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James Gunn’s Profane, Parodic ‘Peacemaker’ Brings the DCEU to TV

This week’s ‘Peacemaker’ premiere marks the expansion of the DC Extended Universe to TV—and the spinoff from ‘The Suicide Squad’ both borrows and diverges from the Marvel model for small-screen streaming success

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

Peacemaker, the spinoff of The Suicide Squad that debuts on HBO Max on Thursday, doesn’t take long to reestablish its titular character and set the tone for its first season. Within the first few minutes of the series opener, John Cena’s Peacemaker, recovering in the hospital after being shot in the neck and buried beneath a building in his 2021 movie debut, laments the lacking size of his muscles in an X-ray scan, spreads rumors about Aquaman fucking fish, and unpacks his bloodied and dirtied superhero costume. With that indelicate introduction, followed by a wonderfully absurd opening-credits sequence that features the entire cast twirling and thrusting their way through a choreographed dance number in a neon-lit room better fit for an ’80s music video, writer-director James Gunn’s Peacemaker kicks off a new era of television for the DC Extended Universe in the most James Gunn way imaginable.

When Peacemaker drops its first three episodes on Thursday, it will become the first TV show in the DCEU, which until this week consisted solely of a series of 11 films that began in 2013 with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The franchise’s first foray into small-screen action is set after the events of Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which ended with all but one of the surviving members of Task Force X blackmailing their way to freedom after defeating a Kaiju-sized starfish in Corto Maltese. The sole exception is a hospitalized Christopher Smith, the homicidal patriot better known as Peacemaker. (Well, maybe not the sole exception; Weasel is probably still out there haunting everybody with whom he crosses paths.) In addition to Cena reprising his performance in a starring role, Suicide Squad holdovers Jennifer Holland and Steve Agee return as Amanda Waller’s reassigned agents. Gunn is back also, this time serving as showrunner as he further examines the unflinching hero who once famously said that he cherished peace, no matter how many men, women, and children he had to kill to get it.

While there have been plenty of multiversal TV crossovers in The CW’s Arrowverse, Peacemaker stands as DC Films’ first attempt to establish an interconnected relationship between its big-screen stories and its nascent small-screen efforts. Just as Marvel Studios set its sights on adding TV shows to its already extensive catalog of MCU films after the launch of Disney+ in 2019, DC Films is now developing streaming offshoots that build on the events of its blockbusters to help bolster subscription numbers on HBO Max. “With every movie that we’re looking at now, we are thinking, ‘What’s the potential Max spinoff?’” DC Films head Walter Hamada told The New York Times in late 2020.

Almost exactly one year after WandaVision debuted on Disney+ as the first TV enterprise in the MCU, Peacemaker serves as DC Films’ first test case in its own transition to TV—and it’s hard not to see some of Marvel’s moves in DC’s approach. Just as WandaVision revolved around two heroes who played less central roles in each of their Avengers appearances, Peacemaker focuses on a character whose background was only alluded to in The Suicide Squad. And just as WandaVision dealt with Wanda Maximoff’s grief following the death of her husband Vision in Endgame, Peacemaker also explores its protagonist’s haunted psyche.

While the spinoff sets up a world-threatening adversary for Peacemaker and his motley crew through the emergence of the mysteriously titled Project Butterfly, the heart of the show delves into the relationship between Peacemaker and his white supremacist father Auggie (portrayed by a fully committed Robert Patrick)—the primary source of Peacemaker’s many issues. It’s also notable that Gunn’s DC tenure was made possible only after Marvel (briefly) fired him following the 2018 unearthing of a number of old, offensive tweets from Gunn’s Twitter account. DC jumped at the chance to work with the Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director, and Gunn has now been entrusted with leading a major step for the DCEU as the studio moves on from the Snyderverse era.

Those similarities notwithstanding, Peacemaker also diverges from the MCU formula at almost every creative turn. The show lacks any sense of self-seriousness in its treatment of a ridiculous, insensitive superhero whose crowning achievement may be defeating the harmless villain Kite Man. Peacemaker utters the word “fuck” more times in the pilot’s opening minutes than Marvel’s heroes have in the 27 MCU movies combined, while Gunn’s vulgar and often juvenile jokes would make Mickey blush over at the House of Mouse. Instead of employing an occasional post-credits scene to tease characters and plot points from future movies or TV shows, Peacemaker includes stingers at the end of every installment and uses them only to extend comedic bits from earlier in the episodes. And at least through the seven (of eight total) episodes that were sent in advance to critics, the series has shown little interest in setting the stage for other developments across the DCEU, allowing its focus to remain on its present story line and characters rather than setting aside some of its plot to promote future projects.

Peacemaker’s look doesn’t make the most of the medium the way WandaVision’s shape-shifting format did, and Gunn appears to be working with a significantly smaller budget than he had for The Suicide Squad. But the show’s more modest settings allow the audience to concentrate on its characters, and its sub-blockbuster production values don’t preclude it from boasting its fair share of absurd action sequences. The result is a mostly refreshing series that satirizes a tired superhero genre and the particular brand of oblivious imperialism that Peacemaker embodies, even if the show’s gratuitous violence, dick jokes, and ’80s-era rock soundtrack are familiar grounds for Gunn. Cena thrives in the lead role as he gets another chance to showcase his talents as a comic actor, while still leaving room for fun performances from DC newcomers including Bridgerton’s Freddie Stroma—who portrays an even more outrageously unhinged “hero” in Vigilante—and Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks as Leota Adebayo, whose warm persona puts her at odds with her new life around antisocial killers and secret agents. (Not to mention Peacemaker’s incredible sidekick and best friend, a CGI bald eagle named … Eagly.)

Still, as much as Peacemaker sets out to separate itself in an oversaturated market of superhero content, it doesn’t land in entirely uncharted territory. Amazon’s The Boys already offers a violently dark superhero satire, which works more effectively than Peacemaker due in part to its separation from the DC and Marvel universes. (In another indication of the franchises’ overlapping sensibilities, The Boys comic creator Garth Ennis is putting his stamp on Peacemaker in a one shot due out later this month.) The same could be said of Amazon’s animated series Invincible, another show that offers a grim alternative to the god-like Superman. Even HBO Max is already home to another DC comedy series that revels in its absurd approach to superhero storytelling with the non-DCEU Doom Patrol, which makes fun of its oddball heroes as much as it dives into their tragic origin stories.

Through a full season, Peacemaker loses some of the novelty that made him a captivating foil in The Suicide Squad, both because the series reuses emotional beats from the film to lead him on a path toward redemption and because a growing number of lengthy jokes about “dick vampires” and “butt babies”—as well as an overreliance on familiar tropes—become tiresome distractions from an apocalyptic story line that even the show’s characters can’t stay focused on. Although the series isn’t quite as compelling as the film it’s spun off from, it’s still a solid starting point for DC Films as the studio moves forward with its interlinked release strategy. The show works well enough as an entertaining character study of one of Gunn’s flawed, tragic antiheroes, adding greater depth to a figure who had a less fully fleshed-out arc in The Suicide Squad compared to Task Force X teammates such as Bloodsport or Ratcatcher 2.

DC Films already has two other spinoff series slated to appear on HBO Max after Robert Pattinson stars as the next Caped Crusader in the highly anticipated The Batman in March, with one centered on the Gotham PD and the other on Colin Farrell’s Penguin villain. (The Batman technically exists outside of the DCEU as a part of the studio’s still unestablished take on the multiverse.) Additionally, DC Films is teaming up with filmmaker J.J. Abrams to build another shared universe of films and TV shows based on Justice League Dark, including a Constantine reboot, a Zatanna movie written by Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell, a Madame Xanadu series called Madame X, and a Justice League Dark crossover that will bring all of the group’s supernatural and magical superheroes together. It’s still unclear whether all of these upcoming projects will exist as part of the DCEU or within a pocket dimension controlled by Abrams, but by drafting another big-name filmmaker to oversee a number of interconnected projects, DC Films is following the approach it took with Snyder and Gunn.

DC Films chose an unexpected, problematic superhero to spearhead its new thrust into live-action television. The studio’s upcoming projects and the path the DCEU will take to fleshing out its shared multimedia narrative remain murky, but if Peacemaker is any indication, that unpredictable path and fluctuating tone will be part of the loosely choreographed fun.