James Gunn has a simple, effective method for his entries in the superhero genre:
1. Gather a rag-tag team of unlovable losers.
2. Make us fall in love with said losers.
3. Put the team in an unwinnable situation.
4. They win, but only through the personal sacrifice of one of our heroes.
You would be forgiven for going into the final two episodes dreading our heroes’ fate. They are, after all, facing one army of white supremacists and another of alien Butterflies that killed and possessed the corpses of an entire police station and its prisoners. Detectives Song and Fitzgibbon are already dead. Chris is exposed as the “murderer” responsible for assassinating a sitting Senator and his entire family, thanks to Adebayo planting a fake diary in his trailer. His father Auggie, the White Dragon, is not only out of jail but geared up and looking to kill his last remaining son. Should the team survive that threat, the Butterflies and their mysterious “cow” are ready to put their plan into motion.
In two madcap episodes where everything that can go wrong does, they win. I’ll leave out the details so those not caught up aren’t spoiled, but Chris deals with his father, the aliens are vanquished, and Chris’s name is cleared. He’s still a murderer, and he knows it. Flag’s death and the accidental killing of his brother decades before will never leave him be. But he handles it and even gets the chance to dunk on a few familiar faces on his way out.
For a show based in graphic violence, nudity, and hair metal, Peacemaker found a depth missing from most of the genre. The DCEU embraces the sturm und drang of a superpowered world and the MCU is so polished that even a shattered NYC feels clean, no matter how much dust is in the air. Casualties are rarely seen, civilians there to be rescued in the nick of time. The only time anyone dies, it’s to forward the plot. Take No Way Home, in which a universe is shattered and holes open in space-time, and the only person who dies is (REDACTED). Their death’s only purpose is to isolate Peter from the world and, I assume, leave him vulnerable to the symbiote in the next movie. They’re less a character and more a plot device.
It’s an oversimplification, of course. There’s a lot of good material in the DCEU and MCU. But Peacemaker and to a lesser extent Hawkeye succeed because they embrace the personal details. The bickering. Christopher Smith lives in a ridiculous double-wide trailer painted like a Dan Bongino wet dream. He’s a sensitive, emotionally stunted, possibly bisexual man-child who became a bully and then a douchey Captain America out of self-defense. His monstrous father turned him into a killer with no understanding of social graces. His only friends are a homicidal maniac in spandex and a strangely emotive eagle. It’s the interpersonal stuff that works best. There may be a world-shaking crisis hiding beneath the surface, but Chris still has time for a 3-way with a barfly and his only friend. An alien Deep State doesn’t mean team meetings stay on the rails any more than they do in your office. And there is no wrong time to rock.
What else can be said? The cast remains at the top of their game throughout the whole series. Robert Patrick’s Auggie never becomes more than a two-dimensional racist but honestly, what more do you need? Gunn clearly savors the opportunity to show white supremacy and toxic masculinity for the paper-thin jokes they are. Daniella Brooks’s Adebayo is conflicted about her role but proves a capable agent. Jennifer Holland — Gunn’s long-term girlfriend and fiance — softens Harcourt’s edges by the end of the show but remains a badass. Steve Agee makes John “Dye Beard” Economos into something more than an IT support joke. Chukwudi Iwuji as Murn is a mix of cold professionalism and a desperate longing for connection. And Freddie Stroma, who I have not seen in anything since his Cormac McLaggen days, is goddamn brilliant as Adrian\Vigilante. From winding up the racists in prison to his final encounter with White Dragon and then the Butterflies, Adrian proves to be the MVP of most missions. In his personal dealings, his lack of emotions and basic trivia add up to the perfect comedy relief.
And Eagly? America’s national bird — who does NOT die — is as sweet and empathic as he is a vicious bird of prey snacking on eyeballs. Watching him hug Chris is adorably bizarre. After Rocket, Groot, Eagly, and now the news that he’s written a screenplay for Coyote Vs. Acme, based on the classic WB cartoon character finally suing the Acme Corporation and its CEO played by John Cena — I’m expecting news any day now of James Gunn creating a superhero team made entirely of CGI animals. Like DC League of Super-Pets but exponentially more violent.
At no point between The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker’s release was I looking forward to this series. I’ve been a fan of Gunn’s since 2006’s hilariously gruesome Slither but even so, nothing about Peacemaker felt remotely necessary. I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. I know more than a few converts won over by the series and like an army of Butterflies bent on world domination, we won’t rest until as many people as possible watch Christopher Smith’s bumbling heroism. With season 2 already announced, that shouldn’t prove difficult.