Goofy. Polarizing. Intriguing. Three words for three episodes that mark a pivotal moment in the DC Extended Universe. It is no secret that ever since its first release in 2013, the DCEU has played second fiddle to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the streaming world presents both franchises with new opportunities, and on Thursday, Jan. 13, the DCEU made a statement of intent with its first spin-off TV show, “Peacemaker.” Brought to you from the brilliant mind of writer-director James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), the show picks up right where “The Suicide Squad” — the most recent entry in the DCEU, also directed by Gunn — left off, and it’s centered on a character who quite simply is not a good person. However, the show’s early episodes find some humanity in the jingoistic, stone-cold killer that audiences might not only sympathize with, but actually get behind.
Christopher Smith, portrayed by John Cena (“WWE Raw”), can best be described as a man-child whose heightened sense of self far exceeds public perception. To outsiders, he is a racist, two-faced, undercover agent that betrayed the Suicide Squad. In his own mind, he is Peacemaker, a superhero that embodies the idea of “the greater good” and claims that he doesn’t “care how many men, women or children” he needs to kill to achieve his goal: peace. Yikes, am I right? Nevertheless, in what seems like a heartless, unrelatable character, Gunn finds something deeper. “Peacemaker” marks the beginning of a soul-searching mission for a prisoner-turned-assassin stung by the final word of a squad-mate whom he choked to death: “Peacemaker, what a joke.”
So, the question most people, including myself, asked heading into this was, “How do you make this character likable?” The answer, it turns out, was simple: You don’t. At least not initially. Gunn brings his tried-and-tested box of tricks to Peacemaker and unleashes them just how you’d expect. The show’s opening credits feature an outlandish dance number that reflects Smith’s character: off-putting at first, but guaranteed to eventually sweep you off your feet. While the soundtrack feels incredibly organic, the choreography is anything but, with Cena bringing out the most robotic of dance moves, instantly reminding audiences of the fact that Smith is nothing more than a human weapon.
Gunn isn’t afraid to throw characters into the deep end, and he does just that by putting Smith in a covert ops team that spends more time arguing than actually getting work done on Project Butterfly, the case they have been assigned. The team consists of Chukwudi Iwuji’s (“The Girl Who Got Away”) level-headed leader, Jennifer Holland’s (“Brightburn”) girl-boss, Steve Agee’s (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) guy-in-the-chair and Danielle Brooks’s (“Orange is the New Black”) eager-to-please intern, none of whom shy away from making Smith the butt of their jokes and letting him know exactly how they feel. Nonetheless, Smith remains undeterred and goes about his politically incorrect ways until he is reunited with his father (Robert Patrick, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”). Enter daddy issues.
Smith — who simply visits his father to pick up his sidekick, Eagly the Eagle, and a new helmet for his costume — almost instantly (albeit subconsciously) tries to win his father’s approval as the latter belittles his son for becoming weak. Not only does this give Smith a greater enemy to fight, it gains him some sympathy from an audience that now understands where some of his prejudice and bigotry come from.
The show is definitely a slow burn; the first three episodes barely advance the plot and take some unnecessarily long detours. Nevertheless, it fleshes out a host of characters and helps the audience understand each of them on a deeper level while maintaining an air of mystery, Smith’s father being a prime example. Gunn, who is well known for being able to develop multiple storylines at once, expertly does just that and keeps viewers invested.
What is Project Butterfly, the mission given to Smith and his team? How is Smith going to win over his teammates? More importantly, how will Smith overcome the fundamental internal conflicts that define him? The ability of the next five episodes to answer these questions will determine the show’s success. Gunn has done a fantastic job using his directorial experience to help Cena break the mold most wrestlers-turned-actors are known for. While Marvel has Disney+, whose shows are successful in their own right, the DCEU might have an ace up their sleeve: Unlike the MCU, where showrunners must follow templates and are bound by the bigger universe they are a part of, DC provides creative minds like Gunn the freedom to flex their muscles and put their own stamp on the shows. If the first three episodes are anything to go by, “Peacemaker” could be a redemption arc for the ages.
Daily Arts Writer Rushabh Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.