John Cena has found a role that seems to fit him like a glove—or perhaps more appropriately in this case, like a toilet lid-shaped helmet with capabilities ranging from curious to disastrous. The former WWE superstar shines in the titular role of HBO Max’s Peacemaker, an eight-episode series that takes place after the events of the 2021 DC Extended Universe (DCEU) movie The Suicide Squad. Peacemaker is the first DCEU series and fortunately for fans, it’s proven itself a worthy foundation.
The Suicide Squad was half a soft reboot and half a sequel to the critically divisive and generally derided 2016 film Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer. The 2021 version helmed by James Gunn wasn’t subtle in the way it leveraged Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy formula from the Marvel side of things, but its plot and the way it added its flavor practically vindicated the missteps of the first movie. Indeed, it was enough to even greenlight Gunn’s Peacemaker spin-off.
While the DCEU still needs to address many issues for its extended universe to thrive, Peacemaker stands on its own as an enjoyable superhero series. It provides sufficient context and backstory where needed, so even viewers who haven’t seen The Suicide Squad can jump right into it. Although, for fans who want to spare themselves a couple of key spoilers from the film, it’s recommended to watch that first.
Peacemaker is now available to stream via HBO Max.
Warning: some spoilers beyond this point.
The Story: Ultimately Replaceable, but…
Peacemaker picks up nearly half a year after the events of The Suicide Squad. Christopher Smith, the self-designated superhero Peacemaker, makes a full recovery from nearly dying during his stint as part of Task Force X, and gets roped back into the sinister but also world-saving schemes of Amanda Waller and associates. This time, Smith finds himself a part of an A.R.G.U.S. black ops team called “Project Butterfly.”
Smith is joined by a ragtag group of misfits. There’s a pair of black ops personnel from Waller’s team who themselves think they’ve been given the assignment for pissing her off. Waller’s daughter is pushed into the fray by her mother. And to top it off, Vigilante, a psychopathic and notably dim masked vigilante who fancies himself Peacemaker’s best friend, also finds a role in the chaos. The team is led by a veteran operations head with a dark past.
Cue shenanigans, uncovering truths behind “Project Butterfly,” and of course a world-saving climax with a few twists along the way. Ultimately, the overarching plot is replaceable and its twists were rather predictable or at least unsurprising. And yet, despite the mediocrity of the story in the background, the characters in the foreground triumphed. Perhaps the lukewarm general plot even helped elevate the characters, their plights, and their complicated relationships. You could replace the stakes, even change the domination-driven antagonist’s motivations, and Peacemaker’s characters and their personal stories woven within the grander scheme of things would still have excelled, and this is the strongest point in favor of the series.
The Characters: The Highs and the Hefts
All the emotional highs (and lows) and all the hefty (and funny) moments in the show worked so well because of how unsuitable almost everything and everyone is for the mission.
Cena’s Peacemaker is a manchild with a lethal mercenary’s skills. While that in itself is already questionable at best, the fact that he’s starting to balk at killing people when he’s specifically brought in to do so makes his involvement detrimental to the operation. Waller’s daughter, Leota Adebayo played by Danielle Brooks, knows she’s way in over her head assisting a black ops project when her prior experience was helping an animal shelter. When she starts to effectively wield the ruthless manipulation for which her mother is renowned, her poor decision-making endangers the mission and her conscience eats away at her resolve.
Socially awkward tech expert John Economos, played by actor Steve Agee, fumbles a simple but critical decision that threatens to compromise his relationship with Peacemaker as well as the confidentiality of the mission. Being the least physically capable member, he also finds himself in demanding situations and altercations. Vigilante, played convincingly by Freddie Stroma, probably has a psychological profile better suited to a school shooter than a vigilante of justice (though one could argue that’s a thin line). He’s socially inept and devoid of emotion or empathy, and most times, simple common sense.
Only actress Jennifer Holland’s Emilia Harcourt is perfect for the job: an experienced operative with a touch of femme fatale allure and rugged combat prowess to boot. Even the operation leader Clemson Murn, played by Chukwudi Iwuji, was eventually revealed to be the most inappropriate member of the team.
And yet, it works. In a world where superheroes, supervillains, and meta-humans with powers exist, perhaps it makes sense that Waller’s Suicide Squad-style approach is effective. It’s a wild world where “Project Starfish” turned out to be an actual kaiju starfish and “Project Butterfly” turned out to refer to alien butterfly bodysnatchers. Of course Peacemaker’s ridiculousness works.
And throughout the eight episodes of the show, that’s all thanks to character-driven development. It’s a testament to the writing and the acting that the show manages to sell the nuanced details in the characters.
The Performances: Satisfying Character Development Drives the Story
Cena owned every facet of Peacemaker, both positive and negative. The manchild was innocent and ignorant, abused and abuser, and rude and remorseful all at once. Cena delivered a character amidst a period of doubt, change, and unshackling. At the start of the series, he was regretful for the killing of Colonel Rick Flag during the events of The Suicide Squad. As the current mission and his relationships progressed, he started to doubt his ways, ingrained into him by his white supremacist and supervillain father who doled out nearly every form of abuse since childhood. He experienced betrayal right when it hurt the most. And eventually, he gained personal freedom by literally and figuratively fighting off demons of his past, though they’ll always stay a part of him.
If there’s one weakness in the writing of Peacemaker’s character, maybe it’s how he wasn’t worse than he was, considering the things he went through and what his father made him do. Perhaps that’s a testament to the people he met along the way—he still had enough influences to not be a lost cause. That’s also good news from the perspective of potential future seasons or appearances as Peacemaker: more nuances to explore and questions to answer.
Now, the rest of the cast was understandably given less significant development proportional to screen time, but for the most part, again, the writing and acting delivered. Brook’s character Leota Adebayo could have used more depth, but was sufficiently realized as a person finding herself and her purpose. Her relationship with Peacemaker also made the latter’s emotional journey more meaningful.
The antagonists’ side could have been more palatable. The only noteworthy aspect of the so-called butterflies was that the mission team leader Murn was one of them. Overall, however, the primary payoff for that character was the plot twist, and killing him off to galvanize and motivate the team was a predictable narrative dead-end. Interestingly, Peacemaker’s butterflies manage to avoid being a typical CGI enemy army (like a lot of the enemy armies in both Marvel and the DCEU). The butterflies are CGI, sure, but as bodysnatchers, the enemy army ends up being composed of humans.
Perhaps that was more affordable for the studio, but Peacemaker also managed to infuse a bit of humanity and character in many of the people the butterflies would later inhabit. Their lives and their stories were brutally cut short, so there was still poignant tragedy accompanying the CGI baddies this time around.
Judomaster is more of a mixed bag. Some scenes of him, in fact (e.g. the convenience store beatdown of two random assholes), could have been cut to no adverse effect. Narratively, he only served to provide a supervillain or meta-human to fight, and to plant seeds of doubt regarding the motivations of the alien butterflies.
The White Dragon, however, is something else. Played with despicable efficacy by actor Robert Patrick, August Ransom “Auggie” Smith, AKA the supervillain White Dragon, was a terrifyingly meaningful secondary antagonist. Everything wrong with Chris was his father Auggie’s fault, and where the child within Peacemaker still wanted to find paternal love in his irredeemable father, the White Dragon best served the plot, and the world at large, by dying. Patrick’s performance as Auggie Smith leaves an indelible mark on the audience the same way the White Dragon continues to haunt the psyche of Peacemaker after his death.
The rest of the cast performed decently, aided by a great script with dark and well-timed humor that leveraged unique aspects of the characters. Vigilante, for example, with his social ineptitude and psychopathy, easily derails dialogues into funny skits, or provides horribly-slash-perfectly timed levity during moments of tragedy or tension. The unique dynamics between characters also lent themselves well to humor, such as one scene where Peacemaker recited a ridiculous list of names tech expert Economos could have framed instead of his father.
Pacing and Editing: It Works as a Series
Some series are better off as movies, or at least trilogies, but Peacemaker works well in its eight-episode format. There are certainly many scenes (like R-rated parts and material) one could easily cut to little effect, but a general runtime of around 40 to 46 minutes in length per episode allowed the show to breathe. The eight-episode run allowed characters to be more fleshed out. It allowed a better portrayal of relationships and how they progressed, and it lent more weight to buildups, betrayals, and resolutions. It left a more lingering sense of meaning to heavy flashbacks and scenes of Peacemaker losing himself to emotion, music, or even sex.
Often a scene you think could have been left on the editing floor provided a bit more context to character background, backstory, plot devices, or progression. Peacemaker wouldn’t work as effectively as a movie, or even a trilogy. It needed to pace itself and let things settle.
The editing was nearly film quality, though one might find it odd that Cena’s fight scenes were edited together with a few more cuts than what was surely necessary given the former wrestler’s capabilities. Some episodes had after-credit scenes that appeared to be alternatives or gag reel versions of ones in the show—that along with the dance number in the opening credits were nice touches.
Cinematography and Sound: A Kickass Soundtrack that Shadows the Plot
Gunn’s clever cinematography in The Suicide Squad wasn’t as prevalent in Peacemaker, though his signature touches emerged here and there. However, in its place was a satisfying soundtrack that usually elevated the scenes during which they played. The genre or lyrics would often match the context or atmosphere portrayed.
Gunn certainly hasn’t given up his penchant for choosing hit soundtracks to accompany his work. Maybe Peacemaker had one too many scenes grooving to the music, but everything was still handled well for the most part. Cena, again, showcased how much he owned the character when he was playing Peacekeeper just losing himself to the tunes.