James Gunn and John Cena discuss the real villain of the superhero comedy 'Peacemaker': 'He's Archie Bunker on steroids'

There's no rest for the wicked... or the wickedly funny. Five months after his apparent "death" in James Gunn's DC Comics-derived action flick The Suicide Squad, the helmeted killer Christopher Smith, aka Peacemaker (played by John Cena), is back as the star of his own self-titled streaming series.

Premiering Jan. 13 on HBO Max, Peacemaker retains all the R-rated humor and over-the-top violence seen in its big-screen predecessor. But at the heart of the eight-episode show is the dramatic story of a father and son — as represented by Chris and his virulently racist dad, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick) — locked in a love-hate relationship that's defined more by hate than by love.

"I know we're coming up against a character who people despise, because he was the bad guy in The Suicide Squad," Gunn tells Yahoo Entertainment about Peacemaker's second act, in which his dad emerges as the central villain. "So we have a number of things [in Peacemaker] that make us go, 'Oh, maybe this guy isn't exactly who we thought he was.' [Then] we see his father, and we go: 'Peacemaker's a piece of s***, but he's a big improvement upon where he came from!' Generationally he's on the progressive upswing." (Watch our video interview above.)

Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick) and his son Chris (Cena) in Peacemaker (Photo: HBO Max)
Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick) and his son Chris (John Cena) are locked in a love/hate relationship in Peacemaker. (Photo: HBO Max)

This isn't the first time that Gunn has anchored a superhero story in parental dynamics. Both Guardians of the Galaxy films address Star-Lord's relationship with an absent father (Kurt Russell) and an adopted father (Michael Rooker), while The Suicide Squad features Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) coming to terms with the death of her dad, the original Ratcatcher (Taika Waititi). According to Peacemaker executive producer Peter Safran, the idea to explore Chris's own twisted family history in more detail grew out of a passing moment glimpsed in the film.

"You see Chris give this wry grin when Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 are talking about their fathers during the sequence on the bus," Safran recalls. "That wry grin is the genesis of these eight episodes of television. It wasn't that James knew then that we were going to do a series, but he knew that there was a lot left unsaid in that grin."

Gunn also points out that the show's father-son drama has its roots in Peacemaker's comic-book history. Created for Charlton Comics in the mid-1960s by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette, the character was later acquired by DC Comics in the 1980s and given a new backstory. "His father was a Nazi in the comics — an actual German Nazi from the 1940s," explains the writer-director. "So this [show] is simply updating that character to the present day."

John Cena reprises his 'Suicide Squad' role in the new HBO Max series, 'Peacemaker' (Photo: Courtesy HBO Max)
Cena reprises his Suicide Squad role in the new HBO Max series, Peacemaker. (Photo: Courtesy HBO Max)

As conceived by Gunn, the version of Peacemaker's father that we meet in the series is a genius inventor, but also a hateful human being. "James told me early on that he's Archie Bunker on steroids," Patrick says of Auggie, a white supremacist who is revealed to have his own supervillain identity as the White Dragon. "He's just a horrible, horrible man, but he is an engineering genius — he creates Peacemaker's helmet — so there's a need for me, too."

The Georgia-born actor adds that he's had his own real-life encounters with men like Auggie, whose minds are deeply affected by prejudice and hate that they pass along to their children. "It's sort of something you can't explain, but you're just offended by it. James and I discussed that he's from a part of the country that I am ... and we both said that we knew people like this, so we had something to draw from."

Interestingly, the first time that audiences meet Auggie in Peacemaker's series premiere is also the first time that Patrick and Cena met each other on set. "James looked at us and said, 'We're gonna shoot the rehearsal,'" Patrick remembers. "So we didn't do anything ahead of time; we literally shot the rehearsal and right out of the gate we were on it. I'm certainly impressed with what a wonderful actor John Cena has become, and we had a great chemistry there."

He's Archie Bunker on steroidsRobert Patrick

For his part, Cena says that he let Chris's lifelong "quest for approval" from his father be the engine behind many of their scenes together. "That oftentimes leaves us in a very submissive state, so I just tried to be the best version that. Robert took over from a commanding standpoint and he just played the role beautifully."

Over the course of Peacemaker's eight episodes, Chris undergoes a personal evolution — aided by his reluctant comrades in the top-secret mission Project Butterly, including Leota Adebayo, played by Danielle Brooks — that helps him challenge his father's way of thinking and, eventually, his father himself. It's a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement that Cena says he can identify with. "I think I'm the poster child for that," the wrestler-turned-actor says. "I'm an optimist, man. There's a few folks out there that are truly rotten to the core, and most of us want to do good. So I believe that people can be their best selves."

Peacemaker (Cena) has his point of view altered by his new teammates, including Leota (Danielle Brooks) and Emilia (Jennifer Holland) in Peacemaker. (Photo: HBO Max)
Peacemaker (Cena) has his prejudiced point of view altered by his new teammates, including Leota (Danielle Brooks) and Emilia (Jennifer Holland) in Peacemaker. (Photo: HBO Max)

Gunn also considers himself a "poster child" for the show's ultimately hopeful message. "I came from that background," says the filmmaker, who spent his formative years in St. Louis. "I'm a guy who was on lots of drugs and messed up by the time I was in my teenage years. I got sober, changed my life and really became a different person. I grew up with a lot of people like Chris, and I have aspects of myself that are like Chris."

According to Gunn, those similarities carry over to the strained relationship he had with his own dad while growing up. "My father was not the greatest father when I was a young man," the filmmaker says of his late father, who died two weeks before The Suicide Squad started shooting in 2019. "He got sober, too, and he became a better and better human being. As I got older, he was a great role model, not because he was a perfect father, but because he was someone who was able to change."

"That's a part of what is the heart of this story," Gunn continues. "We spend a lot of time on Twitter yelling at each other, which of course only further radicalizes whoever we're yelling at it and never will ever help anything. With Peacemaker and Adebayo, we see that the commonality of understanding and kindness is the only thing that can affect change between people who are on opposite sides of any issue. Maybe if we spend a little less time judging each other and a little more time having compassion for each other, the world will be a little bit better place."

Peacemaker is currently streaming on HBO Max.

— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee