James Gunn’s 2021 quasi-sequel The Suicide Squad allowed the filmmaker to dig deep into DC comics lore and dig up minor characters that were beyond obscure. These were characters that would never see the light of day outside of something so irreverent and darkly comedic, especially not while wearing the same bright, absurd costumes as their comic book counterparts.
Peacemaker is a prime example of this. Played to perfection by WWE Legend John Cena, the character is lifted straight out of the comic books that birthed him with absolutely no attempt made to update, refine, or evolve his red, white, and blue duds or his ridiculously large and impractical metal helmet.
And therein lies the charm, which the show has in spades. If you harbor any doubt, that doubt will be wiped away immediately during the opening credits, as Wig Wam’s Do You Wanna Taste It starts blaring and Peacemaker and his team execute a dance number surrounded by neon lights. Everyone is on top of their game, even Robert Patrick, pulling off synchronized moves while remaining completely stone-faced. The dedication is incredible. It’s a sight to see.
Peacemaker works because John Cena works. His performance is so earnest that you can’t help but see past all of the ridiculous details and root for Peacemaker as he transitions from bullish, bigoted villain to anti-hero to, hopefully, superhero. At least, that’s what he’d like to be, and he comes off as so likable that you hope he gets there.
It helps that he’s surrounded by a team that, while they’re very reluctant to bring him into the fold, clearly see his good intentions. They mock him, but there’s a respect there, though it’s easier to see in some teammates than it is in others. They respond to his child-like ignorance with some level of condescension, but there’s an equal level of pity. He definitely hasn’t won them over, at least not in the HBO Max premiere, but it seems almost inevitable.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the brilliant characterization of Peacemaker that you forget this is a comic book show, so when the claws come out – semi-literally – you’re caught off guard. What’s equally surprising is how poorly Peacemaker fares against his enemy. This is a man who has a long way to go in more ways than one.
Peacemaker – aka Christopher Smith – is a broken man. We’re shown brief moments from The Suicide Squad, moments that clearly had an impact on Smith, namely his killing of bonafide good guy Rick Flag. Flag’s dying words – “Peacemaker: what a joke” – seem to haunt him. And why wouldn’t they? The character is a joke, a man willing to kill to bring about peace. It’s played for laughs in the movie, as it should be, but with the HBO series, Gunn brilliantly decides to confront the joke head-on. Smith is finally aware of the contradiction and is determined to change his ways.
Then there’s Christopher’s father, played by Robert Patrick. The elder Smith is a vile, reprehensible human being and the clear source of Christopher’s bigoted, racist ways. His father not only serves as a manifestation of everything Peacemaker is trying to leave behind, but also brings some compelling commentary on the dangers of learned behavior. Nobody ever thinks about what sort of parent it takes to raise a supervillain. James Gunn has given us his shot at an answer.
Come for the laughs and the hijinks, but stay for the excellent character work.