James Gunn on his "totally ridiculous" Guardians special and Peacemaker's UK debut
The writer and director spills the beans on Peacemaker, upcoming TV projects and what to expect from the next Guardians of the Galaxy instalment.
Welcome to the Gunn show.
After a tricky period in late 2018/early 2019, writer and director James Gunn (55) is in a bit of a purple patch. Shortly after making The Suicide Squad for Warner Bros in 2021, his spin-off series Peacemaker (written on a whim in lockdown) has broken records for streaming service HBO Max, and is set to be followed by more DC TV projects.
Meanwhile, he’s shooting a long-awaited return for Marvel heroes The Guardians of the Galaxy in the form of a Star Wars-style Holiday Special, with work on Volume Three (the conclusion of the trilogy he started in 2014) set to continue soon after. Add other writing and producing gigs including Coyote vs Acme, Thor: Love and Thunder and the I Am Groot animated series, and Gunn’s dance card is looking pretty full.
“I’m busy, frankly. A little more busy than I wish I was,” Gunn tells RadioTimes.com over Zoom in a break from Guardians filming. “Things are insane right now.”
So he’s happy to take some time away to talk about Peacemaker, which finally makes its UK TV debut over two months after it started in the States. Suffice to say, Gunn wasn’t thrilled with the delay, noting that he’d been “frustrated” by various legal issues that stopped the show from being shown simultaneously around the world.
“That unfortunately didn’t work out, and it’s nobody’s real fault. There’s a bunch of legal weirdness with all this stuff,” he says. “But I’m just really happy that at least it’s there right now.”
And in any case, Peacemaker is worth the wait. Starring John Cena as the titular antihero, prepared to murder anyone for the vague goal of “peace at any cost,” the adult-themed series is an engaging, funny and surprisingly emotional production. It easily answers any doubters who might have wondered why of all the colourful characters in The Suicide Squad, the antagonistic Peacemaker was the one Gunn wanted to spend more time with.
“John Cena and I had talked so much about the character: how he felt; what his emotional reality was,” Gunn tells us. “He’s this awkward guy who just can’t let friendship in, and is always insecure. And yet he’s so boisterous, and he brags about himself so much.
“There isn’t a bragger that isn’t insecure, because the reason to be a bragger is to convince yourself and other people that you’re worth a sh** when you’re not, when you don’t feel you are.
“So I just thought there was a lot of depth to the character that we didn’t get to see. There’s a lot of story to who he is, and where he came from, that we didn’t get to see in The Suicide Squad. We saw a lot more of [Idris Elba’s] Bloodsport and [Daniela Melchior’s] Ratcatcher. I just felt he had the most gold to mine, at least at this point in time.”
More like this
In the series, Peacemaker is forced to confront his traumatic childhood (thanks to his father, played by a venom-spitting Robert Patrick) and work with a team to take down an alien invasion, opening himself up to help in a way he’s not used to. And clearly, Gunn’s instincts were right – the series has struck a chord with fans, with the finale setting a record for single-day HBO Max viewing figures after increasing its viewership every week.
In other words, it seems like Peacemaker has been something of a word-of-mouth hit, surprising everyone (including Gunn) with the level of interest in it – especially considering the film it sprang from only raised mediocre returns at the box office last year.
“I’m totally blown away. Blown away,” Gunn says. “Because to me, I just wrote this thing during COVID that was the most creatively free I’ve been since I was a child, if not ever. And then people have really grasped onto it. That’s an incredibly moving thing as a creator, to see that happening.
“I love in television that you can really get into the nuances of the relationships with the characters in a way that you can’t with a film. It’d be very, very difficult to have a relationship like Peacemaker has with Harcourt or Economos, for example, because they’re very nuanced relationships.
“And to be able to tell that story, and get into the weeds with that, and investigate that, is something you can do with television, whereas plot is king in a movie. You have to keep moving, moving, moving, moving, moving.”
He adds: “One of the other reasons I wanted to do Peacemaker was because we had to cut so much of John’s funny stuff in the movie, simply because it’s not the nature of a movie. So, yeah, I love that part of television. I’m really drawn to it, and it excites me more than films in a lot of ways right now.”
Given Peacemaker’s success a quick second season commission wasn’t a big surprise, with Gunn promising “tonnes” of new ideas and “secrets to come” – just as soon as he gets around to it. Because unfortunately for Peacemaker fans, Gunn is becoming a bit of a victim of his own success, booked up to his eyeballs and with little free time in the foreseeable future.
At time of writing he’s deep into production on the Guardians Holiday special, where he’s entertained fans with a running Twitter commentary on the strange Rick & Morty merchandise someone has planted on the set.
“That is totally real,” Gunn laughs. “My friend wrote me the other day. He said, ‘Is this a bit? Or is this real?’ It’s 100% real. I 100% do not know where they’re coming from.
“The Holiday Special is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s totally ridiculous, and every day we can’t believe that we’re making it. We all completely love it. It is unlike anything that anyone’s ever seen before. I can’t wait for people to see it.
“And it’s out pretty soon. You know, it’s out this Christmas. It’s not like people have to wait that long.”
Next up he'll continue work on the Guardians of the Galaxy threequel, which would have come out a few years ago were it not for Gunn’s dramatic firing and re-hiring by Disney in late 2018, followed by other TV work that currently remains top secret (though is rumoured to be another Suicide Squad spin-off in the vein of Peacemaker, following a different member of the film’s team).
“There’s something that will probably be coming before Peacemaker, and I’ve put more work into that than I have into season 2 of Peacemaker,” Gunn teased. “Evil smile, evil smile.”
All that, plus a cameo appearance in animated DC series Harley Quinn, and Gunn is everywhere in superhero storytelling. It makes for quite an unusual work schedule, with no other directors matching his ability to jump back and forth between rival Marvel and DC projects. For Gunn, though, the duality just makes sense after years of patronage for both companies.
“It’s cool, obviously, to have a hand in both Marvel and DC, because as a kid, I loved both Marvel and DC,” he says. “I feel honoured, you know?
“I’m not a single comic-book company guy. Not to mention Fantagraphics and Dark Horse and all the other great comics companies. I just love comic-books. So it makes total sense to me that I’m doing both Marvel and DC.”
And as a side effect of his latest work, it also seems like Gunn has stumbled on a new appreciation for the longer production schedules of TV, allowing him to forge closer bonds on set than he was used to during shorter movie shoots.
“I’m obviously going to be doing a lot of DC stuff after [Guardians]. But we’ll see where I end up after that. I like working with the same people,” he says.
“There’s a family feeling about a television show that I get. And I have that with my Guardians, but I only get to see them every two-and-a-half years, you know?
“I mean, I see Chris [Pratt] all the time and stuff like that. But I really like the more workplace feeling of a TV show. So, we’ll see.”
Altogether, the James Gunn of today is in a very different position than the man of 2018, whose resurfaced offensive tweets led him to be sacked by Disney in a sensational story that dominated internet discourse for months.
There was a brief moment where it seemed like Gunn might be blackballed by the industry entirely – but instead he found himself with a job offer from Warner Bros and enough support from his Guardians cast to get him back onboard with Disney. Now, he’s sitting pretty with all the work he would have had originally, plus the extra projects that came his way when his schedule was unexpectedly open.
Loved this Big RT Interview? Check out these…
- Emmerdale’s Paige Sandhu on Meena’s revenge and why nothing will stop soap’s sassiest serial killer
- Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent talk The Duke and future of the BBC
- Louis Theroux on Forbidden America and why the US is appealing for documentary makers
In his personal life, things also look sunny. Gunn has just got engaged to his partner Jennifer Holland (who stars as Agent Harcourt in both The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker), and even over an internet connection half a world away it’s easy to read his general sense of contentment.
“I don’t know what to say,” he says, reflecting on his good fortune. “I can’t believe it. I’m getting to do all this wonderful stuff, and I’m really grateful to the people that have been facilitating that. It’s a wonderful situation to be in.”
In other words, it seems like Gunn has found some hard-fought-for peace after a period of upheaval. His leading man might approve.
Peacemaker is streaming on NOW, with new episodes airing on Tuesdays on Sky Max. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.
The latest issue of Radio Times is on sale now – subscribe now to get each issue delivered to your door. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.