a long talk

‘I Love Superheroes. I Also Think They’re the Dumbest Things That Ever Existed.’

After decades skewering the genre, James Gunn chooses sincerity.

“Part of me wanting to do Peacemaker was to sculpt away all the juggling and entertaining John does, and focus on that vulnerable sector.” Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max
“Part of me wanting to do Peacemaker was to sculpt away all the juggling and entertaining John does, and focus on that vulnerable sector.” Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max
“Part of me wanting to do Peacemaker was to sculpt away all the juggling and entertaining John does, and focus on that vulnerable sector.” Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max

The season-one finale of writer-director James Gunn’s Peacemaker ends with a large-scale comic action scene. Peacemaker, a.k.a. Chris Smith (John Cena), and the surviving members of Task Force X lead an assault on a remote facility. There, body-snatching extraterrestrial creatures known as “Butterflies” who are plotting to take over Earth as a replacement home for their own despoiled planet are keeping an enormous “Cow” for a food supply. The climax finds Chris — introduced in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad as a dark and ruthless (if dorky) Captain America type who never thinks for himself — finally choosing his friends over his ideals when he rejects a surprisingly persuasive invitation from the Butterflies leader. He symbolically banishes his demons, too; one episode after defying his evil father (Robert Patrick) for the first time, Chris imagines killing him in a figurative, dreamy scene in the woods.

Peacemaker represents a transitional moment in Gunn’s raised-eyebrow relationship to the superhero genre, which he’s hitherto plumbed mainly for comic and satirical purposes, starting with 1997’s Tromeo and Juliet. Whereas Gunn defines his two (soon to be three) installments in the Guardians of the Galaxy series as pure science fiction, his take on Suicide Squad plays more like a satirical action thriller with a science-fiction overlay than a straight-up superhero movie. Peacemaker, for all of its bone-crushing action scenes and scabrous yet silly jokes, is the most sincere, straightforward, and anguished work he’s done in the genre — a quality that Gunn attributes largely to star John Cena, because, as he told us, he never would’ve put Chris Smith at the center of a story if he hadn’t been so impressed with Cena’s acting in The Suicide Squad.

We spoke to Gunn about his collaboration with Cena, finding maniacal tendencies in every superhero, and the storytelling devices he used to bring his latest to the screen (including one of his favorite recurring comedic devices, “Chekhov’s shitty gun”).

The dynamic between parents and children in your work is fascinating. You’ve got two sets of problematic parent-child relationships in Peacemaker: Amanda Waller and Adebayo Leota, which is fraught because of how mom is using her daughter. Then in a more extreme way, Chris and his dad, Auggie, who’s not only abusive but a racist and a terrorist. Guardians revolves around the longing for an absent mother, and Guardians 2 is not exactly The Andy Griffith Show when it comes to father-son dynamics. Is it often a tragic love that children in your stories feel for their parents?
Yeah! I’m obviously drawn to sociopathic or absent parents and the children who love those parents and want so deeply to be loved by them but are unable to ever get that. That’s definitely true with Chris, more so than any other character in something I’ve done. Leota and Waller’s relationship is much more nuanced than that — I mean, it’s not exactly the same thing. Chris’s father has neither the willingness nor the ability to love Chris. Yet Chris is constantly trying to earn his father’s affection, at least through the early episodes.

Then something starts to change in him. In part it’s because he’s getting what he never got from his father from other people for the first time. And getting that — especially from Adebayo — is something that builds him up and makes him not need that parental affection as much as he did at the beginning of the show.

How does the relationship between the heroes and the authorities — government agents, assassins, contractors — in your work relate to this idea of loving a parent that won’t love you back, and maybe doesn’t have your best interests at heart?
Well, there’s an argument to be made for that. Definitely in Suicide Squad, that’s a prominent thing we get into, our relationship with a government that’s using us. But Peacemaker’s a little different because everything involving the government is so behind-the-scenes. We hear about the government manipulations, but we don’t get into the details too fully. Peacemaker is about what’s going on in America, but it’s more about what’s going on within America’s people than within the government itself.

“We’re not killing anyone who doesn’t deserve it.” That’s what Murn says.

Which is like a Get Out of Jail Free card for your conscience?
Yeah! And we see that quite clearly with Harcourt’s character in episode seven, where Adebayo says to her, “You’re telling me that the only lives that matter are the lives of the soldiers that fight beside you?” And Harcourt says, “Yes.” Probably not even realizing she’s saying yes until after she says it. But that’s what her belief system is. She and Peacemaker, in that respect, are almost exactly the same.

Now, the difference is, Harcourt would’ve never killed Rick Flag. She would’ve never done that in a million years because she prioritizes those fellow soldiers ahead of the orders.

After directing the first three episodes plus episode six, why did you feel it was important to come in one more time at the end?
Because of the moment where Chris makes his big decision. I knew it was gonna be hard to get that right. This is a guy who’s trapped in his own ideals, which were born from trauma. Chris’s brother died, and his insane reaction was to try to make the innate meaninglessness of death meaningful by connecting it to a vow [of service]. He’s been trapped in this prison of his ideals.

At the end of this show, he does the exact opposite of what he did in The Suicide Squad. He put his ideals second to his personal love of his friends. It’s a really complicated moment. I’m not even sure Chris is doing the right thing, but the decision he makes definitely marks growth for him on a personal level.

I also wonder if Chris’s decision makes things difficult for the audience because you can kinda see the Butterfly’s point?
A thousand percent! She makes a lot of sense. But what’s more important for our story is that Chris has disconnected himself from other human beings by making every person an object to fulfill his goal. He did it in The Suicide Squad, and all through this story he had to fight the urge to do exactly the same thing. In that moment in the end, he takes a different path.

Your Peacemaker is bisexual. That’s an advance over the mainstream comic-book movie norm, which tends to be straight or neutered.
Chris is incredibly conservative in every way but sexually. Which is the opposite of Adebayo, who’s [politically] very liberal but sexually, even though she’s a lesbian, she’s incredibly monogamous in this “family — me and my wife!” way.

Of all the characters in DC Comics that you could have chosen to expand into a self-contained television series, why did you decide on Peacemaker?
On the one hand, it’s John Cena. He’s a guy I love and think is a great dude, and the kind of person I want to be in business with because he has so much integrity. I love being with him and making a show with John and Steve Agee, who’s one of my best friends, and Jen [Holland], who’s my partner. Being able to make a show with people I really love around me is my favorite joy on earth. I have it now with the Guardians movies, with people I didn’t all know beforehand, but now they’re family to me.

Another part of it was that Peacemaker did seem like the one character who did not have a positive arc in The Suicide Squad. Unlike Bloodsport or Polka-Dot Man or Ratcatcher, he didn’t have a big change. He actually is a pretty bad guy. Being able to see how he got that way and where he could possibly go was exciting to me.

I also think he’s the most socially relevant character in The Suicide Squad. Chris stands in for a lot of people today, or at least aspects of the norm. But he’s also a very nuanced character.

There’s a depth of sadness and brokenness to John Cena’s performance that caught me by surprise. What did you see in his previous work that made you believe he was capable of that?
There’s one really specific moment with me and John that I can trace the origin of this show back to. It’s the moment in The Suicide Squad where Peacemaker is holding his gun on Ratcatcher 2 and he’s about to kill her. I went into this tight closeup of his eyes. On set, I’m always on the microphone talking over everything while we’re shooting. So I’m talking to John on the God Mic about what he’s feeling, and I see his eyes switch. I see him go to this incredibly sad, vulnerable place. We realize this character is a guy who’s doing something he doesn’t want to do at all, but that he’s going to do anyway, which is shoot a young girl.

When I saw that moment in him, I knew John was not just a performer who was funny, which is why I hired him, but a guy who had this other layer. At that moment, I knew John had that thing. It’s a thing a lot of big actors don’t have, and that most wrestlers turned actors don’t have. Dave Bautista also has it. That’s the reason I hired him for Guardians in the first place. A big part of me wanting to do Peacemaker was to sculpt away all the other stuff, all the juggling and entertaining John does, and focus on that vulnerable sector.

“We see who he truly is for the first time when he’s alone at that piano.” Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max

Tell me about the piano scene. It’s emotionally very resonant with the character, while at the same time a showcase for the specialness of your lead actor.
For me, that scene is more important for what it says about who Christopher Smith is. The thing that works so well for me about the piano scene is that Chris himself is an artist. He’s not a killer, he’s sensitive. He’s not at all the mean bully that he comes off as. He’s become that because he is so sensitive.

He was socialized as a bully to suppress that part of himself?
Yeah. He’s been totally fucked with and turned into something else as a reaction to those sensitivities. He’s like many extremely sensitive people, of which I am one. You could become the opposite of that very easily as a reaction to your own sensitivity, and that’s what happened to Peacemaker. We see who he truly is for the first time when he’s alone at that piano.

He’s also a guy that, although he seems to be very adept with words at certain times, it’s always in the realm of making jokes and doing put-downs. He’s unable to really state his feelings with words, and in that moment we see it very clearly in his performance. And that links to the beginning of the trauma. He’s in his brother’s death at the piano. He’s playing the last song he played with his brother before he killed him by accident.

That’s a perfect excuse to jump to another thing I was going to ask you about: language. I noticed this particularly in Peacemaker, but I think it’s true of pretty much everything else you’ve written that I’ve seen, which is the difficulty people have communicating with each other in even the most basic way. Even characters who have well-developed vocabularies, or are experts in a particular subject — they have conversations with other people that get bogged down over the applicability of a simple word, like insect versus bird. Or they get angry with the person who’s trying to first define everything they’re not talking about before the conversation is allowed to progress. Even when your characters are speaking the same language, there are translation problems.
For me, the inability to communicate between human beings is at the core of my issues in my life, and at the core of most of our problems with one another socially and politically. It’s at the core of everything. It’s true even of people who are thought of as having great expressive powers. I have a large vocabulary. I’m able to express myself very well. Even that, in a way, can become a shield to prevent a connection with another human being. Everything can be a shield. The moments where we’re able to actually connect with another human being and not feel trapped within our singular selves are rare and few. Trying to find those moments in my life or in the work is what drives me, probably more than anything else.

Are you a fan of Steven Spielberg? That’s something he’s also deeply interested in: the struggle to communicate, whether it’s aliens trying to talk to humans in Close Encounters and E.T. or people from different cultures in something like Amistad, Munich, or West Side Story.
I’m a huge fan of Spielberg. Not just because of that but because Spielberg is the guy that made me understand what a director was. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was like, “Wow, who made this? There’s a guy in a hat in this movie, but he didn’t make it. Who’s the person who made this movie?” It was also the first time I remember directors being mentioned in the advertising, which was not usual at that time. Although I had already started making movies by that time, that was really what made me want to be a director.

You have an interesting relationship to comic-book material. You take a piss out of it every chance you get, but at the same time, you seem to genuinely adore it.
That’s true.

How do you ride that line without going too far in one direction or the other?
I love superheroes. I also think they’re the dumbest things that have ever existed. I have no happier times in my life than lying in my bed when I was 12 and reading comic books. I don’t think life got much better than that. And yet the fact that we take these things seriously as adults is ridiculous because people really would look at you like they look at Peacemaker when he walks into Fennel Fields wearing a costume: What’s wrong with you? You think that’s cool? You’re a maniac.

The idea that superheroes are maniacs is something I like very much. Guardians is much different because it’s really a science-fiction story, a science-fantasy story. They’re not superheroes, they’re not wearing masks, which is one of the reasons I think I had an easier time working my way into it.

But in The Suicide Squad, you got guys wearing yellow costumes and all this stuff. I decided to go for what it would really be like. Treating these people like gods is like, “Whaat?” I have a hard time imagining a guy who’s really serious and wants revenge making a costume for himself and putting black around his eyes so his skin doesn’t show when you look him in the face. He’s got the mask on, and also the eye makeup under it! There’s a silliness to it that I can’t deny. Not because it’s making fun but because it seems to me that the silliness is what is real.

When I’m watching your work I get the feeling that being superheroes is what these characters do because they can’t function otherwise.
There’s damage there for sure. There are problems. And yet, Bloodsport actually looks cool. I don’t want to see that guy coming at me in an alley, that would be pretty awful. Ratcatcher’s dark and creepy. But Javelin, T.D.K.* — they’re goofy.

The relationship between these super-characters and authoritarian or fascist tendencies seems like it’s never far from your mind. I was looking at that confrontation between Chris and his father and I noticed that although the design of their costumes is different, it’s the same color scheme: red and white. 
It is! They are similar. When you’re talking about superheroes, there are political ramifications to saying, I’m going to dress up in a costume and beat the shit out of people who I decide are breaking the law. That’s problematic in and of itself. I’m not saying it’s always wrong. There are times I would like to dress up in a costume and beat the shit out of somebody I perceive is breaking the law. But you’ve got to acknowledge the thing for what it is.

I have some specific filmmaking questions for you. One is about the bold deed you set up that fizzles in a hilarious, pathetic way. In Peacemaker, you set up Eagly grabbing the helmet for a big, heroic moment and then he disappears with it. And you set up Adebayo saving the day by putting on a helmet and rocketing into the wall headfirst. Would you call that a signature?
Yeah, that’s the thing I do in so many movies! For me, it goes back to Slither when Nathan Fillion has a grenade and throws it at the monster and the monster just knocks it into the pool and it explodes. I always think it’s funny to set people down this course of expecting an action that doesn’t go right, but then sometimes the not-going-right leads to something else. In the case of Adebayo in Peacemaker, her doing something that doesn’t work actually leads to something else that does. And even with Eagly, that bit leads to the moment with Peacemaker and his father out in the woods. There’s a magic happening with whatever is going on out there, in how they find that helmet.

So it’s a different kind of Chekhov’s gun?
Yeah, exactly. It’s Chekhov’s shitty gun!

“It’s funny to set people down this course of expecting an action that doesn’t go right, but then sometimes the not-going-right leads to something else.” Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max

Is it fair to say that throughout your work, whether it’s the remake of Dawn of the Dead or The Suicide Squad or Peacemaker, you are obsessed with the possibility of losing your individual identity, or your soul?
Yes. That whole concept scares me more than anything. A lot of the movies I love the best are about that. The idea of body takeover is very scary.

Now, although the Butterflies and Starro have similarities, there are also a lot of differences because you’re being subsumed into the mass with Starro, where with Peacemaker, they’re individual creatures taking over other individual creatures. But you’re still talking about people losing control over their bodies and identities. It’s a very fluid concept. I love the first two Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. Both the Don Siegel version and the Philip Kaufman version are two of my favorite horror movies of all time, and they’re totally different. One’s a very conservative film and one’s a very liberal film. One is about fear of the Red menace and the other is about fear of conservatives. They tell totally different stories in totally different worlds, and I love them both completely.

My final question is about the use of music as an element in characterization and also as a storytelling device. Can you talk about the obsessive care you take with the use of music, and the particular ways in which you try to use it? 
I’ve always been that way. Going back to Tromeo and Juliet, the first movie I ever made, the music was important. I wrote that one but didn’t direct it. They didn’t choose a lot of songs for that one until after we had shot the movie. Then they started to edit the movie without putting the songs in first, and I’m like, This is the fucking craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Why wouldn’t you know the songs ahead of time? The way the camera moves in relation to the music, the way the actors work when they know what the song is, the way all that is baked in together — why wouldn’t you want it to be organic?

I always try to choose the songs when I’m writing the screenplay because I want everything to be completely together, whether it’s the dialogue or the camera movement or whatever else that’s put into the pie. Putting music in a movie is not like baking a cake, where you can just smear the icing on top of it when it’s done, which is what people are doing with music most of the time.

In Peacemaker and [the first] Guardians especially, the songs really are part of the plot because they’re part of the characters’ identities. In Guardians, his love of that music is about his connection to his mother. In Peacemaker it tells us about Chris’s connection with his brother but also about his human potential, about who he really is as a human being. The music represents the sensitivity in Chris that his father hates and wants to destroy.

It’s the poetry in him.
Yes. It’s the part of Chris that wears makeup. It’s his sexuality. It’s all of those things in one. The way he loves his music tells us that he probably would have loved collaging, had he gotten the chance to do it. The way he talks about music tells us about the capacity to love that Chris has within him. You might not think he has that because of who his father is.

Why don’t you just go ahead and direct a musical?
I’ve got to find the right thing. I would love to do it, but it’s a difficult thing to put on film, a musical. It’s easier to do in theater. But I think about it all the time.

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to T.D.K, otherwise known as The Detachable Kid.

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