There should be a wince already in progress as you press play on Peacemaker, the new HBO Max series rupturing from James Gunn‘s The Suicide Squad. The title character is a wretched, racist, psychotic murderer who turned his guns on his equally questionable comic book comrades and climaxed his last appearance in a hospital bed licking his wounds. He is a villain amongst villains. Why should we grant him the courtesy of eight episodes?
At every opportunity, Peacemaker, a.k.a. Christopher Smith (John Cena), says the wrong thing. The words that endlessly dribble from his head are daggers to the eardrums of those around him, as well as us watching helplessly from our couches. Our job is to determine whether his wicked thoughts are purposefully directed or merely a nasty residue born from profound pain and childhood trauma. Gunn’s scripts want us to latch onto the latter. We must decide whether that’s enough to forgive and enjoy the dick jokes and bloody action mayhem.
In The Suicide Squad, Gunn achieved our empathy by emphasizing the systemic oppression crushing his characters and the tyranny personified in Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the black ops boss. Through her minions, her shadow still looms over Peacemaker, but the further we drift from the memory of her apocalyptic performance, the less she distracts from the ugly she employs. All that’s left in the HBO Max show is a group of monsters fighting other monsters.
The world is in danger. Smith doesn’t know why he’s needed beyond an ominous mission description, “Project Butterfly,” and a laundry list of targets. That’s enough. If peace can be accomplished through their eradication, he’ll happily oblige, no questions asked.
His task force seems fully capable and resents being saddled with the costumed weirdo. But as Waller’s top lackey Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) explains, they need Smith’s particular brand of whackjob to take on this impossible threat. He was the one loyal dog in The Suicide Squad, and his inability to dig a single layer below his orders is a tremendous benefit. They see him as more drone than man. They point, he shoots.
Smith’s handlers serve another purpose. Through their eye-rolls and audible contempt, they constantly defang their assigned super-soldier. We can’t take his ignorant verbal assaults seriously because they don’t take them seriously. Agent Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) oozes disdain for Smith and can give as good as she gets. This only intensifies Smith’s attraction toward her, which in turn provides numerous opportunities for her to obliterate his ego. Through sheer idiocy or super-powered resolution, Smith persists. Somewhere in their exchanges, the barrier between them chips a little, and as it does, we’re permitted to snicker and connect to the brute.
Such empathy stirs trouble and jabs at Peacemaker‘s purpose. In the first episode, rookie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) is specifically told to guard her heartstrings. She senses a sadness simmering under Smith’s exaggerated bravado, but her recognition of his humanity is a warning to her superiors. It’s hard to pull a trigger if the trigger has a backstory.
James Gunn clearly delights in challenging likability, and his greatest weapon is Cena. There is no hesitation or fear in his performance. Cena throws himself into Christopher Smith with a theater kid’s energy, growing impossibly larger in his already impossibly large frame. He fills his character to its edges, never shrinking even when the scene might intellectually call for it, but Cena is smart enough to ignore the inclination.
As Peacemaker progresses through its episodes, you question who is more thirsty: John Cena or Christopher Smith? And the answer doesn’t matter because that thirstiness defines the character. He wants to please; he needs to please; he’ll wither and die if he doesn’t. Smith made himself a man mountain to hide the child within. If he’s loud enough, we might not see how god damn terrified he is at all times.
Gunn smarty introduces two demonic mirrors for us to compare against Smith. With Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), we meet a maniac who is impressively more deranged than our champion. In his bid to impress Smith, Vigilante goes further and harder with the depravity. He’s so childish that it’s difficult for us to take him seriously until he unleashes some truly heinous, inescapable violence. He does what even Smith cannot. Yikes.
After escaping his hospital bed, Smith’s first stop and having a lay in his red, white, and blue trailer, is his pop’s house. Dear old dad is Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), the man who supplies Peacemaker with his various weapons and helmets. Where Smith’s casual racism and sexism sputters from stupidity, Auggie’s hatred is well-manicured and deeply considered. He is a white supremacist with a mission, and he’s repulsed by his child’s refusal to take up the cause.
There is a moment in The Suicide Squad, about an hour in, where Bloodsport (Idris Elba) regales Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) with his rat phobia origin story. It involved his father locking him inside a crate with starving vermin, and as he tells her his terror, the scene cuts to Smith, who offers a nearly silent but utterly knowing snort. Peacemaker and Bloodsport had the same kind of dad, and their childhood made them killers.
Peacemaker uses this tiny moment from The Suicide Squad as its emotional backbone. With every return to Auggie Smith, we probe that sadness first imagined by Adebayo in episode one. War rages within Smith; he’s slowly fighting against his father’s programming. He wants no part of Auggie’s malevolence, but he can’t resist the pull of family either. Auggie is his dad; what can he do?
Gunn wants to answer that question to answer the first question I proposed in this review. Why should we grant Christopher Smith the courtesy of eight episodes? We’re watching a mean bastard confronting his mean bastardness. Or, we are when we’re not wrapped up in the Project Butterfly shinanigans that initially ignited the plot.
The why driving the narrative becomes increasingly less interesting as the series moves along. Whenever Peacemaker gets back to Butterfly, there is a dip in engagement. The world’s at risk, blah, blah, blah. The large stakes are far too ordinary, and after twenty-plus years of nonstop superhero entertainment, they carry almost no danger. However, the small stakes do feel like the actual large stakes as we know them in our reality outside the television.
Peacemaker is a story that many of us are fighting in 2021. The people around our dinner table are becoming less and less recognizable. They shaped us up to a point, but eventually, we must shape ourselves. We have to pull away from dad if he’s an asshole, which is harder when we carry many of his asshole traits. If Christopher Smith can attempt to be a better human, though, then we can do no less.
The series is very much a James Gunn endeavor. It’s aggressively profane and sophomoric, ridiculously violent, and every part of its construction was undoubtedly stitched together with giggles. Underneath its proud irreverence is sorrow and a confused protagonist struggling with immense regret, desperate for affection. Whether we give it to him or not reflects where we are on our journey.
Peacemaker starts streaming on HBO Max on January 13th.