How James Gunn and John Cena Made People Care About Peacemaker

[This story contains spoilers for the Peacemaker finale.]

Nobody gave a shit about Peacemaker. That may seem harsh, but what was true for Christopher Smith within the narrative of the HBO Max series, Peacemaker, was also true for his comic book counterpart. It’s not so much that people disliked the character, rather that he was never used often enough for anyone to give him much thought outside of his goofy helmet.

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Peacemaker didn’t even become a DC character until 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which merged Charlton Comics characters Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question, among others, into the DC Universe, and by then he was already relegated to the D-list. No one gave a shit about Peacemaker. That is, until James Gunn and John Cena.

In terms of the lovable losers to emerge from James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021), Peacemaker seemed the least primed for a spinoff series, and the least likely to earn our sympathy. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) said it best, “Peacemaker … what a joke,” right before being brutally murdered by Smith. Yet, Gunn and Cena found the beating heart within that joke, and more than a few new jokes as well.

Peacemaker, already renewed for season two, has a joyful, homemade energy of friends making art, and rocking out together while they do so. But where such a project could feel slight, Gunn deftly guides the emotional undercurrent of the series in which every member of this newly formed Task Force X, composed of reluctant government agents and reluctant antiheroes, Peacemaker, Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), John Economos (Steve Agee) and Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), is given at least one moment of honest vulnerability and heartbreak, often in the least expected form, that bridges immaturity and maturity, affirming the power of comic book characters for kids and adults in a way that’s rarely achieved with such confidence.

Never did I expect Cena playing Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” on the piano, Brooks’ Leota emerging as a Black hero we’ve never seen represented onscreen before or Agee’s Economos tearfully revealing why he dyes his beard to hit me with such emotional weight, and yet the sincerity amid the irreverence works because it feels so personal. There was no doubt that Gunn could write it, given his prior work and knack for creating characters as that all feel like pieces of himself, but for all of these actors to also achieve that, letting us in on what feels like an admission of how the world often sees them, feels particularly special, an invitation to check our own preconceived notions of others and self-judgements. Gunn’s greatest tool has always been empathy.

The bloodshed and the dick jokes are fun, and the encyclopedic knowledge of the most obscure comic characters is unmatched by fellow comic book filmmakers, but Peacemaker thrives on Gunn’s ability to create human connection between characters who, at least on the surface, not only resist connection but have accepted their place of anonymity. Gunn excels in healing broken things that didn’t even know how broken they were.

When we rejoin Smith following his near-death experience in The Suicide Squad, he’s just spent months healing from his injuries. While his body is mended, his mind is clearly not as he’s haunted by the death of Flag and begins to question his creed of cherishing peace with all his heart, no matter how many men, women and children he has to kill to get it. Smith is released into an America that is just as broken as he is, one overrun with conspiracies, anti-science and neo-fascism. Smith certainly plays his part in that, and his references to “facts” he learned on social media about other superheroes, and people in general, are funny to a point, but also a chilling reminder of how easily we all buy into misinformation because the internet told us it was true.

The series doesn’t let Smith off the hook for his actions, and he begins the series as a jerk who really tests the boundaries of lovable asshole. But as we learn over the course of the season’s eight episodes, he is a product of his upbringing — his father Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), a white nationalist who as the costumed White Dragon serves as a trailer park Tony Stark, responsible for forging Peacemaker’s helmets and his outdated views on masculinity. Cena plays Smith as a perpetual child, whose development, emotional maturity and sexual security has been stunted by the fear of his father. As a result, Peacemaker is a child’s idea of a superhero, but rather than being born of hope, tragedy or truth like DC’s Trinity, he’s born of our national shame.

Peacemaker lands at a point where the idea of a man raised in an alt-right and Klan-friendly environment seems like it would be an unwelcome addition to superhero storytelling. But it’s because of the contemporary nature of the show that Peacemaker feels topical in a way that’s refreshing, political without chasing the tail of the great Cold War superhero stories of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. The members of Task Force X are all products of a government that finds its own citizens expendable. Amanda Waller’s (Viola Davis) A.R.G.U.S. isn’t just placing its assets against impossible odds on the battlefield, it’s also denying the team the resources, pay, therapy and relationships humans need to survive. There’s more than one path to suicide. Despite that, these characters begrudgingly find what they need in each other, with Brooks’ Leota being the heart of that, a manifestation of Gunn’s own empathy (and love of animals) who sees the best in these people, even as her mother, Waller, seeks to destroy that quality, much in the same way Auggie attempts with his own son.

Despite the abuses placed on them by government and parents, who in this case might as well represent the morally compromised American government founded on racism and a lack of accountability, these characters manage to come together, but only because they allow themselves to change on a fundamental level. And change is hard and bloody. Peacemaker comes down to humanity’s ability to choose change for themselves, or to have it forced upon them, which is the goal of the alien Butterflies who body-snatch humans in a plot to remove their free will so that they can do what’s necessary to survive a dying Earth. Even this alien invasion is somewhat admirable and depicted in an empathetic light, and as Goff/Detective Sophie Song (Annie Chang) beautifully expresses in the finale, their mission isn’t different from what Smith has claimed to be his own purpose as Peacemaker. Smith’s decision to reject their offer to join them isn’t made out of some jingoistic sense of American freedom, but, as he later states, because it would hurt the people he cares about. It’s so deliberately simple that a child could understand that reasoning, yet made all the more complex because too many people refuse to make the simplest sacrifices for their own well-being and others’, as we see evidenced every day. Smith, as a perpetual child, understands this and grows up, if only a bit, but enough to emerge from his cocoon as someone better than he began.

Change is a process and taking accountability for what you did and said isn’t easy, yet Peacemaker shows how necessary it is that we provide each other with that opportunity. The results aren’t immediate, sacrifices will be made and wounds will remain, as is made clear by Smith’s recurring visions of his father. But the road to peace is certainly made easier alongside people who do in fact give a shit about you. It’s rather beautiful that Peacemaker, born of such a fraught environment, exists as the result of metamorphosis for all involved and perhaps promises a new way to understand what comic characters can offer when allowed genuine change by artists seeking the same.

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