Peacemaker turns in some great performances from the cast but first you have to get past the unredeeming qualities of the show’s main character.
Follow me on a journey to the past, a far-off time known as “1966.” Lyndon B. Johnson is President of having the funniest name (also of the United States), The Flintstones end an impressive six-year run on primetime television, and a well-known company by the name of Charlton Comics unveiled the newest member of their lineup—The Peacemaker.
Peacemaker, real name Christopher Smith, has a long publication history. About as long and tragic as his in-universe upbringing. Donning the shiny toilet helmet in Charlton Comics’ “Fightin’ 5 #40,” Smith used a variety of non-lethal (but certainly violent) weapons to take down evil warlords and dictators. He was a self-proclaimed hero who—and I’m only paraphrasing a tiny bit here—is willing to use excessive force in order to uphold peace. Yikes.
During this time in comic history, Peacemaker was considered quite the edgy character. His use of brute force didn’t necessarily make him that much different from the likes of DC’s Batman and Superman, but it was the unashamed proclamation that his actions are in the name of peace that sparked controversy.
Of course, the Peacemaker chatter wasn’t very loud until DC Comics adopted the character in the mid-80s, after the decline of Charlton Comics. At this point, being edgy wasn’t anything special. Everyone was getting unrealistically jacked and caving bad guys’ faces in with a single punch, so Peacemaker had to be slightly reworked to fit the mold.
While other 80’s heroes were leaving their villains hospitalized on the brink of death, Peacemaker was just killing them. Haunted by the voices of his victims that apparently live in his helmet, Smith is transformed into a straight-up crazy vigilante with Nazi-sized daddy issues. This is the version audiences may be more accustomed to since it’s the one that James Gunn took inspiration from for his version of the brutal “superhero.”
Last we saw Gunn’s Peacemaker (portrayed by John Cena), he was on the brink of death himself. The ending to Gunn’s 2021 hit The Suicide Squad saw Peacemaker stuck in a hospital bed after a violent conclusion to his time on Corto Maltese. This is where we meet up with him again, at the beginning of Peacemaker, a new series that follows Christopher Smith’s post-Task Force X adventures, facing off against the mysterious “Project Butterfly” and saving the effing world.
The series, which had its three-episode premiere two weeks ago and subsequent single episode releases since then, was met with a largely positive response from viewers. When I got to the end of this over a two-hour road trip, I was left with a pretty mixed reaction. There are good and not-so-good moments in this show, and funnily enough, nearly all of them come from John Cena.
To really strip down and analyze that statement, we should start with one of the first scenes we get with Mr. Cena, where he’s stripped down and analyzed. John Cena has proven before that he isn’t afraid to get a little personal with the camera (see: Blockers), but the extent to which he does for Peacemaker is pretty impressive.
Beyond this first scene, where a half-gowned Smith is talking to a janitor (the half that’s out is his assets) about his questionable ideology, there are several scenes where the macho manner of Cena’s form is unraveled to reveal layers of emotions, insecurities, and guilt. And yes, these revelations often come during scenes where Cena is almost buck naked, displaying the actor’s ability to shed the toxicity of male expectations both inside and out.
It’s ironic then, that he’s playing such a toxic male. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point here. Peacemaker is supposed to be a jerk—and he is. He’s a jerk. A d-bag. An a-hole. In fact, he’s a big meanie sometimes too.
But we’re supposed to feel a little for the guy once we peek behind the curtain. We’re shown his genuine regret over Rick Flagg’s (Joel Kinnaman) death in The Suicide Squad, and his desire to become a hero of which Flagg would actually approve. The issue here is that that desire, along with the lessons he should learn from Flagg, hasn’t stuck yet. And they probably won’t for a minute.
Again, that’s kind of the point. Peacemaker is who he is and as the show goes on, and we’re introduced to influential elements—such as his upbringing under his absolutely evil father, or his misguided understanding of heroism—we’ll get an idea why he is that way. But that doesn’t mean he’ll change overnight, if at all. Again, I see the point. It’s just, man, it’s a hard point to sit through sometimes.
John Cena does a great job portraying the misogynistic, slightly racist, prone-to-anger helmet hero. Too good a job. Lines uttered by Peacemaker can be genuinely cringe-worthy at points, and I found myself rolling my eyes along with every character in the room every time he said something I thought people only said on Reddit and in Twitter replies.
He’s just as violent too. Joining Amanda Waller’s (Viola Davis) B-team, Smith still uses every part of his lethal arsenal to kill anyone he deems a criminal or an enemy of peace.
Although, that’s an aspect of the character that probably shouldn’t go away. Peacemaker isn’t a superhero show, technically speaking. Nobody on the show is on the side of justice. They’re more on the side of “just us.” I’ll hold for applause.
In that sense, this isn’t too different from Smith’s time on Task Force X. Even Rick Flagg, a character with the higher moral ground, still used lethal force while on the team.
It’s unclear if Peacemaker will learn anything from Flagg, or during his time with Amanda Waller’s B-team, and become a better person despite his violent vigilante tendencies. But his growing isolation from characters like Vigilante (Freddie Storms), a twisted Peacemaker superfan, and his racist neo-Nazi father (Robert Patrick) elude to some kind of character shift. There is genuine progress being shown here, if ever so slowly.
It may not be perfect, but Peacemaker is an intriguing look into the character, going places you wouldn’t expect it to and delivering some truly great performances all around. The series, also starring Danielle Brooks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Jennifer Holland, and Steve Agee, streams new episodes Thursdays on HBO MAX.