The Joker’s in a new TV show, and it is as much of an atrocity to DC fans as Batman vs. Superman was.
In the summer of 2016, comic book writer Gail Simone made headlines by introducing a new female superhero to DC Comics. At first glance, Batwoman seemed like just another addition to an already-crowded roster at one of America’s biggest comic publishers. But when she debuted in “Batwoman #1,” something changed: She was as much about defining what it means for women and girls to be superheroes today as anything else. And yet her takeover has been so successful that many people have forgotten who this character is supposed to represent — which begs the question: Who are we talking about here? How does Batwoman fit into contemporary feminist discourse on representation and identity? What can these questions tell us about our own relationship with pop culture icons writ large?
Suicide Squad is one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. It has been met with a lot of criticism, but it also has some really great things going for it. One of these things is a rowdy and reflective take on DC’s weirdest antihero.
When I think about DC Comics periods that are close to my heart, the 1980s always comes to me. Sure, there were plenty of spectacular, genre-defining crossover events and maxiseries over the decade, but the publisher’s peripheral products were a demonstration of unrivaled ingenuity. In the 1980s, it seemed as though every costumed character could (and often did) earn their own multi-issue miniseries or short-lived ongoing series, extending their universes and supporting casts well beyond the expectations of their fans. Peacemaker, a Charlton Comics character from the 1960s who was subsequently incorporated into the main DC world post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, was among the enormous list of characters to receive similar treatment (in his case, with a four-issue miniseries). During those four issues, the silly and violent figure was made more goofier and more violent, all while developing an origin tale that was both respectful to longtime fans and accessible to new ones.
The Suicide Squad’s James Gunn’s HBO Max TV series, which is written, created, and partially directed by him, could not have a more similar sensibility, as it melds the best gimmicks of the 1960s and 1980s — both from its titular character’s past and from genre storytelling in general — with a uniquely modern black comedy. While the final product isn’t perfect, the first seven episodes more than make up for it by being violent, lovable, and ridiculously entertaining, all while revealing the latent potential of TV set in the main DC Extended Universe.
Following the events of The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker follows pacifist vigilante Christopher Smith (John Cena), who is recruited to another top-secret ARGUS task group to destroy members of a sinister conspiracy. The Suicide Squad alums Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee), grizzled and mysterious squad commander Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), and new recruit Leota Adebayo are among those assisting him on the assignment (Danielle Brooks). As the mission puts the team to the test — and the team puts each other to the test — Smith is forced to confront aspects of his pre-prison past, such as his “friendship” with Adrian Chase, better known as “Vigilante” (Freddie Stroma), and his tumultuous relationship with his father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick).
After Gunn and Cena’s previous collaboration on The Suicide Squad — a film that understood the poetic weirdness and beauty of superhero comics in a revolutionary way — some viewers will probably go into Peacemaker expecting eight more installments of the same flavor. While the series is clearly a sequel to The Suicide Squad (both narratively and conceptually), it swiftly transforms into an entirely distinct watching experience. Watching Gunn’s fast-paced, genre-bending film pacing translate to television is both exhilarating and startling, as it allows for unparalleled character discovery and growth, as well as the series’ season-long plotlines to truly simmer. However, the show’s breadth of narrative does have some drawbacks when binge-watched in a short period of time; some situations or one-liners might come perilously near to appearing drawn-out or too similar to one another. (To some sense, it seems like reading an eight-issue arc of an ongoing comic book, where you could get more enjoyment from digesting the episodes separately over time rather than in one big binge.) However, such moments are considerably outnumbered by moments that are brilliant and outlandish, making them more artistically engaging than most of the previous decade of superhero television.
Peacemaker’s handling of violence and profanity is both smart and absurd, particularly as an officially sanctioned rendition of a character from one of the two most popular fictional worlds. Swear words are used so regularly that they function as punctuation, and it’s almost hard to keep track of the number of jokes about sex and other forbidden subjects. While this will undoubtedly damage some viewers’ enjoyment of the program, it manages to seem joyously organic inside its setting, and perhaps contributes to some of the show’s most memorable moments. (One early sequence in Episode 6 is so well-crafted and performed that it will be living rent-free in my brain for months.)
The violence has a different visceral tone than The Suicide Squad’s gory murders and hot dog-style dismemberments, particularly when contrasted against the show’s ordinary country backdrop, but the effect is nevertheless powerful and seems like a logical progression from Gunn’s horror days. Overall, Peacemaker would be anti-obscenity crusader Frederic Wertham’s worst nightmare, since his struggle against the “scandalous” material of Golden Age comic books had a lasting influence on the industry. Even in today’s era of boundary-pushing superhero satire like The Boys and Invincible, that’s a distinction the series deserves to wear proudly.
All of Peacemaker’s gore and lewdness, though, cannot be separated from its tremendously deep emotional heart, a detail that has become a kind of a standard of Gunn’s many superhero films. The series is filled with unavoidable silliness, from the characters’ interactions to the mere premise of some action scenes to the opening title sequence, which must be seen to be believed. Even the innocuously name-dropped comic characters are some of the most unusual and gratifying DC deep-cuts available, and will no doubt satisfy aficionados of the publisher’s strangest archives. The human-animal connection between Smith and his pet eagle, Eagly, will undoubtedly tug at the heartstrings, as it would in any excellent Gunn adaption.
At the same time, the show explores the grief that lurks behind the surface of Peacemaker’s world — his goofy outfit, American flag-covered trinkets, and uncompromising enthusiasm for 1980s hair metal. The program utilizes Smith as a case study on the shortcomings of toxic masculinity almost from the start, and that theme only becomes stronger and more emotionally relevant as the season progresses. Through a narrative that I never anticipated to see in a major superhero adaption, the show explores the possible confluence between toxic masculinity and racial supremacy.
It’s difficult to see Peacemaker functioning (or even surviving) without its current cast. While Cena effectively made Smith his own in The Suicide Squad, the unabashed depth he is able to offer to the character is always fascinating to witness. In some ways, this series seems like an unintended conclusion of Cena’s whole career — as a wrestler, action-movie star, funny actor, and even commercial representative. Holland and Agee, who both shone in their little screen time in The Suicide Squad, are given the opportunity to develop out their individual DC Comics characters in some genuinely entertaining ways. Iwuji and Brooks are excellent additions to the show’s motley crew, giving outstanding pathos to two of the show’s most unexpected characters. While Stroma’s Vigilante is considerably different from the straight-laced Adrian Chase that comic fans are familiar with, he sells that interpretation almost every second he’s on screen, providing just enough opportunity for him to evolve into that more weathered version of himself.
From the start, HBO Max’s Peacemaker had a lot riding on it: it’s the sequel to a masterpiece of a superhero film, it’s the first TV show set officially inside the DCEU, and it’s based on a character who is still relatively unknown. Despite this, all of these factors seem to work in the series’ advantage, enabling it to present the action-packed, irreverent, and strange tale that fits its heroes wonderfully without any actual expectations. Yes, there are some growing pains, but they are much overshadowed by the series’ unique and entertaining aspects. Peacemaker, like the innumerable DC Comics solo series of the 1980s, demonstrates an important fact about the DCEU: showcasing the strangest conceivable margins of a fictional world makes the whole universe seem much wider and more complete.
4 out of 5 stars
The first three episodes of Peacemaker will premiere on HBO Max on Thursday, January 13th. The following episodes will be distributed on a weekly basis.
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DC’s “dc vs marvel characters” is a rowdy and reflective take on the DC universe. The story follows a group of misfit heroes as they try to figure out their place in the world.
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