Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Peacemaker Understands The Balance Between Edginess and Hope

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I have to admit that at first glance, Peacemaker did not seem like a show I would love. The character was entertaining enough in Suicide Squad, for sure. I watched the first episode and was entertained, but not particularly thrilled. Peacemaker felt like the kind of show that would try too hard to be shocking, brutal, and explicit, and, as a result, follow a group of really unlikable people I did not care much about.

Then something surprised me: Peacemaker showed me its heart.

Peacemaker and Eagly

Something often lost among the trend of shocking, edgy versions of superhero stories is the need to connect the audience to them on a human level. People complain about superheroes being unrealistic role models in unrealistic worlds and become fascinated with the idea of tuning things “dark,” where they believe the story to be more realistic. No more thugs being knocked out, now we can dismember them! This version of the superhero story will be viewed as more realistic simply because realistic violence and more adult language is used.

The problem is that these stories swing all the way over into parody and absurdity in their own right. Making superheroes brutal fascists who cannot possibly be good is not realistic, it is pessimistic, as it suggests there is no such thing as a person with power who can be good. So you just get something every bit as goofy as the ultra-idealistic heroes were.

For example, look at how absurdly grim The Boys is. That’s not realism. I like edgy comic book content, but you have to maintain the human connection and have something to root for. Thankfully, Peacemaker understood that better than I imagined.

For every outrageous and over-the-top moment, you had something grounded to counter-balance it. The gory apartment fight with one of the Butterflies occurs after a hookup with said Butterfly. Peacemaker’s irredeemably evil, mech-suited, KKK villain father is used to portray an abusive parental relationship and the cycle of bigotry. The ease with which the Project Butterfly team will fill everything in sight with bullets is used to explore Adebayo’s conflicted feelings about her career and family.

At the heart of all this are people who we are allowed to feel hope for. Christopher Smith, better known as Peacemaker, may be a crappy person much of the time. Harcourt may be cold and distant. Even Vigilante, unhinged murderer and all, has redeeming, likable qualities that humanize his cartoonish qualities.

Even the villains are somewhat likable, as seen with the Butterfly that takes over the Senator and eventually Detective Song. Two of my favorite moments in the whole series are Peacemaker taking care of the Butterfly like a pet, and them sharing a moment outside his house at the end.

I am not saying that you have to like everyone in a TV show in order to enjoy it, but when it comes to superhero stories, it is nice to get something brutal and violent that does not also feel the need to make everyone a piece of garbage. Sometimes I still want to have fun and if nothing else, Peacemaker is always committed to having fun.

It’s the fun that also helps keep you invested in everyone. In many ways, Peacemaker’s absolutely iconic intro sequence perfectly sets the tone for the show. It is a constant good time. Characters dance and joke and enjoy themselves just as much as the audience.

Maybe you can argue that playing it safe makes the plot feel less surprising, since any basic familiarity with the superhero genre will give you an idea of what is going to happen. Peacemaker hits every familiar plot point and takes a standard hero’s journey. Is there really anything wrong with that, though? It lets Peacemaker fill this niche as a particularly gory and crude version of those types of stories, and you do not see too many of those.

In some ways, Peacemaker offers a unique product in much the same way Harley Quinn does. It’s interesting to see a bunch of intensely flawed and damaged characters walk the hero’s journey in wildly entertaining shows that are convincingly human. DC has found something to offer that Marvel has not, and I hope they keep appealing to that audience.

Peacemaker and Harcourt

Superheroes are often be criticized as too perfect. That is the stigma that follows Superman, that he is too powerful and too idealistic and the takes on the character that see him become a villain are more interesting since they make him something more interesting to those audiences. But if we want to make that argument, wouldn’t it make those efforts to be a hero more interesting when it is someone like Christopher Smith who makes the journey? Someone with deep flaws they must overcome to be a hero?

As compelling as Watchmen might be, it is a grim tale that does not paint anyone in a good light. It suggests that no human being is capable of being the ideal that superhero stories strive for. The thing is, we KNOW that. No one can be perfect. We all have flaws. The reason we escape into superhero stories is because sometimes it is nice to forget that and lose ourselves in an image of something better.

Peacemaker is a really strong representation of that chase for the ideal of superheroes, and it is made all the stronger by Christopher Smith existing in a world with such heroes. He may never be Superman or Wonder Woman, but he still tries to be the best person he can be. Harcourt and Economos may work for a brutal government organization, but they can still oppose the worst ideas and carve out a positive sphere of influence within said organization.

In that way, you could argue he is as much of an inspiration as any superhero can be. And I am glad that for every bit of death, every bit of blood, every bit of abuse, Peacemaker always knows to balance it out with that hope and inspiration. You should not want to be Christopher Smith, or exist in his world, but you should always want to be better, just like he does.

Images Courtesy of HBO

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