Throughout the first season of “Peacemaker,” the titular costume vigilante, a.k.a. Christopher Smith (John Cena), has been working with a ragtag team of secret operatives in an attempt to stop an invasion by a horde of insect-like aliens called Butterflies. Peacemaker and his teammates — Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), John Economos (Steve Agee) and team leader Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) — track the Butterflies to the underground lair of the gargantuan “cow” that is the aliens’ only source of sustenance.
After most of his team is crushed while fighting off the Butterflies — who can burrow into humans’ brains and control their bodies — Peacemaker is confronted by their leader, Goff (Annie Chang), with the aliens’ true motivation. They were forced to leave their planet after ruining its environment, and they observe humanity going down the same path they did, so they are trying to steer civilization back on track. Goff invites Peacemaker to join them in helping to save the world.
Instead, Peacemaker decides to kill the cow (via launching Leota as a human torpedo into its body), because he knows the Butterflies wouldn’t let his teammates — and now his friends — survive.
“Peacemaker makes the ultimate sacrifice — of perhaps the world,” says “Peacemaker” creator and executive producer James Gunn, who wrote every episode and directed the finale. “He sort of does the wrong thing for the right reasons. He does the thing that’s spiritually right for him, because it’s honest and true and authentic to himself. But it’s also perhaps problematic and what’s going to come next for all of us.”
It’s precisely the kind of messy, complicated plot turn that Gunn has perfected with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies for Marvel Studios — he’s currently in production on “Guardians Vol. 3” in Atlanta — and “The Suicide Squad” for DC Films, in which Cena, Holland and Agee first appeared. (“Peacemaker” costar Chukwudi Iwuji, who died in Episode 7, also plays a major role in “Vol. 3.”)
In his conversation with Variety, Gunn also talked about how DC responded when he included the Justice League — Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman — in the finale, why he took so long to agree to make Season 2 of the show, and whether Peacemaker and Vigilante may ever take their (mostly one-sided) bromance to the next level.
When you started writing the first episode, did you know where you wanted to arrive in the final episode? Or did you find your way as you wrote?
I knew where I was going, essentially. I took a while to put everything together, just in terms of thinking what was the basics that were going to happen. There were some things that I wasn’t 100% sure on. I wasn’t 100% sure what Peacemaker’s choice was going to be in Episode 8. The show led me there, really finding out that this was, in a way, a redemption story. It’s about a character who is trapped in his own ideals, who has lived a life like that because of the trauma that he experienced. And in the last episode, he’s a different guy than the guy who killed Rick Flag. But I wasn’t sure that it was going to be that. It’s hard to call it a happy ending because it’s also tragic at the same time.
Yeah, the Butterflies are literal mind-controlling aliens, but we learn in the finale that their aim is to save humans from fucking up the planet. How did you come to that idea?
I didn’t want to make their goal something that was just, you know, “Hey, we want to take over the universe, we want to conquer, we’re thoroughly evil!” I wanted the Butterflies to be characters that were as multi-layered as the other characters were, and I think that Goff, in particular, as the leader of the butterflies, is a character who I like a lot and find really interesting. She’s very much like Peacemaker.
Goff actually has a pointed line about humans being “anti-science,” which feels like it was a reference to the anti-vaxx movement. Was that your intention?
We made the show while vaccines were starting up. I mean, there’s so much anti-science out there. Anti-climate change to me is the really big thing. Believing that climate change is not affected by humankind, that’s anti-science. It’s not believing anything that has to do with people who are experts in their fields and have been working their whole lives do that, whether it’s with vaccinations or climate change or whatever.
So much of the show is about Peacemaker coming from a world of racist white men who are steeped in toxic patriotism and masculinity. Peacemaker’s dad is literally DC’s version of a KKK supervillain. How connected was that for you to your experiences with the alt right?
I think a lot. Some of that lines up with that [experience]. Some of that lines up what we’ve seen uncovered in the United States over the past few years and has nothing to do with me. I mean, the fact that Peacemaker believes any Facebook meme he reads and somehow thinks that’s totally fact — that’s how we get to the place where, you know, people believe that somehow masks cause us harm. I mean, it’s just nonsense.
I really appreciated that not only did you acknowledge that the Justice League would probably be the best people to handle the crisis in the finale, but they show up after the battle was already over.
We didn’t have the budget for them to show up on time. Never been able to do it. They had to show up late.
So what was the conversation with DC like about bringing in the Justice League on the show?
Um, you know, I didn’t have a conversation. I just wrote it and gave them the scripts. I don’t think they really realized what they had agreed to until they saw what I had shot, which was the Justice League there. And then I think the full weight of it and, you know, what does this mean for the DCU and all of that became huge pieces of conversation up to the very highest levels of Warners. And to their credit, they let me get away with it.
When did Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller come in and shoot their cameos?
I think before we ever shot the show, we talked to Jason about it. We were like, “Listen, [Peacemaker] says you fuck fish all the time.” And we were a little afraid he would be upset, but he just laughed. He was cool. So he was pretty much on board from the beginning. And then Ezra I just found out through some common friends liked my movies a lot. And so I asked if he would come in and shoot this scene, and he kindly agreed to do that. Actually, Marvel shot [Ezra] for us, while we’re shooting “Guardians Vol. 3.”
Yeah, but I mean, Marvel owed DC, because the “Peacemaker” crew shot my screen test for Chukwudi for “Guardians Vol. 3.” And then we got Ezra with the “Guardians Vol. 3” crew.
Was there any conversation about including Gal Gadot or Henry Cavill?
I don’t really think so. I really thought it was going to be just Jason. And Ezra was more like the extra thing because I found that he was interested in doing it.
Why weren’t Batman and Cyborg in the group?
You know, I don’t know what I can — there are reasons for it, but I’m actually uncertain whether I can say what those reasons are. It might have to do with future stuff.
There’s a version of this show where Harcourt or Vigilante or both of them don’t survive their injuries. And in fact, watching it, I was thinking that at least one of them had died. How did your decision to have them survive those injuries evolve for you?
I think it just seems like the better story overall for me. I didn’t want to kill either one of them. In my early sort of sketches of what was going to happen at the end, there was a chance that one of the other characters was going to die in that episode. From my point of view, I make it seem as if Harcourt’s going to die in that one scene. For me, the whole reason for the [opening credits] song “Do You Want to Taste It” is the blood in Harcourt’s mouth in that moment. That’s what the song is about, more than anything else, is that death — and somehow she survived.
Now that you’ve been renewed for Season 2, do you know what direction you want to take the show?
I’m still playing with a lot of different things. The most important thing for me in the first season was who Peacemaker was and where was he going — what was his personal journey? The Butterflies and the plot and all of that is secondary to who he was as a character and what his changes were, as well as the other characters and where they began and where they end, because they all have little changes for themselves — with the exception of Vigilante, who’s sort of a straight line the whole time. So I know where Peacemaker starts and where he ends, but I’m playing with other ideas around that and how that’s gonna play out.
John and I did not agree to a second season off the bat because we wanted to make sure this is something we really love doing that we really wanted. That’s why it’s being announced now, because we had to work everything out. I didn’t agree to a second season just off the bat, it wasn’t a matter of like, okay, we’re picked up. It’s a matter of I just wanted to make sure it was really something I wanted to do.
Vigilante and Peacemaker’s friendship feels like it teeters between a bromance and an actual romance…
Do you really think it does?! People say that on Twitter all the time, and I don’t understand it. I understand how you could think that Vigilante is in love with Peacemaker. I’m not sure how I would see that Peacemaker’s in love with Vigilante. Peacemaker, to me, he just seemed irritated by Vigilante for eight episodes, for the most part. I mean, there’s times when he cares about him. He doesn’t want him to die in Episode 7. I don’t know that that’s love. I mean, it’s a kind of love.
Well, Peacemaker is clearly enamored of Harcourt and that seems to be the romantic connection he’s drawn to. But he and Vigilante, there’s a bickering quality of their back and forth that people have clearly connected to. Would you want to explore that further in Season 2?
I mean, I can think about it. Honestly, it comes up a lot. Vigilante’s latched onto Peacemaker. That’s obviously the case. And that’s important to who Peacemaker is. I’m just not sure— I mean listen, I’m not sure Harcourt would ever really want to be with Peacemaker because he’s problematic. And in the same way, I’m not sure Peacemaker would ever want to be with Vigilante, because he’s problematic. They’re sort of in different worlds in some ways.
You’re in the middle of shooting “Guardians Vol. 3,” which you jumped right into after finishing your first TV show. Is there anything you accomplished with “Peacemaker” that you’ve been applying with “Guardians Vol. 3”?
A little bit. I had as much fun as you could have during COVID making “Peacemaker,” and so I’m trying to apply that more to “Vol. 3.” In all truth, the first two “Guardians,” I love the cast and crew, but they were really difficult to make. And a lot of that was self-imposed difficulty by me. I realized after “Vol. 2” that I couldn’t continue to live a life if I made everything I did like “Vol. 2,” which I just killed myself over, unnecessarily. I needed to balance my life a little bit better. And so I’ve been applying that to “Vol. 3.”
I think “The Suicide Squad” also has informed “Vol. 3” a lot in terms of how we’re shooting it. There’s a different type of groundedness, I think, in this movie that we had in both “Peacemaker” and “Suicide Squad.” I learned so much from everything that I do.
You’ve talked about pitching HBO Max on a second spin-off series from “The Suicide Squad.” Have those conversations advanced at all?
Yeah, that’s advanced a lot. Hopefully, in not too long, people will know more about that. It’s not 100%. But we’ve been working heavily on it. So that would be something that would happen in addition to “Peacemaker” Season 2.
That feels like a pivot for you after spending so much time making feature films. Is that more appealing to you now?
Yeah, I think I pretty much have decided that after I’m done with “Guardians,” I’m going to be doing television for at least a year. My mind’s made up on that. Not all the shows that we’re dealing with are things that I’m going to be writing and directing, so some of them may take different amounts of my my time. “Peacemaker” is going to be me writing, me directing and spending all my time on set. But other other shows that may not be writing and directing or not directing all the episodes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.