Do Ya Wanna Taste It? Thoughts on Peacemaker
I had no intention of watching HBO Max's Peacemaker. The whole concept seemed to me indicative of the cynicism and blatant manipulation that characterize this most recent chapter in the lifecycle of the superhero-industrial complex. Superheroes are now the leading product of the increasingly consolidated entertainment empires vying for our money, and each of those empires is now promoting its own streaming platform. Ergo, each superhero property has to function as a launching platform for a spin-off show, be it ever so esoteric and hard to justify artistically. Did you think that The Batman's take on the Penguin was weird and over-emphasized, a waste of Colin Farrell under a distracting fat suit in a role that could have been played by any character actor in Hollywood? Well, just sit tight for The Penguin, coming to HBO Max in 2023!
It would be one thing if these shows were bad and easily ignorable. But the same self-correcting mechanism that allows Marvel to keep chugging as the biggest pop culture juggernaut in existence despite the failure of individual movies is clearly informing the production of these shows, which repeatedly forestall the "who asked for this?" reaction with top-notch casting, stratospheric production values, and (up to a certain point) good writing. Hawkeye is a boring character who has failed to launch and is sort of responsible for the death of the MCU's best-liked heroine? Here, have Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh in his titular show, which is blatantly modeled after the character's most beloved comics run! I'm not one of those people who think that if the MCU vanished, Hollywood would revert to what it was in the 70s, but even I find it depressing to watch so much money and talent, and so much storytelling energy, being diverted towards stories that don't really have a justification for their existence except for corporate synergy, but are nevertheless too well-executed to ignore.
In the case of Peacemaker, I had the added disincentive of genuinely disliking this version of the character, and of knowing that this was the reaction I was meant to have. I quite enjoyed James Gunn's The Suicide Squad last year, and one of the best things about it was how cheerfully hateable it made John Cena's Peacemaker, a blustering, over-literal, hyper-violent assassin who never seems to realize that he's the bad guy. When he utters his catchphrase—"I cherish peace with all of my heart. I don't care how many men, women, and children I kill to get it"—he immediately embodies the inherent contradictions and bone-deep stupidity of American imperialism, not to mention its roots in fascism and white supremacy. It's enormously satisfying when he's killed towards the end of the movie, not least because by that point he has murdered one of the film's most likable characters. So when an after-credits scene revealed that Peacemaker had survived, and the internet confirmed that this was in preparation for his own show, I quietly seethed. It felt like not just a reminder of how many storytelling decisions these days are rooted in cynical cost-benefit calculations, but of how impossible it is for Hollywood to decisively write off handsome white villains. They always have to get a chance at redemption.
Obviously, I did end up watching Peacemaker, and enjoying it quite a bit. It even addresses some of the problems I list above. But for all that, I'm not sure that I haven't just been more successfully manipulated. Take, for example, the first thing that attracted me to the show, despite my determination to ignore it: its deranged, delightful opening credits. Set to Norwegian hair metal band Wig Wam's lyrically-bizarre "Do Ya Wanna Taste It", the credits sequence features the show's entire cast dancing, stiffly and with blank expressions, in a dazzling disco arena. It's weird, and unexpected, and never fails to put a big goofy smile on your face. But it's hard not to wonder whether that weirdness isn't, on some level, calculated, a way of signaling to the audience that this show isn't like other superhero shows, to obscure the ways in which it is very much following in their footsteps.
Before we get to that, though, there are a lot of ways in which Peacemaker outdoes most of its competitors. For one thing, its writing is just good on a technical level. Where the MCU Disney+ shows are almost uniformly made up of great setup and no follow-through, and the Star Wars shows try to obscure their micron-thick plotting and characterization with gorgeous visuals and a lot of fanservice, Peacemaker feels, from beginning to end, like a coherent, well-structured, impeccably-paced story. It's a show that respects it viewers' time rather than submitting to streaming bloat—just eight episodes, rarely longer than 45 minutes, with a hell of a lot going on in each one. It follows the adage of starting the story as close to the middle as possible, and delivers its infodumps as the plot is already running—a genuinely refreshing choice is the fact that the black ops team to which Peacemaker is assigned is happy to leave him (and us) in the dark about who exactly they're investigating and why, throwing terms like "butterflies" at each other until the contextual clues make it clear what they're talking about. It has a big cast, but it knows how to give each character a spotlight and make them feel distinctive and compelling. It has great action scenes, but it doesn't belabor them. It has a lot of lewd, raucous humor, but it doesn't use it as a crutch. Best of all, it has a story and a villain who are weird and distinctive, not yet another conspiracy of interchangeable men in suits.
None of this is surprising when you consider that Gunn—who apparently wrote the whole season on a bit of lark during COVID lockdown, before convincing HBO Max to greenlight it—demonstrated a similar technical mastery, married to a gross sense of humor and a fondness for the weirder end of the comics storytelling range, in The Suicide Squad. But precisely because this is what we've come to expect from him, it's also easier to notice how much that weirdness is obscuring a template. Or rather, how there already is a template for the redemption of attractive, murderous, fascist-adjacent white men, which Peacemaker seems to be following as if it were checking items off a list. It gives its title character a tragic backstory. It has him stand next to worse racists—his father Auggie (Robert Patrick), a white supremacist supervillain—and worse murderers—his sidekick Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), who is cheerfully psychopathic and doesn't possess even Peacemaker's vestigial moral qualms about killing. It has him befriend a gay, black woman (Danielle Brooks). And, in the vein of stories from Community to The Good Place that insist that the foundation of all personal growth is having friends that you want to change for, it gives him a team to bond with and feel protective towards.
At the same time, Gunn seems aware that redemption is something that has to be sought, not given. The most interesting choice he makes with Peacemaker is to make him smart in very specific ways—he's got good tactical instincts and can quickly analyze a situation and respond to it without elaborating his thinking process—and then slowly expand that intelligence to encompass the things that he hasn't allowed himself to think about. When he's first sent on an assassination mission for his new team, Peacemaker loudly complains that his new weapon doesn't have a dove of peace engraved on it, insisting, in his typical childish way, that the emblem makes killing OK by giving it a higher purpose. But when he does get the weapon decorated, he pauses a moment, then admits that he just doesn't want to be an assassin anymore. This is a character who, underneath his bluff and bluster, understands that he has fucked himself up (and a lot of other people along the way). For all the rather mechanical ways in which the show tries to convince us that he's a good guy deep down, the one that feels most organic and heartfelt is the fact that he wants to change, but doesn't quite know how to go about achieving that, or even how to articulate that desire.
Which brings me to the aspect of the show that I find myself most ambivalent about, its handling of racism. If there's one bit of praise you've probably heard about Peacemaker, one thing that, like myself, got you over your hesitation about watching the show, it's probably that it is a show about unlearning toxic masculinity, and specifically white supremacy. There's a very good scene in the show's first episode in which Auggie complains that Peacemaker was supposed to follow in his footsteps, to protect America against "blacks" and the like. Peacemaker, clearly uncomfortable but not willing or able to articulate a full-throated rejection of his father, merely offers a soft demurral. It's a great encapsulation of how racism endures in no small part because of white people who are too uncomfortable challenging it, and it establishes that redemption, for Peacemaker, will have to involve actively opposing his father's poisonous worldview.
But that, unfortunately, is about as deep as Peacemaker goes into the topic. And in some ways the show's depiction of racism is so shallow as to be harmful. It feels, in fact, like a throwback to well-meaning liberal stories from the 80s and 90s, in which racism was safely corralled, the province of rednecks and the KKK. And, like more recent liberal handling of the subject, such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it treats racism as a cudgel that white people can use against each other, to disqualify their arguments or just make their opponents look stupid and uncouth—even Vigilante, who at one point boasts about killing people for smoking marijuana, is put off by Peacemaker's willingness to associate with his racist father—not as something that hurts actual marginalized groups.
It's telling, for example, that the only person Auggie actually targets as a supervillain is his white son, and that all other forms of racism are absent from the show's world. A secondary storyline involves two police officers, Song and Fitzgibbon (Annie Change and Lochlyn Munro), who begin investigating Auggie. He's immediately and relentlessly racist towards Song, while Fitzgibbon plays the perfect white ally, having his partner's back while letting her take the lead in smacking Auggie down. It's never suggested that Song might have experienced other, more systemic, forms of racism, including from within her own department.
One some level, you can see the justification for these choices. We don't necessarily need more depictions of racism on our screens, and especially not in a story in which these events, and these characters, are not the main focus. And the idea that racism is something the white people need to solve among themselves has a certain logic to it (even if that's not how this has ever worked out). And yet at the same time, you can't help but feel that this is the show making things easy for itself—and for its main character. It's a lot harder to unlearn white supremacy in a world where the more genteel version of it is still considered entirely acceptable—a world where, for example, supposedly worldly and sophisticated journalists allow themselves to go on TV and say that war and refugeeism are properly the province of black and brown countries, but shocking when they happen to white Europeans. Peacemaker seems to offer a fantasy in which white men can kill that part of themselves by literally killing a thinly-veiled KKK leader, and then retreat to the safety of a newfound, multiracial found family in which there is, naturally, no racism to be found.
You might say that I'm being unfair—why should a dumb, lewd superhero show have to shoulder the burden of grappling with the depressing prevalence of racism in our culture? Isn't it better to just have a fun story about a goofy meathead slowly becoming a better person through the friendship of good people? But that brings me back to my original reticence towards the show, and the question of how it justifies its choice to focus on Peacemaker in the first place. I'm not sure I'd like Peacemaker to be a different, more serious, more hard-hitting show—we've already seen how the superhero genre handles these difficult topics and the result is rarely very effective. But I'm also not sure that, in having enjoyed it as much as I did, I found something in it that made the whole exercise worthwhile. Or whether I just succumbed to the same canny manipulation that this entire genre has made its stock-in-trade.