Without hesitation, I can declare proudly that James Gunn’s gonzo comic book masterpiece, The Suicide Squad was easily one of my top five films of 2021. In addition to a fun story, gorgeously shot visuals, and hilariously raunchy script, we fell in love with the likes of fellow misfits Ratcatcher II, Polka Dot Man, and King Shark.
In fact, Gunn is so good at finding the humanity in all of his creations, that it’s not an exaggeration to say essentially every character alive by the film’s end was fully fleshed out, likable, and profoundly damaged and sympathetic. Well, actually, almost everyone.
This is a review of the first seven episodes of Peacemaker.
For those who haven’t seen The Suicide Squad (and the pity is I’m sure there’s more than a few who haven’t); a brief spoiler alert! Peacemaker aka Christopher Smith (John Cena) was revealed in the final act to be a very major secondary villain within the movie. His motives as a double agent for the film’s true villain, Amanda Waller, are revealed as he turns against his colleagues to absolutely bloody and fatal (not to mention tragically sad) results. All this after murdering a ton of foreign characters and declaring his sworn oath to his willingness to murder men, women, and children in the name of peace throughout the movie. Given all that, how could we possibly stand to watch or even give a damn about a character that was essentially a bigger monster than Starro the Conquerer? Well you may have guessed it, but you may still not fully believe or understand it, but Gunn found a way!
Some may criticize Peacemaker the series of doing a full 180-degree job at betraying the core of the character introduced in last August’s film. But I don’t see that as the case. We didn’t know anything much about Christopher Smith as a character during the film, apart from the felonious aspects of the character. So Gunn takes advantage of this to use the series to try and challenge the beliefs of the character, and the audience’s expectations of him. And overall, this exploration, combined with the tremendously charismatic and likable performance of John Cena, actually allow you to, surprisingly enough, like and at least empathize with the character. You enjoy seeing him on screen, and are invested in his sincere efforts to change, and it’s because both Gunn and Cena approach the character with full conviction and commitment towards all aspects of the character — the good and the bad.
That and the show smartly has him opposing White supremacists.
Indeed, one of the most surprising things about Peacemaker is that, at its core, it is a stunning indictment on the idea of current state of White supremacy that still exists in our country today, as well as the horrifying potential for hate and paranoid far-right conspiracy theories to spread like wildfire in our society among ignorant and naïve individuals. Now it’s easy enough for Gunn to explore this idea through the tangible villains our heroes can punch, but even trickier to showcase it through the show’s protagonist itself. And more than anything, what Peacemaker, as a character, represents is the violent, morally corrupt product of the beliefs and teachings about hate and paranoia that get passed down from garbage individuals to their kids, and the lasting traumatic effect it could have on them in life as they grow into adults.
Now granted, the show is open about the fact that Peacemaker himself doesn’t share the same racist beliefs as his father, but wastes no time in putting him on the spot for murdering several characters of color (as we saw in The Suicide Squad). In fact in its hilarious opening, one character goes out of his way to criticize Peacemaker for subconsciously not putting White criminals under as much surveillance as people of color. It also skewers him for being a character whose upbringing and desire to please his alt-right conspiracy nut father has impacted his ability to accept things like science, and reality.
For example, the eponymous character often hilariously spouts “facts” he got from Googling things or Reddit threads, as real, while the audience, and characters around him, openly ridicule him. The sheer obliviousness and arrogance of a gun-happy character, who actually owns a pet bald eagle, successfully serves as a symbol for parts of America gone wrong. “Why do people who think pro wrestling is real think climate change is a hoax?” quips one character during the series. Well, we get to understand why through Peacemaker’s relationship with his horrible father (despicably played by Robert Patrick).
So why are we rooting for this character again? Because thankfully, he realizes how his upbringing and father have negatively shaped him, and he wants to change his ways. And because of Gunn’s writing and Cena’s acting, as well as the relationships he develops with others on his team, we believe him, and root for him. Is it an easy way to redeem a character who doesn’t necessarily deserve a “Get Out of Jail Free” card? Yes. But narratively, is it tragic and effective? Also yes.
This is ultimately Gunn’s specialty — allowing people to care about characters that should be unlikable. And in addition to Peacemaker himself, we get a cast of some (at best) morally grey individuals in his colleagues, Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), John Economos (Steve Agee), Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), and my personal favorites Danielle Brooks as Leota Adebayo and Freddie Stroma as Vigilante. In particular, Stroma’s Vigilante steals the show, with his interpretation being something of an almost comedic version of Rorschach from Watchmen.
He’s dedicated to justice, but also psychotically and unnecessarily violent and willing to kill over the most ridiculous crimes. Yet he possesses something of an 11-year old’s mentality and innocence. It’s a character you absolutely shouldn’t root for, but his optimistic performance for such odd and hilarious character writing, along with his unwavering commitment to his friends makes it easy to love him. Stroma is completely hilarious and so very random, it’s amazing!
There’s also Brooks, whose Adebayo serves as the heart of the show. The character is faced with such complex choices, and Brooks plays the role with so much conflict, sympathy, and pureness that, despite what she does throughout it, you definitely feel for and root for her. Holland’s Harcourt is also a badass. Agee’s Economos is completely hilarious. And Iwuji’s Murn really ends up being something of a brilliant foil to Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller. In short you end up really endeared to the group eventually dubbed “the 11th Street Kids.”
Let’s also not forget the most amazing assets of The Suicide Squad — Gunn’s proclivity for completely out-there ideas, over-the-top ridiculous raunchy humor, and deep cut knowledge of the DC Universe! He demonstrates all of those qualities here with insane ideas like the scene stealing performance of Peacemaker’s lovable CGI pet eagle, Eagly, and perhaps 100% the greatest opening credits to a TV show ever made. I kid you not, I couldn’t bring myself to ever skip the opening credits on any episode! It’s just too glorious. Also, for those who hate Gunn’s inclination for genitalia jokes and F-bombs, good luck with this one, as 99% of the humor is driven by both, along with inane non-sequiturs between characters bickering. I love all of those things, so this series (of which Gunn wrote all eight episodes) had me constantly and consistently laughing loudly.
His soundtrack is also perfect, bringing deep cuts of heavy metal and hair rock to the forefront here, helping to both better define the character of Christopher Smith, and also get your toes tapping from scene to scene. The show is also littered with so many deep cut
Eagle eggs Easter eggs from DC lore that will be sure to have fans squealing with name drops (Bat-Mite and Matter Eater Lad anyone?). It’s the most the DCEU has ever delved into deep cuts from the comics since its inception in 2013.
Now that we’ve gotten all of the things I absolutely love about this show out of the way, there is something about it that I do have some problems with. I do think the show tries to have it both ways in condemning racism, sexism, and obviously terrible people, but also allows for moments of racist or sexist humor to propagate at times. Understandably, at no point is Gunn saying the racist or sexist jokes spewed by racist, sexist, or evil characters is good. On the contrary, the show obviously takes time to openly condemn all of the characters for making horrible jokes and being horrible people. But when a character as oblivious as Peacemaker makes completely sexist comments that, yes, are called out and condemned by his peers, but that also are coming from a character we’re supposed to end up rooting for, there’s something a little off-putting about all that.
In short, I can’t deny that for all the good intentions the show is trying to achieve in its condemnation of the types of people who say sexist or racist things, as well as it’s absolute rejection of White supremacy, I can absolutely see folks getting offended by much of the humor or antics of Peacemaker or other characters. It’s very much tip-toeing on the border of what’s appropriate and what’s unacceptable. Make no mistake that Gunn is obviously against all of these things, and that’s really the whole point of the show. But there’s a lot of potential for offense from things characters say or do.
Having said that, however, I do think Peacemaker is a big success in the most important ways that matter to the cast and Gunn. It is an open indictment on White supremacy and backwards thinking in America. It’s a hilarious work place comedy with amazing performances from its ensemble. And it’s a completely out-there series with great music, lots of heart, and the brilliant characters that only someone who brought you Super and Slither could deliver. While it may offend some, and might not be to everyone’s taste, after viewing the first seven brilliant episodes of this series, in my opinion, all I am saying is give Peacemaker a chance!
Overall Score: B+
Peacemaker premieres on HBO Max on January 13!