So what did we learn from the Peacemaker finale, kids? Well, we learned that a human torpedo is ultimately more powerful than a kaiju that provides milk for a race of butterfly aliens. We learned that Peacemaker is perhaps less of a garbage person than he once seemed. And we learned that maybe, just maybe, Peacemaker wasn’t lying about Aquaman fucking fish?
Or maybe we just learned that Peacemaker creator James Gunn can now get away with anything in the realm of comic-book movies and TV shows.
“Yeah, they kind of let me do whatever I want,” Gunn told Rolling Stone yesterday during a phone interview from the set of the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
Nowhere was this power more palpable than after the finale’s climactic fight scene — where Peacemaker (John Cena) opts to kill off the butterfly aliens, even though they claimed to want to save humanity from our planet-ruining ways — when our hero and his team run into none other than the Justice League. Well, some of the Justice League, with Superman and Wonder Woman appearing in silhouette, but Aquaman and Flash actually being played by Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller. Fed up that the more legit heroes showed after the aliens had already been defeated, Peacemaker sneers, “You’re late, you fuckin’ dickheads.” Then he tells Aquaman — in a callback to a joke from earlier in the season about the king of the seas making love to his gill-breathing pals — “Go fuck another fish, asshole.” Aquaman scowls and says, “I’m so fucking sick of that rumor,” at which point a confused Flash suggests that it’s not a rumor. Aquaman’s retort (invoking his teammate’s real name): “Fuck you, Barry.”
Gunn spoke with us about those Justice League cameos, the just-announced Peacemaker Season Two, calling Batman a pussy, and more.
HBO Max just announced your renewal. Have you given much thought to what you’re going to do in Season Two, or does that have to wait until Guardians 3 is done?
Oh, so much thought. I think about it all the time. Guardians 3 is a lot of work, but it’s also — I know this is a weird thing to say — all done. I plan everything out so much. Everything’s storyboarded, everything’s designed, everything’s ready to go. I show up, I shoot for a long time; it’s hard to get everything. But in my off hours I have to think about what I have to do next, which is Peacemaker. So, yeah spending plenty of time thinking about it, stressing about it, being joyous but also terrified.
I have so many questions about the Justice League scene, starting with: How hard was it to get Jason and Ezra to do it?
It wasn’t hard at all. I think I talked to Jason while we were still shooting. He had already said yes. He thought it was funny. I was a little afraid he was going to be upset. I also thought [Aquaman director] James Wan was going to be upset over Peacemaker saying that [Aquaman] fucks fish all the time. I explained that Peacemaker’s an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and Jason laughed his head off and was game from the beginning. I didn’t know Ezra. Ezra came in later. I found out through some friends that Ezra likes my movies a lot, and so I asked if he would come in and do it, and he did.
When speaking over the years with other people who work on DC shows and movies, I’ve been told repeatedly that DC is very protective of how their characters are portrayed, especially the big guns. Did you get any pushback from them about putting Jason and Ezra into a scene that at least partially advances the notion of Aquaman fucking fish?
[Laughs.] I really didn’t, because of James and Jason. And also [Peacemaker producer] Peter Safran, who also produces Aquaman. I had a few questions from DC. The first was about calling Batman a pussy. They questioned that, and I said, “No, I had to have that line.” And then, “Why aren’t you upset that he’s accusing Superman of having a poop fetish?” But it was all good. They were good with it. At one point, they were like, “Bat-Mite? Do you really want to put Bat-Mite in the universe?” And I said, “We’ve gotta have Bat-Mite.” So they were cool about that, too. But [the Aquaman-Flash scene] was nothing more than a short, two-sentence conversation. They were pretty open to whatever, and they knew what the nature of Peacemaker was and who he is. We can’t go into this and have Peacemaker spouting a bunch of bullshit about politics and women and not have him spouting bullshit about characters in the DCEU.
Peacemaker is an idiot, but these episodes also manage to take his emotional journey somewhat seriously, without the drama undercutting the comedy or vice versa. This is something you do a lot in your work. How do you manage to keep the two elements in balance?
I think it’s really just being authentic to myself and to who the characters are. People all the time say, “Why mix such dark shit with such funny shit?” That’s just how I see life. I see life as humorous and joyous, but I also see life as very dark. And so, I’m just writing what I experience outside of the giant cow kaiju. It’s really who I am as a human being. When I first started writing, I wrote a novel in the year 2000. I really loved it, thought it was great, it got good reviews, and everyone talked about what a great black-comic novel it was. I was like, “Oh, I guess it is comic, because I was laughing a lot as I was writing it. But I had never thought of it as comic.” I really don’t go for the comedy. It’s just happening as I’m writing it.
Is writing this character in a sympathetic way challenging, given all the specific things that he is so wrong about? He’s even reluctant to totally condemn his father for the racist trash that Auggie preaches.
Yeah, but I think he does condemn him pretty hard by shooting him in the forehead. Part of this is him breaking free from the constraints of who his father is. [Peacemaker’s] father told him for years that he was a piece of shit, and Auggie should have slit his throat when he was born. Peacemaker has taken on that belief about himself, and then he boasts and pretends like he’s the greatest thing in the world to get away from that self-belief. So part of what he’s fighting against is that. Peacemaker’s got problematic thinking, yes, but don’t we all in certain ways? At the end of the day, despite having murdered a lot of people, he’s trying to be a better human being. What more can you really ask for?
You can probably ask for a little more, but I’ll allow it.
The not-murdering-people part, I agree!
In the climax of the finale, the head butterfly is explaining that they want to take over the world to save us from ourselves, and specifically from the planet being ruined by people with worldviews not unlike Peacemaker’s. That’s an interesting moment, since so much of the season is about him pulling away from that.
I think that some of that is about people like Peacemaker. But I see Peacemaker as being ignorant of scientific and cultural issues. I don’t think he has a lot of ideals about politics. I think he has just followed the crowd he’s been with. But in other ways, he is laudable because he isn’t a racist. He doesn’t subscribe to what his father subscribes to, or what he believes with his own sexuality, with the type of music he listens to, and I don’t think he puts a lot of faith in his father’s belief system. He just wants his father’s love. The butterfly is talking about people that just don’t really pay attention; you follow, and you read a meme on Facebook and believe it’s true, because that meme says that masks hurt us. It’s a ludicrous thing to believe, and it makes no sense whatsoever, but they believe it because they read a meme.
The guys who created Frasier have talked about how giving Frasier an even more uptight brother allowed them to turn Frasier into a leading man by shifting his more ridiculous qualities from Cheers to Niles. Does Vigilante serve that same function for you here, just because he’s a less self-aware guy than Peacemaker?
Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true, and it’s also true about Peacemaker’s dad. Vigilante is like Peacemaker but even more screwed up mentally, I guess. He has a lot of really major issues. But there’s also a sweetness to Vigilante despite his sociopathy. So he’s kind of his own character. He isn’t just a piece of Peacemaker broken off and made into another person. Whereas Auggie is everything that’s bad about Peacemaker and so, so much worse. It has a little bit to do with having compassion. You don’t know where people came from, what the people they grew up with believed. Having compassion for people who are making their little piece of the world better, even if you can’t quite see it, can be a good thing.
In the Marvel movies and shows, they use midcredits scenes to tease future projects. You used yours here just for extended comedy bits. Was any of that done to play off expectations from superhero fans that anything extra has to be important?
I’m going to betray something I’m not sure I should: Do they have scenes after the credits?
Occasionally, they do, and it’s almost always setting up the next spin-off or introducing a new character.
Okay. For me, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do that we have those end credits of all the people who worked hard on the show and we want people to see their names. But also, we always have some extra footage. I just think it’s a nice little gift to give people. Rick and Morty does it, too.
The comedy on the show feels loose and improvised, even though I’m sure most or all of it was tightly scripted. How much room do the actors have to play with their lines?
There’s a lot of room to play. I think it’s 99 percent scripted that turns up in the show. But I wanted to capture the feeling that we are just photographing these people — this is not acting. There are things that are improv’ed by me or by John. I always have the God mic on set, and I just yell out stuff, or sometimes John will add a thing.
Why did you choose to use the Wig Wam song from your great opening-credits sequence to score one of the fight scenes in the finale?
I thought that song kind of leads to that moment. Both [the lyric] “Do you want to taste it,” in the sense of “Do you want to deal with this shit from these three badasses?” but also, it all leads up to Harcourt [Jennifer Holland] getting wounded and choking on her own blood.
What interested you about Peacemaker when you were developing The Suicide Squad? He’s a relatively unknown character who barely interacted with the Squad in comics before you got hold of him.
I’m always looking for superheroes that are different in some way. Whether they’re different on the page or I’m taking and making them different, it doesn’t matter. I just like them to be different. I always liked Yondu, for instance, because he has a superpower that’s totally unique. Peacemaker, I always liked the idea that he wants peace, no matter how many people he has to kill to get it. I really wanted to create a character who had that in mind — somebody who is an antihero in the best sense, because he’s trying to do something good in the worst way possible.
People who work on DC TV shows say that they often get more creative leeway when they’re using more obscure characters versus the major ones. Is that part of the appeal for you? Or are you at a point in your career where they’ll let you get away with anything, with anyone?
Yeah, they kind of let me do whatever I want. People don’t believe it, but they told me I could kill Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, so I think I can kind of do anything. Listen, if I chose Batman, it might be a different story, but they’ve pretty much let me do what I want.
How do you keep yourself from going mad with that level of IP power?
Because number one, I care about the IP. I don’t want to degrade the IP. I want people to love these characters. All that matters to me is the story, and if the story is the most important thing, and the characters are the most important thing, there’s really no way to go mad with it. You’re just doing things that people don’t expect.
How was this experience of making a season of TV for you?
I just loved working in television. I absolutely adored it. I think I’m a character guy first and foremost, and television is the medium of characters. Being able to take my time with relationships, get into their nuances, it’s just very hard to do in a movie. With eight hours of television, you’re able to do it. I love that aspect of it, of letting ourselves go with the comedy a bit more. Strangely, censorship isn’t the thing that it is [in movies]. Yes, there’s the TV-MA [rating], but it’s much looser. So I really liked working with television, it was so much fun to me. This group of people, with John and Danielle [Brooks] and Peter Safran and Jen and Steve [Agee] and Freddie [Stroma], is great, and I want to work with them lots more. And hopefully, in non-Covid times so we can hang around a lot more on the weekends than we did.