INTERVIEW: James Gunn talks hair metal, ensembles, and PEACEMAKER’s father

“He’s the guy that you don’t want to see the show for. That’s the one I want to make a show for.”
After an explosive three premiere episodes, we spoke with James Gunn to talk a little bit about The Suicide Squad sequel featuring everyone’s favorite hero, Eagly. Oh wait… actually the show is about Peacemaker. Sorry, we got a little carried away thinking about what it would be like to get a hug from a bald eagle. John Cena‘s Peacemaker made a splash on the screen last Summer with his bright costume, shiny helmet, and questionable patriotism. Soon after the movie dropped, Gunn and HBO Max quickly announced that a Peacemaker series was in the works.
While there’s still more to see from Peacemaker and whether the show will land Christopher Smith’s story after the end of the season, we caught up with Gunn to talk a little bit about some of the highlights of the season.
While there might be hints of a potential romance blossoming between Peacemaker and Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), Gunn confirmed that the central love story of the series was actually between Christopher and Danielle Brooks‘ Leota Adebayo. “It’s not a romantic love story. It’s not a sexual love story. It’s an actual love story between two characters who come from completely different belief systems. They couldn’t be more different. Their parents are quite similar, in some ways, although also very different. And I think that you have these two people who start to initiate change in each other because of being kind to one another and of liking each other and seeing past the things they disagree on to what makes them tick,” Gunn explained.
He added that Adebayo is the first person to be nice to him, to not laugh at him but with him. Their relationship has already started to grow and just like Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport’s relationship was the beating heart of The Suicide Squad, it feels like Adebayo and Peacemaker are the beating heart of this series.
Perhaps Adebayo will even be the character who finally helps Peacemaker break out of his concrete ideals. “Peacemaker is trapped, his character [is] sort of in the bondage of his own ideals and the bondage of his belief system, which has gotten him to a pretty rotten place at the beginning of the series. Not even sure if he’s in prison or out of prison, feeling tremendous guilt over what he did to Rick Flag, and just wondering about who he is as a human being and doubting the faith that he’s built his life around all these years,” Gunn said.
While you might be able to reason Peacemaker’s act in killing Rick Flag (it was for Waller… and to some extent the United States), Flag had made a bit of a comeback from the somewhat boring colonel we met in David Ayer‘s Suicide Squad. He showed off a lighter side and even called Harley his friend. After all that, he dies at the hands of Peacemaker, uttering his final words: Peacemaker, what a joke. Maybe by the end of the series, Peacemaker won’t be such a joke?
Although you might imagine there are a lot of moving pieces that happen when it comes to writing a DCEU, or even an MCU, property, Gunn confessed that he has always basically been given free rein. “People tend to think that there’s a master plan for Marvel. But the truth is, Marvel never asked me to do anything other than, in the first Guardians, to put Thanos in there and to come up with what the Infinity Stones were. Other than that Marvel has never ever asked me to do anything. And the same thing is basically true of DC. There was one thing that maybe I pushed a little too far in the original scripts of Peacemaker, which I pulled back on this much. But other than that, they kind of let me go hog wild.”
He didn’t divulge on what he pulled back on but Gunn did sing praises of HBO Max, who went to bat for him in supporting some of his more racy decisions. “There’s no real constraints on what we can do here creatively,” he said. “We aren’t your normal DC or Marvel superhero TV show, we’re something different than that. And at the end of the day, I don’t think it is a superhero show. I think it’s a story about a sad guy who wears a costume and lives in a world of superheroes and has to compare himself to them, and is very envious of them.”
When it comes to an ensemble, Gunn is particularly skilled. Even more so if that ensemble is made up of a group of misfits. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Suicide Squad, he plucks out the characters from the sidelines and puts them under the spotlight and it works. “I think that writing for ensembles is the most natural thing to me. I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and I think a large part of it is because I come from a family with six children who were born within seven years, and that was the society I had around me for my whole life,” Gunn explained.
“There wasn’t just me and one other voice talking and having a conversation. There were constantly many voices. All my brothers and my sister have very strong personalities. So I just had those many voices going on all the time in my life, and so that’s the music around me. That’s how conversations work. It comes very naturally to me to create group dynamics. I love the sort of domino effect of relationships, I love the fact that how Peacemaker relates to Adebayo then changes a little bit the way he reacts to Harcourt and so on.”
“At the end of the day, it’s called Peacemaker, but it is an ensemble show. And to make John Economos (Steve Agee) as important of the DC character as anybody else is just a blast to me. You know, I like people who are on the outside. I like the disaffected. I like people who don’t feel like they belong. The fact that everybody online is always saying, ‘Why Peacemaker? Why him? Why this guy?’ And I’m like, ‘He’s the guy that you don’t want to see the show for. That’s the one I want to make a show for.’”
“I want to take the people that you don’t like, and see inside of them and see how we can get to someplace different with them. I want to take the John Economos in DC and put them on their own sort of weird pedestal in a way because he’s so imperfect. He’s just so imperfect, and yet be able to know his story. And that story is as important as the Superman story to me.”
Of course, it can’t all be outcasts and banter. Every show needs a villain and this one has more than a few. The key one that challenges Christopher Smith’s character is his father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), a proud racist who clearly defined a lot of Peacemaker’s childhood. Gunn explained that when talking to Cena on set, they would discuss the character’s father, and at that point, he didn’t know that he was the White Dragon, but he understood the basics of the character.
“There’s two different characters from the comics. There’s Peacemaker’s actual father in the comics, the Paul Kepperberg father, which is the old Nazi from World War II. Then there is the White Dragon character, which was a separate character. I just melded those two characters to create a truly awful, super villain with very little chance of redemption. I also think that we come into this knowing that Peacemaker’s kind of a bad guy, and then we see who his father is, and we go, ‘Well, you know, generationally, he’s a step up.’ Certainly, a better person than his father is. And maybe [it] gives us a little bit more understanding for who he is,” Gunn said.
He also expressed that it was difficult to write the character. “Auggie is such a piece of shit racist. I didn’t want to pull back on who he was as a racist. I didn’t want to make him this McDonald’s lite version of what a racist is, which is what you would normally see in television shows. But we don’t have to go unnecessarily into his bullshit. I didn’t want to serve his bullshit either.” It’s not hard to hate Auggie, who almost immediately gets himself thrown into jail, where a group of white supremacists starts saluting to him. Yeah… not much redemption there.
The presence of music is always pervasive in Gunn’s work. Like his previous scripts, Gunn explained that all the songs he chose for the series were written into the scripts, which means the needle drops work extra well when it comes to the pacing of the story and the scenes. But picking Hair Metal as the vehicle for his musical entry into Peacemaker worked for two reasons: developing character and also satisfying desire to incorporate the genre that Gunn has had for a while.
“I think that [Hair Metal] is the music that speaks to Peacemaker’s spirit and he loves Hair Metal, but I also think it speaks to a lot of the things that his dad is not. It’s androgynous. I think of Peacemaker bringing home at Hanoi Rocks on it with all the guys in the makeup and the fishnet stockings and everything else. Or bringing home a Mötley Crüe album with a satanic symbol on the front. And those are a direct affront to who his father is. So, I feel like music is something that belongs to Peacemaker and as the series goes on, we see some of the reasons for why that’s the case,” Gunn explains.
Hair Metal is not just the music that plays in the background when Peacemaker is in his trailer, but it’s part of his past and part of his family in a way that will be revealed as the series progresses. But on another note, it is simply music that Gunn has been wanting to use for a while. He explained that using the 70s AM pop hits in Guardians of the Galaxy was refreshing to him since the songs were put in a whole new environment and setting in space.
“I think that Hair Metal is something that has been completely forgotten. Or, you know, covered up for the most part in the United States,” he said. “But it wasn’t music that I particularly loved. But I believe that they’re great musicians and great artists almost everywhere if you seek them out. I started doing that a few years ago with this music and became obsessed with it. Not only the old bands, the stuff from the 80s but also there’s a lot of modern sleaze rock from Northern Europe that I think is far superior to the majority of the stuff from the 80s because they know exactly what they’re doing. It’s not pompous in any way. They don’t pretend to be serious.”
Incorporating Hair Metal into Peacemaker’s soundtrack to life not only gives us insight into his character, but it also offers us a different side to the ultra-macho, ultra-jingoistic character. Maybe under all those muscles and dubious morals, there’s a guy who just likes to rock out.
Peacemaker streams on Thursdays on HBO Max.
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