Peacemaker shouldn’t exist. It’s an eight-episode, premium-tier streaming series about a character that isn’t even a C-grade comics character, let alone a legend like The Flash or Daredevil. He’s a weird-looking Silver Age character for whom update attempts have largely failed, and he is–was–largely forgotten by the vast majority of comics fans. At least, until John Cena brought him to vivid life in The Suicide Squad. Now, Cena brings his energy to a spin-off show focused on the titular character, and this forgotten character is now one of my favorite live-action comic book characters. It’s all thanks to Cena and director James Gunn.
DC has struggled to build a universe the way Marvel did so effortlessly. Since Man of Steel, movies have been interrupted, tinkered with by studios, and canceled for a dozen different reasons. These days the DC movie universe is scattered across a few different fictional realities.
With The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, though, it feels like the DC movie universe is finding new and interesting ways to connect, expanding the world by investing in more minor characters and putting them in the context of these bigger-than-life heroes.
John Cena brings Peacemaker to life
At the center of this show is the excellent cast. I never expected to consider John Cena such a highlight. While Dwayne Johnson was once a charismatic and entertaining movie presence, he’s turned into a walking self-promotion, whether it’s on his Instagram or in a movie. He just plays himself. John Cena, meanwhile, can stand alongside veteran actors like Idris Elba and super-star grade actors like Margot Robbie and come away looking better for that. And Peacemaker is a challenge. It’s not that Batman and Superman aren’t challenges, but they’re kind of known quantities to a degree. We know what kind of tone to expect from their stories, generally.
Peacemaker is a murderer who wrong-headedly kills people for the sake of peace while wearing a chrome helmet. In the comics, he’s haunted by the voices of those he’s killed, which he believes are trapped in the helmet. Read our profile on the character if you think I’m kidding; Peacemaker is a truly bonkers character that would make even the Doom Patrol raise an eyebrow. Compared to so many other superhero protagonists–Peacemaker is not a hero–he has a lot more going on emotionally. He appears to be a dumb jock with a gun at first glance, but as layers are pulled away, he shows buried pain, guilt, and confusion, revealing a person who operated based on what he had been taught the world was but who is figuring out that much of what he was told was a lie.
Across the eight episodes, Cena repeatedly takes what should be a funny scene and makes it heart-wrenching. In one scene, he’s rocking out to some hair metal; it’s like interpretive dance, almost. He tries to process his feelings through the movements, and the combination of Cena’s acting, the music, and Gunn’s direction and editing turn it into something special. Peacemaker, I’d wager, cries more than any superhero protagonist does across the relatively short time he’s been on-screen, and it never feels anything less than earned. Cena isn’t the first wrestler to make the jump to acting by any stretch but he’s the first time I remember thinking that maybe he’s an actor who started as a wrestler, rather than a wrestler who became an actor.
The whole cast is top tier
It’s not just Cena, though; the whole core cast helps to make this show special. Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland reprise their roles from The Suicide Squad, with both characters getting a bunch of development that proves they were anything but bit parts. Agee’s John Economos builds on what little we learned about him in the film and becomes much more than the “guy in the chair” character that we initially clock him as. Peacemaker’s constant taunting–he calls him dye-beard–hammers on his self-confidence, but a moment with a chainsaw about halfway through helps prove to both him and us that he’s capable of much more. By the time the first season ends, Economos has one of the most emotional scenes in the series.
The real standout is Danielle Brooks as Leota Adebayo. Standing next to someone like John Cena on screen can’t be easy–he’s truly superstar material, and she goes toe-to-toe with him in so many scenes. If Peacemaker/Christopher Smith is the protagonist, Adebayo is the emotional center. She’s not exactly a conscience for Smith, but she’s the one standing up and questioning some of the more screwed-up things that people associated with Task Force X have just come to accept.
Jennifer Holland’s character, Harcourt, has less to do than some of the others, as her character is trapped a bit more in tropes. She’s the beautiful but ultra-capable hardass that has to soften up a bit, while Adebayo and Economos have to harden. With that said, she still finds ways to grow the character. The key in Season 2 will be that she and Smith cannot ever get together, which feels like something many writers would be sorely tempted to do.
All of these characters are covering up serious pain and pathos, whether it’s through bullying, sarcasm, or intensity, and the show does a great job of organically peeling back those curtains.
A Serial Killer and a Racist
On the other side of that are the more unhinged characters. Peacemaker is unhinged, but he’s in the process of trying to find his way out of that. But Vigilante and Auggie Smith/White Dragon are in fully bonkers territory.
Robert Patrick plays Auggie Smith, Chris Smith’s dad. In the comics, Smith’s father was a Nazi actively involved in World War II. Time marches on, though, and he’d have to be Smith’s great-grandpa at this point. Instead, Auggie is a KKK leader who we learn is responsible for much of who Smith is. While Smith doesn’t seem racist, he’s definitely a bully and unaware of how his behavior affects people. He sees the world through a violence-first lens.
Auggie is also responsible for Peacemaker’s sci-fi helmets, each of which has a separate function. There’s a sonic boom helmet, a levitation helmet, and so on, and Auggie apparently builds them inside a pocket dimension in his residential home. That’s the kind of comic book weirdness I love; he’s just this terrible, nasty person who is casually a tech genius. Importantly, the show does absolutely nothing to redeem him. Auggie is absolutely unrepentant. He’s no Darth Vader, in other words. There’s no good in him.
Vigilante–Adrian Chase–is a far cry from what we know of both the actor and the character. Freddie Stroma has typically played characters in things like Bridgerton, Harry Potter, and other Distinctly British stuff like that. The last time we saw Adrian Chase in live-action was in Arrow season 5, where he was meticulously hunting down and humiliating Star City’s archer. This Vigilante is nothing like that. Every action scene he’s in shows how deadly he is, but he’s an awkward, emotionally-stunted, psychopathic killer who has more in common with Dexter than Batman. He’s one of the funniest parts of the show; despite his skill, he’s an absolute dumbass who can never read any room he’s in. The show uses it to great effect.
Don’t forget about the Peacemaker opening credits
In general, Peacemaker seems to be a collection of things that shouldn’t work well together somehow working swimmingly. Eagly, Peacemaker’s avian sidekick, should be ridiculous. And yet, when the two are reunited and Eagly hugs him, it… works.
The strange but unforgettable opening theme, a dance number that features all of the show’s characters dancing with a completely flat affect, is a clue of what we’re in for. Gleeful absurdity. Despite being a direct spin-off of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, this show absolutely feels a piece of the same cloth as Harley Quinn and Doom Patrol. It lives in the weirder recesses of the DC universe, in the places that the Justice League typically can’t be bothered to look into.
It plays with DC canon without violating it, building on the weird, tenuous interconnection of Zack Snyder’s Justice League to The Suicide Squad to Peacemaker (Batman is in Justice League and the original Suicide Squad, Harley is in both Suicide Squad and The Suicide Squad which also introduces Peacemaker, etc). Peacemaker namedrops Bat-Mite at one point and can be found making weird claims about better-known heroes in almost every episode.
We can’t wait for Peacemaker Season 2
Peacemaker is unquestionably a James Gunn joint; Gunn loves comic books and knows them like seemingly no one else in Hollywood. He’s been into the dark corners of the Silver Age, and come out with characters like Polka Dot Man, the White Dragon, and Peacemaker. This allows him to play more deeply with the characters and be a little silly, while also making sure that we absolutely love the characters by the end.
Peacemaker shouldn’t exist, let alone be greenlit for a second season. It’s a TV show, spun off of a movie that’s a sequel-not-a-sequel, using a mostly-forgotten character played by a wrestler famous for wearing jean shorts and being invisible. But once the whole machine gets up to speed, it’s unstoppable. Cena proves himself a legitimately intense actor while Gunn shows that Guardians of the Galaxy was not a one-time thing. Ensembles of weirdos seems to be his favorite well to go back to, but if the result is Peacemaker, then keep right on.