Last summer James Gunn delivered the impossible with The Suicide Squad, picking up the ball from one of the worst superhero movies in recent memory and building a delightful and oddly relevant sequel that builds on the first film’s few good pieces while also introducing a number of great fresh elements. Among those new elements was John Cena’s Peacemaker, a gun-toting lunkhead zealot who believes in achieving peace no matter what.
On paper Peacemaker seems like an odd choice to lead his own spin-off, especially after the film features him as – spoilers – a secret antagonist. But Gunn’s pitch, taking Peacemaker out of the CGI-filled blockbuster bloodfest and sending him back to his small town trailer home, adds some interiority to the character.
Can this show balance the silly comedic tones with its heavy subject matter? We’ll find out, no matter how many men, women, and children have to die along the way. Let’s make some peace.
Here’s five thoughts on Peacemaker’s pilot episode “A Whole New Whirled.” Spoilers below.
1. Do Ya Wanna Taste It?
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: the title sequence for this series is incredible. It’s so hilarious that I had to pause and rewind the episode because I was laughing so hard.
Set to Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It?” (a song that is bafflingly only about a decade old), the delightful sequence features all the main and recurring cast members performing an awkward interpretive dance number on a stage flooded with neon lights. The bombastic music is perfectly contrasted with the faces of the cast, who perform the number with blank, serious expressions that only make the proceedings more absurd.
It’s the perfect introduction for a show that is going to be balancing weighty themes with an action-comedy superhero romp. As much as there are some serious issues at Peacemaker’s core, it’s a show that is primarily concerned with showing you a good time.
2. A Tale of Two Peacemakers
James Gunn has said in interviews that he started writing Peacemaker for fun during production on The Suicide Squad without knowing whether Warner Bros. would have any interest. That timeline tracks with the differences between the two projects – I fully buy that Gunn had no intention of spinning Peacemaker off into his own franchise while he was originally writing the film.
John Cena’s Peacemaker (a.k.a. Christopher Smith) in The Suicide Squad is a brutal racist zealot that the film doesn’t really attempt to make likeable. What comedy Cena manages to get from the character is mostly built from the fact that the character’s beliefs are delivered unironically despite being ridiculous on their face. Peacemaker the series, however, sands down the brutality of the character in favor of casting him as a fail-son buffoon. The switch makes him much easier to buy as a protagonist, but the zealotry hasn’t fully evaporated from his character.
This is a somewhat troubling trick for the show to pull, but from its pilot Peacemaker seems interested in digging into the ideologies underpinning the casual racism and misogyny delivered in its anti-hero’s jargon and catchphrases. If Peacemaker worked as a tool for The Suicide Squad to mock American imperialism, this show has a much wider set of tools to pull from as it plays with critiquing a different toxic aspect of the American identity.
3. Mission: Suicide – Fallout
Peacemaker makes up for its lack of continuity with its titular character’s persona from The Suicide Squad by picking up plot threads from the film and using them to build out the narrative. The series picks up some time after the events of the film, with Smith recovering from his betrayal of the Squad (on Amanda Waller’s orders) during their last mission. He’s quickly confronted by some semi-familiar faces: some of Waller’s cronies drafting him into yet another mission on behalf of his country.
Returning The Suicide Squad characters Agents Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Economos (Steve Agee) are on the outs with Waller after they knocked her out and assisted Task Force X in fighting Starro. Their bitter attitude towards the big boss is contrasted by newcomer Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), a green agent on her first assignment who we learn by the end of the episode is Amanda Waller’s daughter. Leading the black ops team dubbed “Project Butterfly” is Agent Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), a stoic man of few words who reports directly to Waller.Continued below
The team is interestingly pitched here, positioned to comment on Smith’s douchebaggery from a moral high ground despite being on shaky footing themselves. Harcourt and Economos might have done a good thing in Corto Maltese, but they seem far more torn up about how badly Waller has burned them than they are about any of the lives lost while they were doing Waller’s bidding. The only one who seems to have any moral qualms about her new gig is Adebayo, but she also seems to be the only one to see any good in Smith. For the moment her insight into him feels artificial, but that will be an interesting thread to see the show develop.
4. Papa Don’t Preach
After meeting with his new teammates, Smith heads off to visit his father and Peacemaker the show spells out its first big idea. How do you make an obvious racist and sexist seem sympathetic? Show his far worse, definitely-a-Nazi father, of course.
From the moment Peacemaker pulls up to his father’s house and drives past an upside-down American flag waving in the wind you know the show is toeing a dangerous line. When his father Auggie (played viciously by classic evil guy Robert Patrick) comes into the frame, he does so with dialogue that made up predominantly of ethnic slurs and homophobic insults. He’s belittling and cruel, and an effective villain in the sense that Smith has an enormous racist troll to push back against – and, presumably, grow away from in his search for redemption. Auggie is a signal that Peacemaker is trying to play with some big themes, but it’s too soon to say if the show is going to do so with any bite.
Most importantly, this family meeting gives way to Smith reuniting with his best friend and sidekick: Eagly, the bald eagle. For a fully CGI character, Eagly is a delight throughout the episode, from him hugging his owner to him sticking his head out the window of a moving car like he’s a dog.
5. Just Guys Being Dudes
The last member of the main cast, who we only meet in the pilot via phone call and in a single scene, is Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), a.k.a. Adrian Chase, a.k.a. the show’s secret weapon. It’s already clear that Stroma is a scene stealer, delivering the funniest scene in the episode when his barely suppressed joy at the return of his best bro causes him to lie to his co-worker about being excited about his girlfriend both his girlfriend’s pregnancy and her impending abortion.
Long story short, Chase is a little freak with many of the same problems as Smith but dialed up to 11. He’s somehow even worse with people than Smith is. He’s also obsessed with Smith, and I don’t think I’m imagining that Chase’s fixation on his “friend” tips past normal bro love. The way he stares at Smith strikes me as something beyond idolizing, and paired with his “my girlfriend—you wouldn’t know her” speech I have a feeling the show is heading towards saying something interesting about toxic masculinity.
In the pilot’s climactic scene, Smith follows up his hookup by singing along to an old record in his tighty whiteys, bulge fully on display and veins popping out of his muscles while he croons. It’s a clever and hilarious juxtaposition, with the camera lingering on Cena’s body in a way that, were he a woman, you could easily peg as the male gaze. “You know, this is back when men were real men, because they weren’t afraid to be women,” he says without the slightest hint of self-reflection. There’s something to be observed here about how hypermasculinity, racism, misogyny, and self-hatred all overlap and feed on each other. Peacemaker isn’t making that explicit just yet, but the seeds are there.
In the episode’s final minutes, Smith’s sexual conquest (and, consequently, his sexual prowess) is undercut by the reveal that his hook-up is some kind of howling monster. She easily bests him physically until he manages to blow her up with a sonic boom from his helmet, destroying the parking lot outside her apartment and drawing the attention of the police. It’s a fun hook for the next episode that brings some of the weightier issues the show is grappling with back to pulpy genre goodness – this is a superhero show, after all.