Giving Peacemaker a Chance

I talk about this a lot, but there is maybe nothing more I love in all of fiction than the DC Universe. In theory, this should be a boom time with movies everywhere and maybe a dozen or so ongoing TV series. The problem is that most of it is, well, bad. This is subjective of course but come on. You know I’m right. You’re not watching Titans and thinking “Yep, they nailed it.” And given that the actual comics are at a creative nadir right now (except for Human Target), I’m a man in a raft dying of thirst. Or something.

(Obviously my beloved Doom Patrol is an exception, but I’m not here to talk about those guys just yet.)

The CW shows are mostly just baffling to me – they feel like the names and sometimes costumes of characters I like have been applied to otherwise unrelated templates. The movies range from great to aggressively forgettable to morally reprehensible. (Batman’s arc in Batman v Superman is about learning to embrace Objectivism and actively endanger innocents if it helps him win a fight.) But one particular issue is how spectacularly they’ve failed at world building. Even with Marvel’s success providing the template, DC couldn’t figure out how to do the “introduce the characters gradually and then people will be excited when they’re all in the same movie” thing. More egregiously (for me at least), is the way every movie seemingly reset the rules of the world. Superman is the first superhuman the world has seen except for Wonder Woman who’s been around for a hundred years and the entire prison full of supervillains who were defeated by…. Somebody? By the time you get to Shazam, they have to use a body double for Superman which makes it feel like an off-brand TV movie that DC was not fully apprised of. Basically, my favorite fictional continuity was broken immediately and instead of building a universe like Marvel’s doing, it feels like five blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is.

The first of the movies that felt like an actual DC thing to me was James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. I had issues with it – largely a mean-spiritedness that never really relents.  But it had its moments and some nice character bits, but mostly it felt like what I love about DC. It’s the sense that none of this really belongs together but they’re in the same world and everybody has to reconcile with that. A secret government black ops team made of mass murderers end up having to fight a giant space starfish with mind control powers. That’s the stuff I love. Bloodsport and Starro live in the same world and they both fight Superman sometimes. There’s a shark god and a guy with polka dot powers and they’re two degrees from Batman and it’s a world where a man with a gun and a kaiju are both viable threats. That’s the thing that feels really unique to DC and that the previous movies just missed.

All that said, despite liking Gunn’s work a lot, I wasn’t psyched about Peacemaker spinning off into a solo series. I really liked John Cena in the movie and there’s something fun about the way that his dumb costume has not been updated at all for the movies. But the character is a monster and a flat out villain by the end of the movie. I don’t know that I want eight episodes of the guy who brags about all the men, women, and children he’s killed. But ultimately, I can’t not at least try out a show about a fourth-tier DC character. Turns out, Peacemaker is everything I love about DC Comics and everything I love about James Gunn and with all due respect to Station Eleven, probably the best show of the year so far.

Peacemaker brings back Cena’s a-hole Captain America who, it turns out, survived the part of The Suicide Squad where he got shot in the neck and then a building fell on him. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role as briefly as possible) needs him for another mission. Specifically, there are weird butterfly body-snatching aliens threatening the planet. He’s teamed up with a couple of TSS holdovers, getting their punishment for defying her: John Economos (the always great Steve Agee) and Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland, who is new to me and also completely awesome).  Add in Waller’s secret daughter Adebayo (the great Danielle Brooks from Orange is the New Black) and Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji, who’s moving on to Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), and you’ve got a misbegotten crew. Peacemaker’s buddy Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) eventually joins the gang and for him, just imagine if the Punisher was a busboy and also a dipshit. He’s amazing. They hit that GotG sweet spot where it’s a severely dysfunctional team that eventually comes together without ever being 100% competent. 

The show fleshes out the character of Peacemaker, giving him a beloved pet eagle (Eagly!) and a father who’s also a Nazi super-villain. Robert Patrick sports the worst haircut you can legally show on television and just completely kills it. They really take their time making Peacemaker a real character and dealing with the fact that he’s re-entering society after years in prison. Gunn knows what a bastard the character was in the movie and he’s determined to give us a reason to like him. His gloriously trashy trailer, his unironic embrace of hair metal, his doomed attempts to interact with normal people. And Cena is fantastic. Dude turns out to be surprisingly great, just like Dave Bautista. Gunn’s got an eye for talent. 

There are a lot of things to love about Peacemaker, but the one that excites me is the way it’s the first modern DC project that successfully feels like part of a larger universe. Casually referencing heroes we’ve seen while also establishing that Bat-Mite, Kite Man, and Matter-Eater Lad are canon, Peacemaker does what the more successful Marvel projects do, only without the benefit of everybody else also doing it right. It’s on the fringe of the DC Universe, but the world it presents is one that I want to see more of. I have a clearer idea of who the Batman of this world is than I’ve gotten from watching movies that feature Batman. And once again, it’s that mix of brutal and goofy. It presents a fun world that I would like to see further explored, even though the other attempts to explore it have been largely unsatisfying. 

But the key thing is that it feels natural. Invoking Kite Man is a nice character bit – classically one of the most pathetic villains, Peacemaker has exactly one press clipping on his wall and it’s about him defeating old Charles Brown. (That’s Kite Man’s real name. Why do I know this?) That’s his one accomplishment. And as a child points out to him, gravity would have beaten Kite Man on its own. I’m getting burned out on Easter Eggs and the Leo Pointing meme of it all, and here a deep cut reference actually builds the character rather than serving as proof that somebody read a comic. And Gunn knows when to scale it back – Economos and Harcourt are sorta kinda based on existing characters. I mean, there’s a guy with a beard named Economos who sometimes gets a line in old Suicide Squad comics, and there was a blonde lady named Harcourt who has nothing to do with the character here. But Murn and Adebayo don’t even have name matches. And the butterflies are a new threat. There are so many weird DC alien races that Gunn could have invoked with a little tweak, but it’s not like it makes the show better if you make them Sheeda or form-locked Durlans or whatever. Peacemaker’s dad has a workshop that, we are briefly told, exists in sub-space. The fact that he didn’t reference The Bleed or that realm where Prometheus lives is admirable. You don’t constantly need to invoke a thing a small portion of the audience will recognize for that cheap pop. Tell your story and don’t bother leafing through All-Star Squadron to see if you should match it to an existing thing.  In an age when every supporting character has to be named after somebody who was in comics forty years ago, it’s refreshing to see something that just is what it is. 

But even if you don’t care about the DC Extended Universe and what it means that Peacemaker has apparently met the 31st Century’s Tenzil Kem, Peacemaker is just a blast. The cast is incredible from Cena to the old man who plays his father’s neighbor and gets some really funny lines. Against all odds, they’ve found Peacemaker’s heart and made him, for probably the first time ever, a three-dimensional character. But everybody gets their moments, including Nhut Le’s Judomaster. Look, in this world where freaking Professor Pyg got a six episode arc on network TV, anything is possible. But Judomaster? I feel like you would have to remind DC that they even own that character. Look. Watchmen was based on, and originally planned for, the characters DC acquired from defunct publisher Charlton. Peacemaker became The Comedian. Blue Beetle became Nite Owl. Judomaster was among those Charlton properties and he’s the only one who didn’t get a Watchmen equivalent. And now he’s on TV and he’s great.

I can’t possibly mention everybody who’s crushing it in this show but I have to shout out Annie Chang, who plays Detective Song, the cop stuck investigating the trail of chaos Peacemaker and company leave in their wake. She’s really good playing an officer who wouldn’t be out of place on a network procedural and then her character takes some wild bounces and the way she plays it is just so good. She gets to feature in one of the coolest scenes in recent memory and I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t watched Peacemaker yet, but it’s the bit that’s scored to Reckless Youth’s “Monster” and she gets to look as cool as a human being has ever looked.

Oh, and even if you haven’t watched the show, you’ve probably seen the opening credit dance sequence. It’s wonderful and I watch it all the time.

I’m posting this just before the finale airs and I’m worried several of these beautiful maniacs aren’t going to make it to the end. But regardless, Peacemaker is wildly fun and beautifully executed. I’m sure Gunn has other projects he wants to get to, but I’d be thrilled to see him do somewhere between one and ten more seasons.

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