The first major action sequence of James Gunn’s Peacemaker, the HBO Max spin-off and sequel-of-sorts to 2021’s The Suicide Squad, features John Cena in a pair of tighty-whities and little else. He’s thrown through the wall of an apartment that belongs to a Crüe-cut rocker babe who matches the jingoistic mercenary blow-for-blow and even respects his dress code. Her gear? Pink bra and panties. And, whoo, is she pissed. The fight lasts for a while and is incredibly stabby and takes place, it should be noted, post-coitus.
The fight is awesome, and funny, and almost as violent as the staggering amount of body parts and viscera that went flying in Gunn’s first ferocious foray into the DC Universe last year. Cena starred in The Suicide Squad as Christopher Smith, a.k.a. Peacemaker, a.k.a. “the other guy with guns” who 1) wasn’t Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and 2) turned out to be an undercover operative for Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who dutifully betrayed Task Force X and killed Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) for his country. Flag’s parting shot to Smith as the light left his eyes: “‘Peacemaker.’ What a joke.” Not the most promising leading man TV has seen of late. And here he is, punching a half-naked lady.
But wait! Cena was a stand-out in The Suicide Squad, an impressive feat considering the stacked deck that was its cast, and he’s even better in Peacemaker. It’s a bewildering thing to watch its first three episodes, all of which are available to stream on HBO Max right now. It’s a show that feels like it could have been made in the raunchier ’80s—or possibly the ’90s, when Gunn was working in the grungy trenches of Troma Entertainment alongside schlockmeister extraordinaire Lloyd Kaufman—and if the action-cheese gods were good it might have even starred Dolph Lundgren, too. The body count of Peacemaker is certainly on its way to passing the muster of the grodier action romps from that particular time, a ludicrous brouhaha of hyperviolence doled out by the thyroid cases who thrive from it. Think Cannon Films+.
Of course, Peacemaker, or Christopher, is in a different place in this series than he was in The Suicide Squad. When we last saw him, he was nursing a hole in his neck (courtesy of Bloodsport) and a crushed collarbone (courtesy of the building that collapsed on him). He’s still nursing his wounds in the first batch of episodes, and Cena’s storied tenure as a professional wrestler lends a bit of worrisome legitimacy to the moments when he has to stop whatever he’s doing to grab his injured arm and grimace with agony. You believe Cena knows what it’s like to suffer similar injuries and so you believe that Christopher Smith is in actual pain, too.
It’s just one of a couple surprising moments in Peacemaker where you begin to feel sorry for the murderous bastard. “[He’s] sexist… probably racist,” Danielle Brooks’ Leota Adebayo observes of Peacemaker in the latter half of the first episode, titled “A Whole New Whirled.” “Yeah,” another character replies. “You know who his father is?” We do, and he’s played by Robert “T-1000” Patrick, who sports a sublime mane of untamed bed-head and really leans into the bold-faced cruelty of a father who definitely shouldn’t have been. As Auggie Smith, Patrick is at a perpetual simmer as the wildly racist former soldier-of-fortune who remains on law enforcement’s radar and treats his son like two tons of dried-out shit. He gets framed for Christopher’s crimes and sent to prison in episode two, but before you go saying “good,” just know that it looks like he really wants to be there. Auggie’s gonna keep simmering for now, and the smart money says he’s bound to raise all sorts of hell before long.
And when Auggie does show up again you can bet that it will affect Christopher—and the show!—in a profound way. That’s the real shocker of Peacemaker: This patriotic quasi-maniac is just a mush of emotions, and if prodded correctly, he will crack like a Fabergé egg. There’s an emotional bit in episode two, titled “Best Friends Never,” where Christopher kicks his own ass in an especially brutal manner—you know the one, that pity party we throw ourselves whenever we fuck up beyond repair and have no one to lean on anymore. Cena is there in this episode, and the way he carries on you get the impression that he’ll be there again, the poor lump.
Christopher’s pain is interrupted in comic fashion by Vigilante, as portrayed by Freddie “Dickon Tarly” Stroma (er, not that one). Stroma’s interpretation of the character (Adrian Chase, co-created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez) is manic and also possibly insane. (He cuts in on Christopher’s first major post-Squad mission for Amanda Waller and murders what looks to be a nice, happy family with a whistle on his lips.) He also kind of sounds like Ryan Reynolds in a Deadpool mask at times, which isn’t necessarily Stroma’s fault (he is British, after all); the popularity of Deadpool was unprecedented for a multitude of reasons, chief amongst them being the rampaging success of Ryan Reynolds smart-assing inside a pretty cool mask designed by Rob Liefeld and people finding that amusing anyway. Nobody saw that one coming.
Still, Stroma is the right kind of insane for Peacemaker, a squirrely x-factor who may just have something to contribute to the series before it’s all over—besides his pinky toe, and also possibly his ability to procreate. (There’s a bit in the third episode, titled “Better Goff Dead,” that involves a car battery and Vigilante’s testicles.) In the meantime, Smith has his rag-tag group of Waller subordinates to rely on, all of whom have wavering opinions about their respective station in life and even lower opinions about Peacemaker serving as the focal point of their motley crew.
This particular task force is led by Chukwudi Iwuji’s Clemson Murn and filled out by Squad regulars John Economos (Steve Agee) and Emilia Harcourt (whose name often sounds like “Hardcore” and is played terrifically by Jennifer Holland), both of whom spend an awful lot of time being especially snarky to newcomer Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks, who rules this series). Leota is still learning that black-ops life, and considering everything her team puts her through, Leota takes this herky-jerky ride in stride. If only her wife (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow) was having this much fun. She is not.
Leota becomes the anti-Vigilante of Peacemaker. She’s a better influence on Christopher than either of them realize at this point in the series; her penchant for dressing her dogs in stylish outfits (possibly a dog-parental no-no?) and dragging her betrothed into the shitty hotel life paradoxically establishes some domestic terra firma that might benefit Peacemaker before long. (He is, after all, giving Hardcore the serious romantic eye and she deserves so much better.) At this point in the series, all Christopher really has to lean on is a CGI American bald eagle named Eagly, which is awesome and also a little sad. (Eagly is great. More Eagly.)
Look. Peacemaker is a stacked deck of fearsome insanity and there’s a lot to accept in these first three episodes. It’s vulgar, violent, prone to non sequitur, and has more than one dance sequence in store for you. (Get ready to love the intro sequence, set to “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” by Norwegian hair metal band Wig Wam.) But don’t you dare let its ceaseless barrage of profanity, nudity, and slaughter dupe you into thinking otherwise: James Gunn’s Peacemaker comes packing, among other things, a beating heart. (With all due respect to Col. Flag.)
- I genuinely love how Peacemaker’s most notable quote from The Suicide Squad, “I cherish peace with all of my heart. I don’t care how many men, women and children I kill to get it,” keeps getting thrown back in his face and he doesn’t like it one bit.
- Auggie Smith, a.k.a. Peacemaker’s dad and the white nationalist figurehead known as the “White Dragon,” is a whole new character to the DC lore. Who he is and what he’s actually capable of (besides talking heaps of trash to the law) remains to be seen.
- Doll Man is an actual superhero! He was created in 1939 by Will Eisner, one of a number of super-characters from Quality Comics that were later bought up by DC.
- Lochlyn Munro and Annie Chang play detectives for the “Charlton County Police Department,” so-named for the Charlton Comics company from which Peacemaker originated before DC acquired its catalog in 1983.
- Priceless exchange: “What’s this? Pizza?” “Officer, put that down!” “Why?” “Because I think that’s a face.” “A whaaat?” “A face! A human face!”
- Clemson Murn is clearly being telegraphed as bad news for the jobbers in Peacemaker. So far, though, he just seems misunderstood.
- Look, I don’t know how to tell you this, but: Bat-Mite confirmed.
- Another good exchange: “Just because you’re handsome doesn’t mean you’re not a piece-of-shit murderer.” “You think I’m handsome?”
- So where are you at with Peacemaker, group? What unspeakable evils will Auggie whip up now that he’s at home in the hoosegow? Will Leota’s big Waller secret be revealed at the worst possible time? Which big DC character is going to show up before the last episode wraps? Anybody have a good zoodle recipe? Sound off in the comments below.