Chris Smith, aka Peacemaker, is a ridiculous character.
The red, white, and blue-clad superhero/supervillain is a walking, dudebro-talking contradiction. Peacemaker is arrogant, socially unaware, misogynistic, and culturally insensitive. His ridiculousness extends not just to his costume (that’s not a toilet seat he’s wearing on his head, that’s a beacon of freedom) or to his pet bald eagle named Eagly, but also to his most commonly used catchphrase. “I cherish peace with all my heart,” says Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad. “I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it.”
Peacemaker is so cringey he’s essentially the DC version of Michael Scott if the Dunder Mifflin regional manager cursed like a sailor and murdered people. While a ridiculous character, Peacemaker was also one of the reasons the 2021 The Suicide Squad film was such a critical hit. John Cena’s deft portrayal of the oblivious yet likable character blended perfectly with writer-director James Gunn’s clever script, giving Peacemaker an unexpected charm. He may be a moron but, much like Michael Scott, there are clues that Peacemaker wants to be liked and do good.
Seeing potential in the character, Cena and Gunn have teamed up again to bring the hero to the small screen. Gunn wrote all eight episodes of the new HBO Max series, and it’s full of his trademark sardonic humor and comic-book style violence. It also has a killer soundtrack.
In an end credits scene in The Suicide Squad, we learned that Peacemaker is still alive. The new series opens with him in the hospital, having recovered from his injuries five months after the events in Corto Maltese. Giddy that no law enforcement officials are waiting for him—he’s only served four years of a 30-year prison sentence—he immediately heads home to a trailer park where his American flag-themed double wide awaits. Peacemaker’s joy is short-lived, however; a team from ARGUS arrives and lets him know he will work off the remaining time in his sentence by participating in a domestic black-op called Project Butterfly. Given the choice of returning to prison or death if he tries to run, Peacemaker agrees to join the team even though he’s not exactly sure what he’s getting himself into. The only thing he’s told is that he has to kill people called Butterflies, whatever that means.
The team is naturally a hodgepodge of oddball characters. NSA agent Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee), first seen in The Suicide Squad, are two reluctant members annoyed at having to participate in an op with a muscle-bound doofus. Leading the team is Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), who’s almost as ruthless as his boss, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). The newest member of Peacemaker’s group is Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), who is a rookie at covert work and it shows. Uncomfortable with violence and a bit naive, Leota acts as the moral compass for the team, and becomes unlikely friends with Peacemaker. She’s also Waller’s daughter, something she’s decided not to divulge to the others.
Even though his new teammates need Peacemaker, most of them don’t particularly like him; a historically itchy trigger finger and chauvinist attitude make him persona non grata. But there’s also a sadness to him, which Leota quickly notices. She attributes this to Peacemaker’s father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), a terrible human being. At first glance, he just looks like a typical sexagenarian who models his hairstyle after Jimmy Neutron. Sure, he calls his son a “Nancy Boy” and has an armory full of weapons, but he’s just cantankerous, right? Wrong. A white supremacist with a gift for making lethal weapons and gadgets, he raised his boy to be a killer since birth. The two are frequently at odds, which leaves Peacemaker conflicted. He wants to be a good son and make his father proud, even though he’s aware of his dad’s faults.
At times, Peacemaker deals with heavy issues, like the fact that Chris Smith’s messed-up belief system was created by a horrific childhood. That’s some heady content for a comic book fan tuning in to watch Cena fight and say silly one-liners. While he certainly delivers on that front, Gunn’s layered take on Peacemaker makes the TV version more of a superhero than the villain portrayed in the film.
But while Peacemaker carries some darkness, this is a James Gunn production, so it’s also filled with humor and music. The script is rich with witty banter, action scenes are destructive and wacky, and Cena will clearly say or do anything for a laugh. “This is my jam,” says Peacemaker while flipping through a stack of ‘80s hair metal albums from the likes of Cinderella and Faster Pussycat. “This is back when men were real men because they weren’t afraid to be women.” A few moments later he’s singing along to the Quireboys song “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” using a vibrator as a mic while wearing only tighty whities and dancing around like Axl Rose. It’s embarrassing and hilarious at the same time.
Peacemaker is loaded with plenty of other absurd moments: the elaborate and poorly executed dance number that opens each episode; Peacemaker’s weird and dorky “best friend” Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) constantly trying to be part of his life; odd non-sequiturs like how to properly pronounce Berenstain Bears. This series luxuriates in its own ridiculousness, which it manages to balance with a compelling story. Perhaps over time, much like Michael Scott, Chris Smith will redeem himself. In the meantime, Peacemaker is just flat-out fun to watch.
Peacemaker premieres Thursday, January 13th on HBO Max.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not fighting crime as the masked vigilante Captain Colorado, you can find him hiking in the Rocky Mountains. You can also follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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