When action comedy series Peacemaker hit HBO Max streaming in mid-January, it confirmed that the DCEU wasn’t finished brandishing James Gunn’s hilariously eccentric direction, which made 2021’s The Suicide Squad “redo” such a hit. But it isn’t just the writing and directing of The Suicide Squad that revived the almost-ruined franchise — it’s also the lovability of John Cena’s Christopher Smith, AKA Peacemaker. Though he’s made out to be a villain by the end of the film, Cena’s unrelenting and humorous wit make Peacemaker one of the most memorable characters, and is likely one of the reasons he got his own show. Another, perhaps more important reason for the series’ debut is its potential for timely social commentary. Peacemaker is rife with jokes about the main character’s ignorant white man-ness, yet manages to humanize the anti-hero more and more as the episodes progress.
Right off the bat Smith comes off as a trigger-happy, patriotic muscleman, from his red, white, and blue costume to his pet bald eagle, Eagly. In The Suicide Squad, Smith unquestioningly follows Amanda Waller’s (Viola Davis) orders, even when it means killing his team member Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), because as his motto goes: “I cherish peace with all my heart. I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it.” This backwards ideology is carried over from that film into the beginning of the Peacemaker series, and, along with his ridiculous get-up and numbskull behavior, causes his new team to think of him as (and treat him like) an idiot. The kind of persona that Peacemaker represents is one that has been largely ostracized – especially by pop culture – for an adherence to a traditional, more ignorant way of thinking and acting.
The two characters in the series who do the most to hold Smith accountable for his often derogatory comments are also the two women on the team: Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) and Harcourt (Jennifer Holland). Smith’s treatment and view of women is made pretty clear from the first episode when he tries to get Harcourt to sleep with him, and winds up going home with someone else when the answer is clearly no. From then, Peacemaker makes plenty more inappropriate comments about Harcourt’s (and other women’s) breasts or other physical features, which the capable agent has no problem fending off. Though Adebayo is Smith’s admitted favorite of the team, he sees no problem with making slightly racist and fully crass remarks about her lesbianism. But like Harcourt, Adebayo holds Smith accountable in ways that are funny for the audience, but also force him to grow as a person.
Another relationship, which reflects the success of Peacemaker’s show runners in satirizing the male ego, is that between Smith and Vigilante (Adrian Chase). Vigilante shows up after Smith returns from jail looking to get back out there fighting crime together, despite Smith’s insistence that they’re not friends. When the two get captured by a butterfly, and Smith allows the butterfly to cut off Vigilante’s toe by refusing to answer its questions, Vigilante becomes upset with him. Once freed, Vigilante tries to play off like he’s not upset when he and Smith are riding in the car together. The banter between the two – Smith insisting Vigilante is upset and Vigilante insisting that he’s not – is a comical portrayal of masculinity preventing true feelings from coming out. Scenes like this, along with the montage where the duo blow stuff up in the woods to rock n roll playing in the background, poke fun at the way macho men try to keep their relationships with each other surface-level.
Despite Peacemaker’s toxic masculinity and overall political incorrectness, his clear concern for what others think about him, as well as his newfound struggles to adhere to his heartless motto (which we see when he is ordered to shoot the butterfly children and can’t), show that even this ruthless killer can change his beliefs and his ways. Cena, Gunn, and the other writers of the show do a great job of reflecting all of these nuances in a comical and fun way. However, the most redeeming element for Smith (and one that’s not so comical) is his upbringing. Smith’s father Auggie (Robert Patrick) is a hateful redneck/neo-nazi who started training Smith to kill from a young age. On top of that, Auggie treats his son like he’s worthless, and blames him for the accidental death of his brother. Such a mountain of trauma makes it harder to look down on Smith and easier to understand him.
The show handles Auggie’s racism in a uniquely lighthearted way. In his dealings with Officer Song, Auggie repeatedly hurls defamatory insults at her. But instead of giving him any power to alter her state of mind, she treats him like the triviality he is and shuts him down with her disregard. Though racism is undoubtedly a serious subject, the show attacks it from the angle that bigots are laughably irrelevant, which is satire in its purest form. Members of Smith’s team are constantly insulting Auggie for being the “piece of sh*t” that he is, which also serves to deservedly degrade him and his beliefs, while giving the audience more laughs. At the end of the show, when Auggie returns as the White Dragon intent on killing his son, his epic defeat represents not just the triumph over evil and hatred but the end to Smith making excuses for his father.
Peacemaker’s combination of emotionally nuanced characters, social commentary, zany humor, and thrilling action sequences make it a uniquely enjoyable and satirical “superhero” TV series. Though Smith has plenty of unlikable qualities, his personal growth throughout the episodes force the audience to overlook them and see him as a person battling his own demons. The humorous yet thoughtful humanization of Smith, along with the undeniable charm of Cena’s performance, make Peacemaker one of the DCU’s most promising new projects. The series has been renewed for season two, with James Gunn set to write and direct every episode.
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