Why So Unserious?
‘Peacemaker’: An unbalanced hero in an unbalanced series
The DC Cinematic Universe films are notorious for being dark, grim, and perpetually raining. Joker’s iconic question from The Dark Knight Rises, “Why so serious?” could apply to the entire franchise. The only laughs obtained in recent DC memory were at Batman Vs. Superman, not with it.
So it’s not a shock that DC might experience a few birth pangs in trying to meld comedy with action. This is what happens with their new HBO Max TV series, “Peacemaker.”
It was a job custom-built for writer-director James Gunn. Before getting cancelled then somehow resurrected, he blew up the parameters of comic book movies by taking an obscure, back-of-the-comic-racks property called Guardians of the Galaxy and turning it into not only a runaway hit, but also a new approach to how superhero stories could get told: Rocking out with forgotten 80s bangers, leaning into hero incompetence and foible, and indulging acerbic squabbling. Gunn pulled this off while still nailing the genre aspects: bringing the high-impact visuals, adrenaline, and surgically placed feels.
Fortunately, DC had the good sense to poach this Lazarus from the MCU to resurrect one of its own flatlining properties. Gunn used his superpowers to “do-over” 2016’s bomb Suicide Squad as 2021’s The Suicide Squad. It has to be the fastest reboot ever of a superhero movie not containing the words “Spider-Man.”
The Suicide Squad not only showcased Gunn’s signature approach, it opened the door to a franchisable DC gang that could crack jokes as well as heads.
Then, in another sharp move, DC stole a page from the Other House’s playbook in trying to integrate its CU across both big and small screen. It’s kind of shocking it took them so long, considering that DC has launched nearly 10 shows on two networks. At the end of THE Suicide Squad, the last post-credits scene (see what they did there?) surprisingly resurrects the character of “The Peacemaker,” who seemed to have died in the film’s epic battle.
And that’s where the new DC action-comedy’ Peacemaker’ show picks up, even weirdly beginning “Previously on The Suicide Squad…” as if that film were just a two-hour, extremely bloody episode of Mad Men.
Narratively, the series also begins where the movie did. “The Peacemaker” – played as a game goofster by John Cena and all 12 of his abs–is a trained killer, on a self-appointed mission to “bring about peace, no matter who I have to kill or torture.” He’s in prison for his murders, but a shadowy government agency springs him on the condition that he do their dirty work–in this case, assassinate a Senator tied to a dangerous military project.
So that’s where the story goes…eventually. I watched the three episodes released by HBO Max, but the carrying out of this assignment doesn’t even occur until the last half-hour of Episode 3.
Before that happens, we get reacquainted with the plucky support team that stepped up and supported Peacemaker and the rest of TSS in their heroically off-mission third act of that movie. They were just colorful supporting characters then, but this series has expanded them into a quirky sitcom workplace, complete with tales of putting their pets in costumes and arguments about how to properly spell “Berenstain Bears.”
However, lest you mistake this setup for “Two Guys, Two Girls, and an Ex-WWE Wrestler” it’s also larded with HBO fare: Blood, boobs, more F-bombs than explosive ones, and a LOT of Cena beef. And music licensing–so much music licensing. In some ways, “Peacemaker” also taps into the Deadpool formula – intense hairband tunes at key emotional moments and uncompromising, recreational bloodshed (albeit not as much as in The Suicide Squad)–differing only in that character’s 4th wall-breaking and near-utter nihilism.
But this is also because the Peacemaker is a murkier character than the Merc with a Mouth. He was raised by a racist asshole Dad (Robert Patrick), who tried to make his son into a vigilante like himself, but left him violent, somewhat good-intentioned, and largely confused. Most of the first three episodes consists of Peacemaker just trying to figure himself out. Some of this is natural becoming-a-hero reluctance, a la Peter Parker. But more of it is just confusing–or worse, convenient–character inconsistency.
He balks at hurting a family of strangers, but also just lets people brutally torture his pal Vigilante for a cause he doesn’t yet understand, let alone believe in. There’s a ridiculously long and not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is sequence of him breaking his body trying to smuggle some 80s CDs out of a building surrounded by hostile police for no strong reason (vs, again, Star Lord’s crazy return for the mixtape in Guardians, because it was his last tie to his mother). Also, he whimsically has a pet eagle named “Eagly,” which randomly appears and disappears as the plot’s quirk-ratio demands it.
More disappointing is that, thus far at least, Peacemaker doesn’t deliver on what screenwriters call “the promise of the premise.” The main, salient fact about Peacemaker is that he can kill with anything in his hands – as we see him do gloriously in The Suicide Squad’s Peckinpah-ishly gory rebel camp battle. But in this series, the one kill these folks have recruited him for is a stealth sniper assassination, which… there are much better people trained for. If you’re presenting a guy as the MacGyver of Murder, let’s see him off a dude with some duct tape and Mentos! He also has an extremely problematic biography, which sends the crew running in circles trying to “manage” him–have these people never heard of hit men?
What the series does have in spades is a lot of banter. Not just from Peacemaker–from everyone. So much banter, even Aaron Sorkin would be like, “C’mon, yappers, just move the story along!” Picking up the torch from Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” thugs talking about Belgian Big Macs, everyone in this show gets to niggle endlessly about banalities. Even two unimportant police officers spend three minutes debating whether it’s more insulting to call someone a fork or a spoon.
This becomes a bit of a doubled-edged bloody katana for the series. Gunn is a hilarious writer with a special ear for humans unearthing each other’s stupid shit at the worst possible moments. The dialogue crackles with one great line after another. Unfortunately, it gets so high on its own supply of these, they end up filling more of the show than incident does. There’s always an obligatory action sequence and serial-plot-advancement at the end, but it is a long, talky slog to get there.
More troubling is the fact that – despite Gunn’s wryness at having people be messy and weird –his characters don’t always make a lot of sense in this show. Two of the agency gang, Adebayo and Economos (played winningly by Danielle Brooks and Steve Agee) are dependably funny but highly incompetent (vs. the Suicide Squad and GOTG wise-crackers who all still had a skill). Why are they working at this crack agency that went to great pains to extract Peacemaker for its critical mission? (There’s a spoilery reason why Adebayo got the job, but no explanation why she gets to keep it.)
And, finally, let’s talk about the plot. DC is clearly trying to dive into both the elaborate tapestry of the MCU storylines and the watercooler fan-engagement of puzzle-box shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld. It’s a mixed result so far. Gunn & co. keep the details of the overall sinister plot that PM & co are supposedly fighting so close to the vest, even the agency characters don’t seem to understand it. At one point their provisional boss, Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) says he’s keeping this from Peacemaker because he “can’t know or he’ll mess it up” – fair enough. And of course it makes sense to leave a tantalizing breadcrumb trail of almost-clues in the hopes that fans will hunger to know more. After all, the show already advertises an official companion podcast prominently before each episode – an effort to astroturf something that usually arises organically from fans.
That said, even what they’re teasing doesn’t quite grab you stake-wise. The bad guys this group is targeting are so far only seem to be bad because… they have long purple tongues?
So, four episodes in, it’s easy to appreciate what Gunn is doing (again)–messing with the tropes and cliches of heroism, mixing comedy and action, and doling out a mystery. Unfortunately, unlike in his previous efforts, in ‘Peacemaker’, the balance so far seems way out of whack, leaving the characters as largely gag-spouting cartoons who mostly serve to advance the less-than-thrilling plot. I’m interested in watching where ‘Peacemaker’ goes, but also wondering how many Berenstain Bear jokes I’ll need to sit through first.