'Peacemaker' Further Proves That James Gunn Is Better Suited for DC Than Marvel

Unbound by the PG-13 restraints of the MCU, the writer-director lets loose with delightful violence and crude humor.

John Cena in 'Peacemaker'

Guardians of the Galaxy is, to me, like James Gunn being put through a family filter. That’s the Gunn for normal people, like my evangelical parents. But Peacemaker on HBO Max, like The Suicide Squad before it, is the Gunn that I like.

Peacemaker is nasty, mean, gross, hilarious, and delightfully violent. It’s an eight-episode primal scream that’s tempered only by its profound empathy for the sort of characters who would be clear-cut villains in a more normal movie or show—like a Marvel production, for example.

Following directly where The Suicide Squad left off, Peacemaker brings back John Cena’s titular character along with a pair of teammates in the chair, Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Economos (Steve Agee), for a new mission against a mysterious group called the Butterflies. And it’s a James Gunn show—he wrote all eight episodes and directed five of them.

So, if you enjoyed The Suicide Squad, then it’s pretty likely you’re going to like this, too. Peacemaker is, of course, a smaller-scale thing because it’s TV. But the spirit of The Suicide Squad remains fully intact, and it continues exploring the same themes the film did. Which brings us to Peacemaker the character. He’s an interesting guy to base a show around, considering he ended up being a villain in the movie and seems to be a MAGA type—not exactly a prime candidate for heroic behavior on either point. And let's not forget his line in the film about how he cares so much about peace that he doesn’t care about how many men, women and children he has to kill to achieve it.

But Gunn humanizes this cartoon character by also letting us get to know his father, a retired supervillain called the White Dragon (Robert Patrick). Or, as I’ve been calling him, White Supremacist Iron Man.

This is one of Gunn’s recurring themes, both in these DC outings and in the Guardians movies: exploring how our parents have shaped us, and their responsibility for us turning out the way we did. Bloodsport (Idris Elba) was the primary vector for this theme in The Suicide Squad, thanks to his story about his father doling out some pretty horrific abuse on him when he was a kid, which then turned him into a criminal psycho as an adult—and a terrible dad to his own child.

In Peacemaker we get a much more topical thread. His father, Auggie Smith (the alter ego of the aforementioned White Dragon), isn’t just a racist villain with a super suit. He also leads a white supremacist organization—complete with white hoods and Nazi salutes—and he forced Peacemaker and his brother into the murder business when they were kids. Obviously, that had a pretty major impact on how Peacemaker ended up becoming a merciless killer. And Peacemaker is only Peacemaker because his father wanted him to be—his dad even made all those goofy-looking outfits he wears.

John Cena as Peacemaker, Freddie Stroma as Vigilante

This is where the heart of this series lies, with extreme empathy for a guy who’s nothing more than the awful person his dad created him to be. A guy who, under the right circumstances and with help from the right social forces, could be not such a terrible person.

To some extent, this same idea applies to all our heroes. Harcourt is the jaded operative who’s worried she’s losing her soul to this horrible, death-filled job. Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), the leader of the team, is a guy who is apparently best known for his crimes against humanity who would really like to be not so bad anymore. Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) is an amoral psycho who just needs a friend.

And Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) is the daughter of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the emotional void who runs the Suicide Squad and generally isn’t concerned with collateral damage or keeping people alive. So, she’s got her own heaping pile of parental baggage—very different from the abuse Peacemaker suffered, but still hugely destructive. This is a group of people who could all be the villains of another story. But together they can be heroes.

So far, I’ve only been talking about all the serious stuff, but Peacemaker isn't exactly the most serious series, either. It’s the full James Gunn package: it explores moral grey areas with empathy, and it’s full of poop and sex jokes, and it’s got some incredible creature stuff going on. Peacemaker even has his trademark CGI animal sidekick in the form of Eagley the eagle, who steals every single scene he’s involved in. He doesn’t talk, but he does know how to hug—and maybe that’s more important.

Due to the smaller scale of things, it plays an awful lot like Gunn’s first movie Slither, a low-budget gorefest from 2006, but he brings everything together in a way that feels unique to him, expertly balancing the jokes, dope monsters, and the ruminations on why we are the way we are. It’s a combination of things that the Guardians movies also have, but Peacemaker’s extra R-rated oomph makes it work much better for me. Characters screaming at each other feels so much more real when they’re saying the f-word. Morbid humor is a lot more effective when there’s actual morbid stuff to make jokes about. The gore makes the violence simultaneously more upsetting and more entertaining.

While I’m sure a lot of folks are excited to have Gunn back in the MCU for a third Guardians of the Galaxy, it bums me out. For me, Guardians is just a candy-coated tease, with Gunn buried under focus tests and Marvel niceness. Peacemaker, like The Suicide Squad, dispenses with the pleasantries and gives us a piece of art that is much more real than anything in the MCU ever will be.

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Phil Owen is a Los Angeles-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen