By Sean Cabot
Peacemaker is a DC Comics character formerly owned by the defunct Charlton Comics Company. His biggest claim to fame for many years was that the cavalcade of Charlton Comics pastiches in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” included a reference to him in the form of the Comedian.
But now, coming off of his absolutely delightful work on “The Suicide Squad,” James Gunn has turned to HBO Max to give John Cena’s standout rendition of the character the spotlight. The result is “Peacemaker,” a show that maintains many of the strengths Gunn displayed with his ensemble piece last year, but also introduces a few noticeable weaknesses.
The series follows Christopher Smith (Cena) – a self-proclaimed superhero who has dedicated himself to the goal of peace at any price. Even the lives of innocent men, women, and children are forfeit if they will help forward this ideal.
After his less-than-successful tenure on Task Force X in “The Suicide Squad,” Smith is contacted by the federal agency A.R.G.U.S. to once again conduct a covert mission called “Project Butterfly” in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.
He is aided in his mission by commanding officer Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), tech expert John Economos (Steve Agee), handler Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), new recruit Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), and Adrian Chase a.k.a Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), who just sort of tagged along.
However, the operation quickly goes off the rails. Making matters worse, Smith’s father Auggie (Robert Patrick) – an infamous white supremacist known as the White Dragon, quickly sets his sights on the group.
From there, the situation rapidly and clumsily escalates in a barrage of brutal violence and scatological humor.
“Peacemaker” is a very funny show. The actors have great comedic chemistry and the jokes, although immature at times, manage to be funny while also maintaining the cast’s core aspects.
The performances are similarly strong, particularly from the supporting cast. Iwuji, Brooks, and Stroma in particular feel right at home with the material.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is WWE face Cena turning in a performance that is at once affecting, hilarious, and genuine with a character as outsized and ridiculous as Peacemaker. Christopher Smith’s childishness and penchant for brutality underlies a man whose conflict with his own ideology is tearing him apart, and Cena himself disappears portraying it.
All things considered, “Peacemaker” seems like a home run. But there are a few things that hold it back from reaching “peak fiction” status.
To start, the treatment of Adrian Chase bugs me.
His original concept – a crusading lawyer driven to vigilantism, is replaced with a more goofy, Deadpool-esque affect that, while funny, also doesn’t really serve to address his admitted tendency to joyfully murder even the most harmless kinds of criminals.
To be fair, that’s probably the most subjective gripe I have with the show. The bigger problem is how the violence inflicted by Peacemaker and the rest of the cast is contextualized.
While Smith is rightfully called out as a man-child within the show, his and A.R.G.U.S’ violent actions are remarkably uncomplicated by comparison. Much of the violence they engage in is treated as being morally justified.
There are a few exceptions, but they actually concern Harcourt more than Smith, who seems rather reluctant to commit excess violence in spite of his deliberately ironic oath. While part of this may be owed to his actions in “The Suicide Squad,” it still feels odd that the character who was introduced as a parody of American jingoism can’t fully commit to more focused satire.
That being said, the show as a whole is still strong, and the themes present about the folly of American exceptionalism do have a sufficient degree of substance. “Peacemaker” does have shortcomings, but its strong cast and humor are more than enough to make it worth watching.
At the very least, you need to watch the absolutely transcendent opening dance number.
B-, brutal, blemished, and bonkers.