Spoilers for The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker.
By all accounts, John Cena is one of the best people in Hollywood. Granting more than 650 wishes through the Make A Wish Foundation is enough to cement his stature as a Good Guy as far as I’m concerned. To that, you can add his 2016 “We Are America” PSA and $1 million Black Lives Matter donation in June 2020. Plus, he’s a fellow Masshole. Clearly, we are meant to be best friends.
So bear all that in mind when I say I haaaaated Christopher Smith, aka Peacemaker, aka That Murderous Asshole in The Suicide Squad. I cheered when he “died” and I bitched when HBO announced the Peacemaker series. We don’t need a redemption arc where the murderous dweeb version of Steve Rogers explores the childhood trauma that turned him into a psychopath before he confronts his dick dad. But that’s the show they greenlit. And it works, so long as you don’t actually think about it.
In The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker and the rest of Task Force X were sent to the island nation of Corto Maltese by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to retrieve sensitive information about Project Starfish, the torture and interrogation of a massive alien found floating in space. Peacemaker, who wraps himself in patriotism while murdering anyone he thinks jeopardizes America’s peace and security, is so determined to carry out the mission that he murders Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the only genuine hero on the island. He tries to murder Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) but is stopped and seemingly killed by Bloodsport (Idris Elba). Waller attempts to murder the entire team when they disobey her orders to leave the citizens of Corto Maltese to the depredations of Starro the Conqueror. Her tech team betrays her and saves the day, but is in the doghouse for it.
It turns out Chris survived a bullet wound and a building dropped on his head with nothing more than a broken clavicle, and he discharges himself from the hospital as soon as he can, hoping to avoid a return to Belle Reve Prison. Unfortunately for him, Amanda Waller’s seditious team is already waiting for him, with orders to recruit him or return him to prison. Led by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), a merc trying to make up for his past, the team includes Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), John Economos (Steve Agee), and Leota (Danielle Brooks), who has her own connection to Waller. Peacemaker is recruited for Project Butterfly, tasked with eliminating sleeper agents tagged by Waller’s team. First on the docket is US Senator Goff, and possibly his wife and two young children. In addition to Waller’s team, Peacemaker is saddled with Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), his best/only friend, who is what the Punisher would be if he were a small town dweeb murdering taggers and folks who leave their face masks on the sidewalk. And we can’t forget Eagly, his pet (CGI) eagle that’s almost as lovable as Hawkeye’s Lucky the Pizza Dog.
There’s a lot of entertainment value here. The first three episodes are all written and directed by James Gunn and it shows. His signature sense of humor is on display, as is his ability to make you care about truly terrible people. He’s made a career out of it and has it down to a science at this point. The action scenes are interspersed with ridiculous bickering among a special ops team more suited for Rocky & Bullwinkle than the DC-verse. As usual with a Gunn production, the soundtrack takes a starring role, heavy with hair metal and the absurd dichotomy of grown men in infantilizing costumes. The show’s opening credits are emblematic of Gunn and Cena’s childlike sense of humor, and impossible to skip through.
The violence is as gory as you’d expect from Gunn and well shot. Unlike so many DC ventures, Peacemaker’s actually well lit, and you can see all the action. The supporting cast is great. Leota is charming and sweet but also good at her job, and I imagine as her relationship with both her wife and Amanda Waller are explored she’ll become even more of an asset. Murn is quiet, stolid, but with flashes of human emotion shining through. John Economos is like most of the IT professionals with whom I’ve worked, and Harcourt is a hardass agent with a thin veneer of professionalism over a sea of anger. Vigilante is a psychopath, Wade Wilson without a shred of conscience. And Peacemaker? Well… He’s a lot of fun and relatable. And that’s the troubling part.
A big part of John Cena’s draw is he’s got the heart of a child wrapped in 251lbs of muscle. He’s goofy, sweet, and awkward. He looks like an oak statue of Testosterus, Roman god of toxic masculinity, but personality-wise he’d fit in as well at a D&D table as in the gym. Christopher Smith plays to Cena’s strengths. Despite being raised by his white supremacist “cape” dad, Augee Smith (Robert Patrick) to be a killer, Chris has avoided his father’s worst tendencies as much as he can. He’s a murderer, and the fact he’s probably killed more people of color than whites gets pointed out in the first 5 minutes in a conversation many Marvel fans no doubt wish Hawkeye explored, but he’s not overtly racist or homophobic. His misogyny comes from ignorance rather than malice. It’s a fine distinction to be sure, but Chris is trying. Forced into a life of violence by his upbringing and natural talents and too intimidated by his father to push back whenever Augee spouts homophobic slurs, we get the sense that Chris was a sensitive kid bullied and brainwashed into what he’s become. It’s not a justification or excuse, but it is a reason. He wants to make friends and be seen as a genuine hero, but he’s fighting against literally everything he’s ever known. He’s too awkward to carry a normal conversation without indulging in insults and self-aggrandizing. He’s desperate to connect to Augee, his only family, but the closest he can get is laughing together over Bloodsport’s debilitating musophobia before his dad calls him a pussy yet again. Robert Patrick, it has to be said, is perfectly cast as the vile Augee. He plays the man with a quiet viciousness waiting for his chance to lash out at the first vulnerable person of color. Chris is riddled with insecurity and doubt. Murdering Rick Flag shook him to his core and he can no longer kill innocent people in the name of “peace.” Since it’s all he’s good for, his team won’t even trust him with the truth of what the “butterflies” really are, and little wonder. Chris is so far out of his depth he’d drown in a koi pond. But whatever his heart wants, he’s still a murderer. In that, he reminds me of no one more than Kyle Rittenhouse, and it’s a comparison that smacks me in the face multiple times per episode.
Do I mean Rittenhouse is good at heart? Hell no. Kyle Rittenhouse is a murderer. He armed himself and went looking for trouble. He killed two people because he put himself in a situation far beyond his control and understanding. He made those choices. He’s also a product of his environment. He’s a young man programmed by his mother and hometown and then, after he murdered Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, thrust into an adulating conservative media spotlight he’s clearly too dim to see for the manipulative sham it is. Rittenhouse is, as Wayne describes Daryl on Letterkenny, so awkward. The kind of overenthusiastic guy everyone humors because having an actual conversation with him is too damned difficult. If he were a Marvel fan he’d spend hours on message boards arguing the minutiae of character biographies, but he chose to worship law enforcement instead. None of this excuses his actions. He’s still a murderer. And so is Christopher Smith. Peacemaker is who Rittenhouse would grow into given access to heavier weaponry and governmental carte blanche to murder more people.
James Gunn — like many authors and filmmakers — takes fictional murderers and turns them into heroes. He did it with the Suicide Squad. He did it with Drax and Gamora. In Brightburn and Super he flipped that script, showing us the monstrous side of superheroes and vigilantes. I don’t think he intends anyone to admire Peacemaker. Quite the opposite. But a substantial percentage of the population will miss the subtext and see in Peacemaker an American hero, just like they do Rittenhouse. Wrapped in the flag and deluded by whitewashed US history classes, confident that whatever they do is the right course of action because they’re the ones doing it. Once I saw the resemblance it became impossible to ignore and colored everything on the screen.
Peacemaker is a great, entertaining show and I’ll absolutely stick with it. John Cena belting out hair metal in his tighty whities is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s fiction; perhaps Peacemaker can grow as a person and find redemption for his murderous past. I just wish there weren’t so many would-be Christopher Smiths out there, walking around armed in the hopes of becoming the next “hero” on the evening news.
Header Image Source: HBO Screenshots