Peacemaker is something else. Though it was incredibly buzzworthy in more ways than one, that ending was a bit of a cop out.
If you didn’t see The Suicide Squad let’s catch you up quickly. In the movie, the titular gang of assorted villains is sent off to a fictional island. Task Force X head, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) needs them to retrieve some top-secret intel to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Once they arrive on the island they learn their mission isn’t what they were expecting – not dissimilar from Suicide Squad – and make the decision to go against orders to do the right thing. Well, not everyone. Peacemaker (John Cena) has vowed to protect peace no matter how many people he has to kill, and in this case, it turns out one of them is on his own team. His actions don’t go well and the audience assumes he’s dead…until the after-credits scene.
Welcome to the after-credits show. Chris was a fairly cut and dry character in The Suicide Squad, but in his own show, he’s given much more agency and allowed to grow as a person. This all begins with his discharge from the hospital where his near-death experience has left him questioning his most firmly held belief: Peace at any cost. A talk with the janitor (Rizwan Manji) doesn’t help, though it does lead to a hilarious show and tell scene later on. So how does a person like Peacemaker grow? Can he? The answer turns out to be more of a maybe.
The first three episodes establish all the major players and the general plot of the show. Amanda Waller has created a new Task Force X. Peacemaker isn’t off the hook, getting re-recruited soon after leaving the hospital. The new mission? Project Butterfly – which, if Project Starfish is any indication, could be about hunting down a giant butterfly. Close: butterflies are actually aliens (which look a lot like the insect codename they’ve been given) that take over human hosts. Naturally, as with any plot involving hidden aliens, the butterflies want to take over the world.
In the pilot, we’re introduced to the members of the new task force. Two of whom we’ve met before, A.R.G.U.S. agents Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), and John Economos (Steve Agee), were among the brave few willing to turn against Waller and help the Suicide Squad in the movie. They view this assignment as punishment for their actions. Heading up the team is mercenary leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), and rounding it out is new agent Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), lastly, of course, is Peacemaker. The next two episodes flesh out the full team, including unofficial members, so we can get to know them throughout the season.
Harcourt is an extremely capable agent who is tired of being punished for just wanting a beer – men feel like they should be able to hit on her because she’s attractive and if she acts in any way other than grateful she’s seen as a bitch. We witness this thrice, once when a stranger attempts to “compliment” her and doesn’t take kindly to being rejected (it does not end well for his friend who follows up on his behalf), and twice when Peacemaker shoots his shot. Like all “tough as nails” ladies, Harcourt is smarter than your average blonde, professional in the execution of her duties, and slow to warm up to those around her though once she does she is fiercely loyal.
Economos is a computer-savvy agent whose skills are overshadowed by his physical appearance. Without any real reason, Peacemaker chooses John as his target for ridicule. But, if we’re being honest, it’s not too surprising. John’s a middle-aged man, overweight, wearing glasses, whose beard is suspiciously two-toned. Whereas with Harcourt, Peacemaker is consistently trying to get in her pants, with John, Peacemaker is consistently trying to get under his skin, and his use of the moniker “dye-beard” does so with precision cruelty. Throughout the events of the series, John’s dry humor and precision sarcasm make him one of my favorites, not to mention his realistic growth trajectory (he learns he’s capable of more than he thought, but also knows his limits), and his eventual emotional payoff is that much richer for it.
We don’t learn much about Murn in these first three episodes, or over the course of the series to be honest. He’s the Amanda Waller stand-in with perhaps a smidge more tolerance for the antics of his posse. The way he interacts with the rest of the team harkens back to any number of 80’s and 90’s action movies where an exhausted Sergeant or Captain must deal with a wild-card hero cop. Funnily enough, Murn becomes more of a fleshed-out character after a very big twist is revealed.
Then there’s newcomer, Adebayo, who is a married woman with fur babies that only took this job because she needed the money. Also because her mother, Amanda Waller (yes, that Amanda Waller), has been trying to get her into the family business for years. Why? Because Waller needed an insider she could trust on the team (which, coming from a woman who trusts no one seems unlikely), also, supposedly this gun shy, painfully awkward individual is a “natural”, and born to be an agent. I personally disagree, and Adebayo is my least favorite character in the show next to Judomaster, possibly because of the forced friendship between her and Peacemaker, but mostly because of her incredible ineptitude throughout the season. There’s only one thing she’s actually shown to be good at – manipulating people – and she only does it once.
Finally, we have Peacemaker. Though he views himself as a hero, his treatment of his fellow teammates and even his “friends” contradicts this. Take for example his relentless bullying of Economos, or his persistent harassment of Harcourt, even after both of them make it clear they are bothered by this he doesn’t stop. Like most bullies, Chris can dish it but he can’t take it. Any time anyone points out a flaw in Chris’s logic, personality, or beliefs, he either redirects or strikes back. Not too strangely, his most brutal backlash is reserved for Economos.
This might be due to what Economos represents to Chris – mainly: failure. Here is a man who, while not overtly vulnerable, hasn’t exactly done much to avoid being the target of ridicule. Why does Peacemaker hate this so much? It could be because he’s a shallow, thoughtless asshole, or, it could be because his father is an abusive, white supremacist (August “Auggie” Smith, played to perfection by Robert Patrick) who’s never missed an opportunity to remind Chris what a failure of a son he’s been. Ah, another classic bully trait – Chris abuses because he’s been abused.
But, let’s get back to the task force for now. There are two unofficial members I should mention. One is Eagly (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker), Chris’s pet eagle. August, albeit a horrible person for sure, did do his son one solid by taking care of the bird while his son was in prison for the past four years (if only he’d remembered to cancel that cell phone plan!). Eagly can’t speak, naturally, and only sometimes seems to understand what Chris asks of him, but he lends support where and when he can – this includes straight-up murdering some cops. Though, when his help is clutch to the team’s success, he does let them down. On the bright side, Chris doesn’t hold it against him.
The other member is Vigilante (aka Adrian Chase played by Freddie Stroma), your friendly neighborhood sociopath, who operates on a very strict code of conduct and considers himself Peacemaker’s BFF. Vigilante is both sweet and brutal, ditzy and well-informed, a real contradiction of terms at times. Amazingly, Adrian has managed to maintain his secret identity despite being Peacemaker’s longest-running friend. This is probably because Peacemaker dismisses his friend at every possible turn, appearing to shun the label of “friendship” to their relationship. But make no mistake – Vigilante is very much Peacemaker’s friend, and perhaps the only person in the whole series who truly understands and accepts him.
This is why it bothers me that, within the first three episodes, Adebayo and Peacemaker are pushed together. He’s supposed to like her because she’s the only “real” person on the team, while she just finds him another hilariously out-of-touch white guy. The only real defense for this combination that I can think of is that Adebayo does manage to break through to Peacemaker on a lot of his erroneous stances. For example, it’s Adebayo who gets Chris to consider how cruel his nickname for Economos is, this crack in his mental armor allows for the emotional breakthrough later in the finale when Economos explains why he dyes his beard. So, I’ll give Adebayo credit there, especially since Adrian really isn’t concerned with helping Chris grow as a person (he seems to be staunchly against it, particularly where killing is involved). Although there’s one instance where Vigilante makes a helpful observation of Chris’s behavior when he points out that Chris likes to surround himself with “friends” who can’t talk – like Eagly or Goff (I’ll get to her). But, for the most part, Adrian truly accepts Chris for who he is.
Having all of the “good” guys established, let’s turn our attention to the other colorful characters that populate this series.
Peacemaker’s father, August, is essentially Iron Man if Tony Stark was a racist. Despite the animosity towards his son, August still creates high-tech gadgetry for him to use in the field – in the form of helmets, each of which has a special trait. The most frequently used of these is the Sonic Boom helmet. We see its effectiveness during two important moments in the season. One, when Chris encounters his first butterfly, and two, when Chris and the team take down The Cow. Among the other helmets is a Scabies variety (this gives everyone within a certain radius Scabies…why? A safe bet would be Auggie’s disdain for sins of the flesh), an Anti-gravity variety (this is accidentally activated during a pivotal moment), an X-Ray vision variety (which leads to the revelation that Murn is actually a butterfly!), and an Underwater variety (it is never used, but I can’t help thinking it’s meant to be a dig at Aquaman). Auggie is also the man responsible for Peacemaker’s uniform, which is very different from his own White Dragon costume – yes, you read that right. August Smith used to be a costumed…uh…villain by the name of White Dragon. At least, I’m gonna safely assume he was a villain. August, we come to realize, is the main source of Chris’s toxic masculinity, though his son has definitely rebelled in some ways there are other aspects of him he can clearly trace back to dear old dad. His penchant for finding someone’s sore spots and stabbing at them? Thanks dad! His stubborn resistance to personal growth? Hi August! His tendency to discount those closest to him? Oh…that’s 100% Auggie doggie.
Another villain that comes and goes is Judomaster (Nhut Le). An enigmatic figure who never removes his costume has an insatiable hunger for Flaming Hot Cheetos and has allied himself with the butterflies. This is all we know about him for the entire series. There are two scenes that speak to a deeper understanding of the man in green, but one of them gets cut short when Adebayo shoots him, and the other is very random. Two obnoxious assholes on their way out of a convenience store run afoul of the small soldier after one makes fun of his demure size before going into the place. It’s one of the few moments in the series where you are definitely meant to root for the little guy. Overall, I’m not a huge fan of Judomaster for the sheer fact that he’s never fleshed out, but in his defense, I get the feeling he was just one of those “look at this old, weird, DC character!” jokes. Fun fact: there has been a female Judomaster, and, she’s the only incarnation from the comics that was of Asian origin.
Annie Sturphausen (Crystal Mudry) is a short-lived but very important villain. She enters the series as a one-night stand following Harcourt’s rejection of Chris’s advances. While Peacemaker is thrilled after their lovemaking, she is motivated to kill him once she’s glimpsed the top-secret dossier he left in her room (because he felt leaving it in the car wouldn’t be safe…). What sets her off? She’s one of the butterflies, though she gets vaporized by the sonic boom before Chris sees this.
Less enemies and more inevitable side characters are Evergreen police detectives Sophia Song (Annie Chang) and Larry Fitzgibbon (character actor Lochlyn Munro), who get involved following Chris’s run-in with Annie. The sonic boom isn’t subtle or focused so the other people in Annie’s apartment complex have obviously called the cops. Song and Fitzgibbon start off as simple foils, arresting August during their investigation of Annie’s murder when the fingerprints from the crime scene come back as his (maybe not the best move by Economos to cover Peacemaker’s tracks), with Fitzgibbon happy to leave the racist in jail while Song is bothered by conflicting evidence. Her efforts to do the right thing are held up by Murn’s mole Captain Casper Locke (Christopher Heyerdahl who you might recognize from Supernatural), and though she successfully goes over his head it ultimately backfires on her.
This brings us to Goff. In the third episode, the team is tasked with assassinating the United States Senator Royland Goff (Antonio Cupo) and his family – assuming they prove to be butterflies, which they do. This encounter provides the first appearances of Judomaster and a butterfly. Judomaster does his best to protect his charge but is felled by none other than Economos while trying to escape. Peacemaker has a crisis of conscience which allows Vigilante to show his worth, taking out Mommy, sister, and brother bear (Natalia Safran, Juliette Ferguson, and Jackson Ferguson respectively). I will say, I’m not sure why Harcourt couldn’t do this she was right there unless she’s not a skilled marksman (something I highly doubt), but more likely it was to give Vigilante a reason to join the team. Either way, Peacemaker’s inability to do his job when given the opening and Judomaster’s painful intervention result in Chris and Adrian being captured by the enemy – once again, they leave Harcourt behind…not sure why.
Senator Goff tortures Vigilante in an effort to get thePeacemaker to talk, which fails miserably, but Chris does manage to get the upper hand eventually. Upon killing the Senator, Chris, and the audience, are treated to their first view of the thing they’ve been chasing – a butterfly. True to its codename, the tiny alien looks a lot like a butterfly. The episode ends with Chris presumably shooting the bug, but we learn by the end of the next episode that he didn’t actually kill it. Instead the butterfly, now known as Goff, is being kept in a jar at Chris’s trailer. Why did Peacemaker seemingly choke again? I’ll be honest, there’s no real answer given. Near as I can guess, he felt lied to by the team (they haven’t yet told him what a butterfly is), and has a soft spot for flying creatures that can’t talk. This moment is also paired with memories of Peacemaker killing Rick Flag and his father yelling at him for having killed his brother, Keith (Liam Hughes), who we see in flashbacks.
Speaking of Keith, I’d like to take a moment to point out how strange this aspect of Peacemaker’s backstory is. The third episode is the first time we’re really teased by the tidbit that Chris killed his brother. It leaves the audience guessing about when and how he killed his brother. Was it an accident? Did his father pit the boys against each other and Chris happened to win out (this was my guess and I still think it’s what they should have done given August’s personality)? Did Chris hate how much his father favored Keith and ultimately murdered him only to instantly regret it? Not long after the tease we’re told that Chris’s brother died when they were kids and it was an accident. Then we get the flashbacks – Chris and Keith in a pit bareknuckle fighting each other. Smiling and laughing while doing it. Out the window goes my theory, along with several others I’m sure, but more importantly once the truth is revealed it only brings about more questions. Like…why the fuck did Keith froth at the mouth? Best guess is one of two impossibly convenient things happened: 1. Chris hit his brother at just the right point in his skull to cause a short-circuit in his body that ultimately killed him or 2. Keith happened to land on a rock or other lethal debris in the pit that set off a massive brain hemorrhage. A third potential involves some unseen poisoning – which would explain the frothing, but so would an undiagnosed seizure disorder. Whatever the case may be, the truth is that Chris didn’t really kill his brother, not the way August accuses him of doing so. It was August that set his boys against each other in a dirt pit to fight for the amusement of his friends – Chris finally realizes this by the penultimate episode and subsequently murders his father once he does.
August’s death is easily one of the most satisfying moments in this whole season. Here is this man who, in no uncertain terms, is evil. Just that. Is he intelligent? Clearly. Does he understand the law enough to avoid incarceration? If Adrian’s failed attempt to kill him proves anything it is this. But he is not a man capable of growth or change. August represents the old, stubborn, set in their ways Americans who climb atop their high horses and judge the rest of us while remaining blind to their own massive flaws. Chris may not be prefect, and he may have a lot of his dad’s negative qualities, but like most new generations Chris is reachable. He can listen to his teammates’ points and take them in for consideration. Will he change completely? Probably not, that’s not honest to how people are (save for a traumatic head injury working some magic), but he can change here and there. Chris can learn to see Economos as a human being, with real skills that he contributes to the team. August Smith was never going to see Chris as anything other than a pebble in his shoe (yes, those of you who recognize this line, I am 100% stealing this from Anjelica Huston in “Ever After”). It is, without a doubt, the highlight of the season. Mind you, not just August’s death, but the entire sequence of events.
That’s not to say there aren’t other amazing moments in this show. Chris dancing nearly naked to classic hair metal right before being attacked by a woman straight out of the era from which those bands came is a delightful action cap to an otherwise standard episode. Adrian’s attempt at killing August in jail, after antagonizing his white supremacist posse, is another fantastic set-piece. Chris, Adrian, and Eagly fleeing into the woods after narrowly escaping police custody put to bed any doubts someone might have about having an eagle as a sidekick/pet (Eagly is indeed, hardcore!). There’s also the massive butterfly infestation that takes place at the Evergreen police department and local prison care of Goff’s new host Det. Song. The Peacemaker one-man army shooting at the honey bottling plant, complete with Gorilla chainsaw evisceration packs a memorable punch. And, of course, the after-credit scenes, which provide additional chuckles for some of the more throw-away jokes in the show.
One more thing I’d like to bring up is the surprise reappearance of August Smith. After Chris kills his father, has a good cry, and then rushes onto the next mission (killing the Cow) he begins to see his dead father. He is aware that August isn’t actually there – him and ghost dad have a fun little argument about it – yet he also can’t adjust to the situation either. Granted, he ignores it and his father goes away, but later, once the mission is a success and Chris has returned home, his father appears to him again. I found this curious and did a little digging to discover that in one of the comic book storylines Peacemaker is in fact haunted by the ghost of his dead father. This dad isn’t a neo-Nazi but rather an actual Nazi (note, in the comics White Dragon isn’t Peacemaker’s father). Comic book Peacemaker is also haunted by the victims of his “quest for peace”, so I wonder if that will come up in season 2.
Overall, I liked Peacemaker. Was it a perfect show? Not by a long shot, but I can’t name a perfect show yet (ok…maybe Pushing Daisies). The strength of it lies in the in-between conversations that take place before or after the huge action sequences. These allow the characters to grow, to get to know each other, and to reveal more of themselves to the audience. This is the thing I believe James Gunn is best at – building a rag-tag team of idiots and somehow making them work by the end of it. Granted, it’s less believable in a movie given the time constraints, but an eight-episode season really lets his skill shine. Much as I’m not an Adebayo fan, and do NOT think she should join the team by any stretch of the imagination, I can believe that by the finale she’s become a fully integrated member (with regards to how the other team members see her).
Things I didn’t like? A lot of plot holes, and an ending. As I’ve mentioned, maybe once or twice, Adebayo bothers me. She stumbles her way through much of the show, being incapable of murder until she’s suddenly very capable of it, I mean…to a hilarious degree (see that bottling plant shooter sequence I mentioned earlier). The only two things she happens to succeed at are discovering the name of the bottling plant, and almost getting Adrian to kill August. Which brings me to another complaint: why the fuck did Murn care if August died? I mean, I get that having Adrian kill his father would have been a hard pill for Peacemaker to swallow, but given his eventual revelation about August, I can’t see Chris not ultimately getting over it. Plus, how would Chris even have found out it was Adrian who killed August? Well, actually, I could totally see Adrian confessing this to Chris. Still, Murn’s ability to assess Chris’s unhealthy entanglement with his father is a bit uncanny. I mean, the guy’s been in jail for four years, and I doubt in all that time August ever visited his son. Also, how does that dimensional pocket closet work? Like, seriously: the fuck?
Another good question: why not directly recruit Vigilante? Murn allows Vigilante to follow them to the Senator’s safe house, but why? Vigilante will literally go anywhere that Peacemaker is. All he has to do is ask. Maybe it’s for Peacemaker’s sake? Perhaps allowing Vigilante to worm his way onto the team is more believable for Chris…easier to accept? Though he never says anything against Adrian joining the team, even if his reactions are fairly reluctant once it becomes clear Vigilante is a member. Hell, maybe it’s for Vigilante’s benefit – give the guy a win?
In the realm of nitpicking would be my annoyance at some of the juvenile humor of the show. It does come off as if a fifteen-year-old boy wrote a lot of them. Some of it seems to attack “woke” culture, while other instances condone it, but this could be explained by the diversity of the personalities on the show. I actually enjoyed the running gag of Peacemaker outting the different Justice League members for taboo traits – each of which is laughed off as online bullshit until the one about Aquaman fucking fish. Would it really be that much of a surprise? Though, Futurama makes a great case for why fucking fish, or mermaids, wouldn’t be the fantasy we’ve all imagined. Still, the ending treat of having actual Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and actual Flash (Ezra Miller) show up was beautiful. Hell, I even appreciated the silhouette cameos of Superman and Wonder Woman.
In terms of the larger storyline, I have a bias here. Whenever an enemy in a show/movie declares that their motive is to “check” humanity in some way I’m always on the side of the villain. And considering the butterflies don’t even want to eradicate the human race, I’m even more on their side. At first, I thought Murn’s being a butterfly was going to add some nuance to what is largely a clobber-you-in-the-head show. After all, most shows that introduce aliens just go in one direction: invasion followed by subjugation. Murn saying that he was turning against the others gave us a fairly unique plot twist. However, once I learned why the butterflies were doing what they were doing, I was on their side albeit without Judomaster’s skills. The fact that Chris kills Song Goff is pretty surprising given what we know about his quest to preserve peace. But, more than that, it’s lazy and sad in my opinion.
I know a lot of people won’t agree with this conclusion, but Gunn took the easy way out. He also took the Whedon way out. As in Joss Whedon, whose show Angel and movie “Cabin in the Woods” both came down to a similar choice: save humanity by allowing something greater than it to take the reins but at the cost of a few individuals, or, allow humanity to fuck itself over as it has chosen to do every step of the way so far. You go ahead and take a guess which choice is picked in both scenarios. While a lot of the show did remind me of Whedon with respect to its juvenile humor, quippy protagonists, and embattled female characters, I was hoping it would take the road less traveled here. But, maybe that’s more honest…Peacemaker, for all his flaws and complications, loves his friends and is so grateful to have them that he’s willing to sacrifice the entire world for them. You can bet Vigilante wouldn’t have made the same choice. Oh, no doubt Adrian would have mourned the loss of his friends, but when push comes to shove the sociopath understands the greater good (which is saying something).
Lastly, and I’ll leave this for you to contemplate: How the fuck is Adebayo not dead? I mean, how the fuck Harcourt didn’t die is a good ask too, but…well, I’m bias.