It makes sense that Peacemaker should feel so closely tied to Watchmen.
For those who are not familiar, Watchmen is perhaps the single most influential superhero comic book ever written. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was published in 1986, potentially the most important year in the history of American superhero comics. A staggering union of form and medium, Watchmen was the only comic book to feature on Time’s list of the best 100 novels of all time. Moore and Gibbons redefined what was possible within the genre.
Pretty much all modern superhero media owes a debt to Watchmen. However, the character of Peacemaker (John Cena) is an integral part of Watchmen’s history. Originally, DC planned for writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons to use the characters it had purchased from Charlton Comics as the basis of the story. When the company decided to go another direction, Peacemaker was revamped as the Comedian, the costumed black-ops agent whose murder spurs the comic’s plot.
In the decades since Watchmen, most of the other Charlton Comics characters have managed to at least partially escape the shadow of that massively influential comic book run. The Blue Beetle was part of the comedic Justice League International and eventually became a legacy character. Captain Atom has enjoyed multiple solo runs. Even the Question benefited from an extended solo series written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Denys Cowan, in which he critiqued Watchmen.
In contrast, despite the fact that the Comedian is dead before the plot of Watchmen really starts, the character of Peacemaker has always been tied to that story. Outside of a largely forgotten four-issue solo miniseries written by Paul Kupperberg and illustrated by Tod Smith, the character’s most notable post-Watchmen appearance was in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana, which easily stands as the best follow-up to Watchmen that DC ever published.
In some ways, it makes sense that writer and director James Gunn would be drawn to the character of Peacemaker, in part due to his deep connections to Watchmen. Gunn is an avowed fan of Watchmen, describing it as his “favorite comic book run” and one of his “favorite works of art period.” Looking over Gunn’s filmography, Watchmen has always been a sizable influence in how he has approached the concept of superheroes.
“I was always influenced by Dave Gibbons art and Alan Moore’s Watchmen,” Gunn told The Irish Times during publicity for The Suicide Squad, “where the costumes didn’t fit the superheroes perfectly, and they had a little bit of a paunch. They weren’t all perfect bodies; they weren’t all beautiful. When they fought, they were kind of getting in the stupid Bartleby thing of getting into bar fights.” This influence extends well beyond visuals, applying to themes and characterization.
This is most obvious going back to Super, Gunn’s low-budget second film. Super is essentially an indie movie comedy riffing on classic superhero tropes, following a man named Frank (Rainn Wilson) who reinvents himself as the superhero “the Crimson Bolt.” Urban vigilantism becomes a means of escape for Frank, a way to empower himself and to act out his fantasies of violence against those that he thinks have wronged him.
Super is saturated with references to Watchmen, to the point that star Rainn Wilson described the movie as something like “an f’ed up low-rent Watchmen,” and Gunn acknowledged that he was influenced by Watchmen “for sure.” There are several cues lifted directly from Watchmen, particularly in terms of the psychosexuality of it all. Super features a sex scene with two characters in costumes, while another character speculates that the costume “has to be a sex thing.”
Frank himself seems at least partially inspired by the character of Rorschach from Watchmen. Frank’s absurd overreaction to minor “crimes” like skipping in line evokes Rorschach’s similar level of brutality. Frank’s decision to keep a hard-boiled audio record (that he calls “Crimson Bolt’s Journal”) directly evokes Rorschach’s own journal from Watchmen. Both Rorschach and Frank are caught between their stated desire to do good and their obvious psychological instability.
Indeed, it’s possible to argue that Super takes one step back from Watchmen. Teresa Jusino described the movie as “Taxi Driver for the modern geek,” while Gunn and Rainn sold it to investors as “Taxi Driver meets Napoleon Dynamite.” Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was an unsettling interrogation of American masculinity through the lens of urban vigilantism. Like Frank, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is an angry man looking to be a hero.
Todd Phillips’ Joker attracted a lot of comparisons to Taxi Driver, most obviously because it directly invoked the aesthetic of the late ‘70s film. However, Super feels like a more convincing fusion of Taxi Driver with the superhero genre. There’s something deeply uneasy and uncomfortable about Super, in a manner that directly recalls Taxi Driver. It’s unsettling how comfortable Frank’s violent fantasies become when dressed up in the trappings of pulp fiction, as well as how easy it is to laud him.
This dovetails back to Watchmen, as Travis Bickle feels like a significant influence on Rorschach. Many critics have noted the overlap between the two characters, with Keith Phipps pointing out that Rorschach’s journal could easily have been a transcription of “the thoughts of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.” Bickle even made an (ill-advised) appearance in the miniseries Before Watchmen: Rorschach, by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, underscoring the connection between the two.
This gets at an interesting aspect of Gunn’s relationship to Watchmen. Gunn isn’t interested in idle fan service or in-jokes, but instead substantively engaging with the text. This carries over into his work with the character of Peacemaker in both The Suicide Squad and Watchmen. It has been argued that, much like Watchmen represented a shift in portrayals of comic book superheroes, Gunn’s work on The Suicide Squad might be part of a larger “revisionist phase” of superhero media.
Comic book critic Rich Johnston described The Suicide Squad as “stupid Watchmen,” and it’s easy to understand that comparison. Both Watchmen and The Suicide Squad are stories of dysfunctional superheroes who are far more human than most superheroes are allowed to be, and both stories end with a seemingly alien and telepathic monster destroying a major urban center. The film has a palpable cynicism about American foreign policy that reflects the outlook of Watchmen.
Peacemaker himself is at the center of this. The Suicide Squad imagines Peacemaker as an explicitly patriotic and jingoistic figure, who will do horrible things “for freedom” and “peace.” Like the Comedian, Peacemaker is the member of the team tasked with safeguarding his nation’s “dirty little secrets.” Like the Comedian, Peacemaker is a remorseless tool of American government policy, used to shape the world from the shadows, at the behest of more powerful figures.
This carries over to the character’s portrayal in Peacemaker. Some of the overlap is playful, with a plot point focusing on attempts to discredit Peacemaker by planting a “diary” that points to a vast and elaborate conspiracy, in the hope that it might make him seem like a lunatic. There’s an obvious parallel to Rorschach’s journal from Watchmen, to the point that Peacemaker even complains, “If I was going to write a diary, it wouldn’t be a diary. It’d be a fucking journal.”
Gunn engages with Watchmen beyond these superficial nods though. Much of Peacemaker is built around the title character’s relationship with his abusive father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick). Auggie is a racist supervillain known as “the White Dragon.” The penultimate episode of the season finds Auggie putting on his costume and tracking down his son. He is assisted by a gang of white supremacists, wearing white hoods that mirror the design of Auggie’s helmet.
It’s a detail lifted directly from Watchmen. In Watchmen, Rorschach reads a radical right-wing magazine titled The New Frontiersman. An article from the magazine, “Honor is Like the Hawk: Sometimes It Must Go Hooded,” is published in the back matter of the eighth issue. In it, editor Hector Godfrey makes a bold connection between the American tradition of vigilantism and the racist violence of the KKK, tying the origins of superheroism to such lawless atrocities.
Alan Moore has reiterated this criticism of the genre in interviews. “I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race,” Moore stated in 2017. “In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
Some of the more interesting modern takes on the superhero genre have tried to navigate this internal contradiction, to grapple with the obvious connection between superhero vigilantism and these foundational American crimes. The opening scenes of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen sequel series contrasted a romantic fantasy of an idealized past with the real racial violence inflicted by vigilantes in capes and robes in places like Tulsa.
Peacemaker does something similar in making the connection between Auggie’s mask and the white robes. Peacemaker is Auggie’s son. Even in his costumed role, he is defined by the sins of his father. He uses technology and gadgets created by a white supremacist. Peacemaker needs to confront and reckon with that reality and that history. In this way, Peacemaker is actively engaging with the context and the legacy of superheroes in a way that few superhero projects would dare.
This tug of war between Peacemaker and the White Dragon provides the season with a strong emotional arc, but it’s also a clever meditation on the thorny history of superheroes. It engages substantively with observations that Moore and Gibbons made decades earlier. It demonstrates that Gunn isn’t just a fan of Watchmen; he’s a creator who clearly understands the material and actively grapples with it beyond its superficial trappings.