on” over-the-top vibe that defines this series.
Another aspect James Gunn excels at? Directing slow-motion musical montage segments to end episodes. This is just one of those tropes that I’m personally a huge sucker for and it gets me every time but when a director can direct a good scene set to a fitting song with characters doing something important or impactful in slow motion? I’m a fan for sure. And Gunn definitely provides just that, ending more than one episode with dramatic montages with powerful music that drum up that cinematic sort of wondrousness that I can’t get enough of. Gunn also has a knack for comedic timing, always saturating his productions with a generous helping of jokes and gags. There were a few jokes that were drier than others and I’ve seen people note that some of the jokes in Peacemaker do have a tendency to go on for a bit too long which scans but overall I can say there were a few that earnestly made me laugh out loud which is a really good sign. The ratio of good to bad jokes in this show leans to the positive side for me but I can’t speak for everyone on this aspect.
Where Gunn is adept at weaving comedy, drama, and action into his series, he’s notably a bit weaker with the tragedy. As the show is so loud, rude, and gritty with its style, any time the pace slows to make way for emotion it comes off very out-of-place and often jarring. For example, there’s a scene where Peacemaker and his team are sent to assassinate aliens who have killed and taken the visages of a politician and his family. Despite knowing and actually seeing that they are aliens, Peacemaker can’t bring himself to take the shot because he doesn’t want to kill the two who look like children. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a blurred line because it’s an understandable reluctance but we know Peacemaker to be a ruthless and efficient killer who eliminated an entire camp of resistance fighters in The Suicide Squad without thinking twice. He already knows for an unquestionable fact that the real children are already dead and they’re actually aliens, something he saw with his own eyes, but he still can’t bring himself to do it because he didn’t want to be a ruthless killer and instead wanted to be emotionally sympathetic at that moment I guess? Another very weird moment happens towards the end of the sixth episode. Peacemaker sits down and plays the piano. And that’s it. Just a weird, solitary moment where the audience has to watch John Cena play a somber song on the piano while frowning for almost two and a half unbroken minutes. It’s hard to even call it an emotional moment because there’s no dialogue or any other characters. It’s literally just two minutes of him playing the piano and nothing else. Thankfully, the other scenes that the show takes a second to try and work in a little bit of emotional appeal are few and far between and typically at least a bit more tactful and cohesive with their sadness than Cena’s downtrodden piano solo.
Overall, Peacemaker tends to keep its weaker underbelly tucked away for most of its runtime and keeps what it’s good at doing at the forefront. This keeps the series consistently fun with laugh-out-loud humor, wonderfully directed action, and stellar acting (specifically on John Cena’s behalf. I’ve seen it colloquially put he “acted his Cenussy off” here and y’know what? Facts.) It manages to avoid the typical pitfalls of spin-off series with a compelling story and villain and surprisingly well-written side characters. It’s by no means perfect and honestly feels more like a James Gunn production than a DCEU one but for what it is, a spin-off on a character no one was asking for that Gunn allegedly wrote entirely on his own while bored in quarantine, it’s very entertaining and had me pleasantly surprised in more than one regard.
Jumping back to the DCEU as a whole, while Gunn’s work with The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker are honestly some of the best work we’ve seen from the DCEU, I’m hesitant to wonder if these are promises of a brighter future. The internet has gotten a hold of some leaks and the rumor is that the upcoming The Flash film will bring about major ret-cons, supposedly acting as the big red “reset” button that the DCEU may or may not be about to press. Will Warner Bro.’s jump back to square one and erase their current canon? It’s hard to say, especially considering how big of a move it is. But with their jumbled and disorganized past of middling to just flat bad films, would a universal reset be a smart move to make in their current climate? They’ve already ret-conned and reshot more than one of their priorly established cinematic forays so who’s to say they can’t just throw the whole damn thing out? Okay, yeah, any way you cut it it’s still a big risk to take and the implications alone make me more suspicious of the rumors but hey, who can say what’s to come? Well, there’s Peacemaker season two, that’s for sure. The series was renewed for a second season. So for now we can step away from the bigger picture and come back to James Gunn’s silly little quarantine project and wait and see how well part two fares.
Will I write about Peacemaker's second season? Eh, maybe. I can say I enjoyed the first against my hesitant predilections so hopefully season two maintains that same dirty, rambunctious Gunn charm. Sequels always come with the risk of spoiling something that’s good on its own, but hey, I was raising the same complaints when the series was first announced as a spin-off and now here I am writing about how surprisingly decent it ended up. So who knows? Only time will tell how good Peacemaker’s second season will be and the ultimate fate of the DCEU as a whole. In the meantime, I’ll be jumping back over the fence to my home turf with Marvel dropping Moon Knight later this month. I’m very excited to see how that turns out along with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness slated for later this May. I’ll see you all then! :)