James Gunn’s latest superhero entrance puts a deplorable human being at the center and asks us to worry. The request is great but worthy.
By Brad Gullickson · Published January 4, 2022
There should already be a hint going on while you press play Founder of Peace, the new HBO Max series breaks down from James Gunn‘s The suicide group. The title character is a miserable, racist, psychotic killer who turned his weapons on his equally dubious cartoon comrades and culminated his last appearance in a hospital bed licking his wounds. He’s a villain among villains. Why should we give him courtesy of eight paragraphs?
On every occasion, Peacemaker, aka Christopher Smith (John Cena), says the wrong thing. The words that dribble endlessly from his head are daggers to the eardrums of those around him, as well as us who look helplessly from our sofas. Our task is to determine if his evil thoughts are purposefully directed or just an ugly remnant born of deep pain and childhood traumas. Gunn’s manuscripts want us to stick to the latter. We have to decide if that is enough to forgive and enjoy cock jokes and bloody action chaos.
IN The suicide group, Gunn gained our empathy by emphasizing the systemic oppression that crushes his characters and the tyranny personified in Amanda Waller (Viola davis), the black ops boss. Through her henchmen her shadow still protrudes Founder of Peace, but the farther we slip from the memory of her apocalyptic achievement, the less she distracts from the ugly she employs. The only thing left in the HBO Max show is a group of monsters fighting other monsters.
The world is in danger. Smith does not know why he is needed beyond an ominous mission description, “Project Butterfly,” and a laundry list of targets. It is enough. If peace can be achieved through their extermination, he will gladly commit, no questions asked.
His task force seems fully capable and resents being saddled with the disguised weirdo. But as Waller’s top scorer Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) explains that they need Smith’s special brand of whackjob to take on this impossible threat. He was the only loyal dog in The suicide group, and his inability to dig a single layer under his orders is a huge advantage. They see him as more drone than man. They point he is shooting.
Smith’s dealers serve another purpose. Through their eye rolls and audible contempt, they constantly capture their assigned super soldier. We can not take his ignorant verbal assaults seriously because they do not take them seriously. Agent Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) oozes contempt for Smith and can give as well as she gets. This only reinforces Smith’s attraction to her, which in turn gives her several opportunities to wipe out her ego. Through sheer idiocy or super-powerful resolution, Smith continues. Somewhere in their exchanges, the barrier between them tilts a bit, and while it does, we are allowed to laugh and connect with the deer.
Such empathy raises problems and encounters Founder of Peace‘s purpose. In the first episode, rookie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) is specifically asked to guard her heartbeat. She senses a grief smoldering under Smith’s exaggerated bravado, but her acknowledgment of his humanity is a warning to her superior. It’s hard to pull a trigger if the trigger has a backstory.
James Gunn clearly welcomes challenging sympathy, and his biggest weapon is Cena. There is no hesitation or fear in his performance. Cena throws herself into Christopher Smith with the energy of a theater child who grows impossibly larger in his already impossibly large frame. He fills his character to its edges and never shrinks, even when the scene might intellectually require it, but Cena is smart enough to ignore the tendency.
As Founder of Peace progressing through its episodes, you question who is most thirsty: John Cena or Christopher Smith? And the answer does not matter because the thirst defines the character. He wants to please; he must please; he will wither and die if he does not. Smith made himself a mountain of men to hide the child inside. If he’s tall enough, we might not see how damn scared he is at all times.
Gunn Smarty introduces two demonic mirrors that we can compare to Smith. With Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), we meet a maniac who is impressively more insane than our master. In his attempt to impress Smith, Vigilante goes further and harder with the depravity. He is so childish that it’s hard for us to take him seriously until he unleashes a truly heinous, inevitable violence. He does what even Smith can not. Yikes.
After escaping his hospital bed, Smith’s first stop and a stay in his red, white and blue trailer is his pops house. Dear old father is Auggie Smith (Robert patrick), the man who supplies Peacemaker with his various weapons and helmets. Where Smith’s casual racism and sexism are bursting with stupidity, Auggie’s hatred is well-groomed and deeply well-considered. He is a white supremacy with a mission, and he is repulsed by his child’s refusal to take up the matter.
There’s a moment inside The suicide group, about an hour in which Bloodsport (Idris Elba) regales Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) with its history of origin with rat phobia. It involved his father locking him inside a box of starving vermin, and as he tells her his horror, the scene falls to Smith, who gives an almost silent but completely knowing snort. Peacemaker and Bloodsport had the same kind of father, and their childhood turned them into murderers.
Founder of Peace use this little moment from The suicide group as its emotional backbone. Each time we return to Auggie Smith, we examine the grief that Adebayo first imagined in episode one. War rages in Smith; he is slowly fighting against his father’s programming. He does not want part of Auggie’s evil, but he can not resist the family attraction either. Auggie is his father; What can he do?
Gunn wants to answer that question to answer the first question I asked in this review. Why should we give Christopher Smith courtesy of eight episodes? We see an evil bastard confronting his evil bastard. Or it’s us when we’re not wrapped up in Project Butterfly shinanigans that originally ignited the plot.
The reason for driving the narrative becomes less and less interesting as the series progresses. Every time Founder of Peace coming back to Butterfly, there is a dive in the engagement. The world is in danger, blah, blah, blah. The big bets are all too common, and after more than twenty years of nonstop superhero entertainment, there is almost no danger to them. But the small stakes feel like the actual big stakes as we know them in our reality outside of television.
Founder of Peace is a story that many of us are fighting for in 2021. The people around our dinner table are becoming less and less recognizable. They shaped us to a certain point, but in the end we have to shape ourselves. We have to pull away from Dad if he is an asshole, which is harder when we carry many of his asshole features. If Christopher Smith can try to be a better person, then we can do no less.
The series is very much a James Gunn endeavor. It is aggressively profane and sophomorphic, ridiculously violent, and every part of its construction was no doubt sewn together with giggles. Beneath its proud disrespect, grief and a confused protagonist struggling with enormous regret are desperate for affection. Whether we give it to him or not reflects where we are on our journey.
Founder of Peace begins streaming on HBO Max on January 13th.
Related topics: James Gunn, John Cena, The Suicide Squad
Brad Gullickson is a weekly columnist for film school rejections and senior curator of One Perfect Shot. When he’s not tumbling about movies here, he walks around comics as a co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him on Twitter: @MouthDork. (han / ham)