James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad was an improvement on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad in the same way that a summer stroll in the park is an improvement on being shot at with a nail gun. Ayer claims the movie he was trying to make back in 2016 was destroyed by studio interference. I wholeheartedly believe him.
Whatever it was meant to be, was lost in one of the least coherent edits I’ve ever seen for a big budget film. It’s a tonal balancing act to begin with, so too many cooks (or focus groups, test screenings, or “hey, should it be more like Deadpool?” memos) is the nightmare scenario. The level of trust Warner Bros. had in the two directors to run with the ball is night and day. James Gunn made a James Gunn film, just one that happened to contain some DC characters.
Don’t be fooled: this creative freedom was not an acknowledgement of their meddling being counter-productive the first time around. The spoken language is profit margin, and in that regard Suicide Squad (2016) sang sweetly. The reality of all this is that DC are still chasing that MCU dollar; that suuuuper-endeared-to-audiences, three-times-a-year money. Ignoring the Synder faithful (and I forever will), they have really struggled to ingratiate themselves in that way. The Suicide Squad was a calculated PR move, meant to mend their reputation. A trust-building exercise, helmed by an established name in that market. You have to give the people what they want, and how they want it.
So, to the surprise of no-one, the reboot worked. Everything felt fresh. Gunn creates his own artistic leeway by grabbing the most obscure, malleable nobodies from the annals of comic book history. Running with armfuls of ideas for fucking Polka Dot Man, or the one man Team America: World Police known as Peacemaker, and getting away with no fan pushback at all. Gunn must have impressed internally too, because HBO ordered the first season of Peacemaker’s spin-off before The Suicide Squad even hit cinemas.
The show’s opening credits are a litmus test for both actor and audience. The main cast perform a totally straight-faced dance number to Wig Wam’s glam metal anthem ‘Do You Wanna Taste It?’ and if this isn’t at minimum making you smile, maybe tune out now. This is proof of an unflinching commitment to being ridiculous; a taste (pun intended) of the capital-c Camp that runs through the whole show. Which is, might I add, one about a man whose catchphrase is that he will kill “any man, woman or child” for the sake of peace, and whose best friend is a questionably anthropomorphic eagle. Hey, I’m just making sure you don’t watch it by accident.
The season finds Christopher Smith (John Cena) once again avoiding a return to Belle Reve prison by helping the government out as his alter-ego; the mercenary, Peacemaker. Chris has a lot to contend with, and not just the imminent threat of the secretive “Project Butterfly”. He’s been grappling with his very identity, personal history, and new-found complicated emotions.
I’ll be honest, in the first few episodes, the recipe is off. Even by the suspension of disbelief standards required for superhero content, the characters aren’t believable. Moreover, they’re unlikeable, and not always deliberately. The jokes range almost exclusively from toilet humour, to low-hanging fruit, to ‘random equals funny’. The weird tidbits of social commentary are a square peg to the round holes of aesthetic and mood. What has happened here? Why does everything feel so forced and unnatural all of a sudden?
It felt like I was watching a different series by episode five. There’s work to justify every creative decision, and this work makes itself known to you as you get further down the line. Once-bizarre character motivations, things that begin as throwaway lines, jokes too stupid to function in a vacuum… everything gets fleshed out in some way or another. Like I said earlier, we’re building trust here and maybe I just didn’t have enough to spare early on.
HBO’s Peacemaker definitely attended the Top Gun/Cobra Kai school of poking holes in machismo. It’s the sleekest form of takedown, to ‘nth degree’ something into becoming self-parodying. This wouldn’t work without the talents of John Cena, who’s as ludicrously fucking large and imposing as he is aware, and dedicated to the bit at all times.
I don’t know if Cena was always perfect casting for Peacemaker, or if Peacemaker has taken his shape. At this point, I think there’s already more Cena-based lore than there ever was anything else. This is a great thing, by the way, the opportunity to start afresh without attachments to previous iterations… the opportunity to define something. The veteran wrestler kills it with both comedic chops and serious character acting for the duration. Whatever ridiculous action-man trope they sit him inside, is carried off with the utmost conviction that any of it is ‘cool’.
It’s interesting to note that this is the second time Gunn has taken his ‘tragic clown’ character from the world of professional wrestling. Since Dave ‘Batista’ Bautista (Drax in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) and John ‘John Cena’ Cena have both delivered the goods, I wonder if the trend goes further. I’m now holding out for Randy Orton as Matter-Eater Lad and you can’t stop me.
There’s been a lot of talk of peak ‘capeshit’ these last five years, about the sterility of superhero films and television. It’s almost universally agreed on now, that we’ve arrived/will arrive shortly at a saturation point. Those that believe we already have, have also been critical about a bloat in terms of undifferentiable style and approach. Now, Marvel and DC would never admit to point A, there. They’re never going to sacrifice what they do for the sake of *scoffs* artistic integrity.
But, on point B Marvel must agree. That’s why they’re bringing back Sam Raimi, to add personality (and not Personality™) to the new Doctor Strange film. DC agree, otherwise they don’t commit to making something as uncouth and bonkers as Peacemaker. Things are changing. These studios are starting to realise that a little care and attention goes a long, long way.
Saying this, in Peacemaker every subversion or juxtaposition is based on the framework that you’re enjoying a dumb show about a dumb meathead. Do you know how hurt you stand to be with your guard down like that? You catch a stray moment of poignancy and it’s over for you. So it goes: the dumb show is actually pretty bloody clever, and very very proud of its niche.
I think it should be, too.
Peacemaker is now streaming on HBO Max in the USA.