In the DC universe, Vigilante has been a lot of people: a Wild West hero with a red bandana for a mask; a former district attorney driven to violence after his family is murdered; an undercover cop with superpowers courtesy of an accelerator accident.
He has only rarely been as doltish as he is in HBO Max’s new Peacemaker show. Portrayed by Freddie Stroma, Vigilante is introduced to the audience through a series of desperate-to-hang-out voicemails he left Peacemaker while the latter was in prison. It’s a far cry from the tortured loners who bore the Vigilante moniker in DC’s comics, and there’s good reason for that.
Like Peacemaker, Vigilante is a superhero who’s undergone a number of changes over the years. He’s had no fewer than nine identities, sometimes with superpowers and sometimes without. In certain runs he exclusively uses nonlethal force, but in other arcs he’s gotten more and more violent with the criminals (and, sometimes, civilians) he apprehends. But since he first debuted in 1941’s Action Comics #42, the character has always been an expert in both armed and unarmed combat.
So why does Peacemaker’s Vigilante seem so different from his (various) comic book counterparts? According to James Gunn, it’s because that’s who he saw this character as in the real world.
“I thought, if this guy really existed, there really was a Vigilante, a guy who dresses up in a costume, and goes around and kills people he says are doing something wrong — what would he really be like?” Gunn tells Polygon.
“And that’s where Vigilante came [from]. He’s very off, and he’s a socioafdah, but he’s got this sort of sweet aspect to him.”
Most of that aspect manifests itself in his loyalty to Peacemaker, who he looks up to as an older brother. Unlike their bitter conflict in the comics, Peacemaker paints the relationship between the two superheroes as a kinship, even if Peacemaker would rather not see it that way. Both are incredibly skilled fighters, and have a sort of misguided sense of justice. If Peacemaker is the sort of man who “doesn’t care how many men, women, and children” he has to kill to achieve peace, then Vigilante is the sort of person who kills when he finds out someone “murdered an innocent person — or did some graffiti.”
Throughout the show, Vigilante walks a fine line of being objectionable but still, bizarrely, endearing in the goofy, almost buffoonish way he conducts himself, even in brutal combat. Unlike the original Adrian Chase, Peacemaker’s Vigilante isn’t a slick lawyer by day; he’s a waiter at a local restaurant.
While Stroma credits Gunn with giving him “1,000 colors” to play with to create “just this weird socioafdah,” Gunn believes it’s Stroma’s performance that really brings out the winning side that helps keep the character grounded.
“I’m very comfortable with the Guardians of the Galaxy, because they aren’t superheroes. […] They aren’t dressing up in a mask and saying that they know who’s right and who’s wrong and beating the shit out of them. There are some intrinsic issues with that way of thinking, if you were to say that was real,” Gunn says. “I thought it was a different way to go with the character that also made a little bit more sense for me in terms of what kind of guy would do that.”