SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains major spoilers for the first three episodes of “Peacemaker,” which premiered January 13 on HBO Max.
Even after re-watching James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” in anticipation of “Peacemaker,” it was hard to see why Peacemaker, of all the movie’s antiheroes, merited a series of his own beyond the fact that he was played by John Cena. In a story that otherwise leans on agents of chaos like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Daniela Melchior’s endearing Ratcatcher 2, and conflicted journeymen like Idris Elba’s Bloodsport or Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, Cena’s stickler of a killer was far from its most compelling character. When he finally got shot in the throat at the end of the movie, his apparent exit from the stage felt about right.
But less than six months later, here we are with an entire HBO Max show dedicated to Peacemaker, who recovers from his injuries and sets off into the great unknown to learn more about himself, the world, and the true cost of his longtime pledge to bring about peace by killing absolutely anyone who gets in the way. The first three episodes, directed by Gunn and available to stream as of today, allow Cena to flex his many (many) muscles and open the door for Peacemaker to reevaluate his place as one cog in the giant machine of the American government. There’s plenty of time dedicated to making Peacemaker look capital a Awesome in the ways you might expect (is it really a Gunn project if there aren’t flashy fights with pointed needle drops, or an R-rated superhero story if it doesn’t include the star man railing an anonymous woman from behind?). In its most interesting moments, though, Peacemaker’s just a giant baby. His thirst for approval from his single-minded, racist father (Robert Patrick), childlike glee with his pet “Eagley” (a CGI bald eagle that defies odds to become truly adorable), and abject confusion at how to function after the events of “The Suicide Squad” unmoor Peacemaker beyond his comprehension. For as sharp as Cena’s comic timing generally is, his best moment in these three episodes nevertheless comes when Peacemaker collapses on his shitty bed after an exhausting, embarrassing night and lets his face collapse in self-loathing mewls of pain.
And yet: the main reason I might keep up with “Peacemaker” isn’t Peacemaker himself, but an unexpected new member of his team who, despite her skeptical coworkers’ insistence otherwise, immediately proves her worth.
At first, Danielle Brooks’ Leota Adebayo seems to be the obvious odd woman out. She has no field skills to speak of, and when she goes home to the team’s motel after a mission, she’s greeted by her wife (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow) and their three adorable dogs. By the end of the first episode, though, it’s revealed that she’s not just a proxy for the terrifying Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), but her daughter who’s long been skeptical of joining her mother’s morally compromised line of work. Suddenly, “Peacemaker” finds a narrative jolt completely outside its title character that, from where at least this viewer is sitting, weaves in an entirely new and extremely welcome dynamic.
As Brooks recently told Variety, Gunn wrote this part with her in mind after becoming a fan of her work on “Orange Is the New Black.” This should surprise no one who kept up with Brooks’ performance on that show, which eventually hinged entirely on her character’s simultaneously hopeful and tragic journey to carry it through to the finish line. Brooks’ ability to inject her material with the exact amount of levity or gravitas — or, most impressively, both within a single breath — it requires is undeniable. (See: how deftly Brooks handles something like the third episode’s opening scene of Adebayo scrambling to hide an explicit photo from her cackling colleagues before later facing down a potential enemy with a gun for the first time, to her clear terror.) Even if Brooks isn’t meant to be the focus of a scene, she inevitably becomes it by the sheer force of her charisma. Making Brooks the co-lead of a high-octane, high stakes show like “Peacemaker” is frankly a no brainer.
This holds just as true from a storytelling standpoint. Bringing in another journey of self-discovery provides a crucial balance to Peacemaker’s slow realization that maybe, just maybe, a no-holds barred white guy executing the government’s most dubious missions isn’t entirely the restoration of justice he thinks it is. Tying Adebayo to the DC Cinematic Universe so directly, and to one of its most enigmatic and purposefully mysterious characters no less, is a smart way to immediately up the stakes of her story, especially with an actor like Brooks imbuing the character with more nuance.
For all the ways in which “Peacemaker” tries to make Peacemaker himself a bit different than we might expect, it’s hard to believe his story will end up being all that surprising. As for Adebayo, the daughter of a hard as nails government operative who wants nothing more than to make a bunch of money and ride off into the sunset with her wife and dogs forever…there’s just no telling exactly what she’ll do and how she’ll end up. The superhero genre has so incredibly oversaturated media right now that this TV show began with a “previously, on the movie this is based upon” explainer reel. If it could use more of anything, it’s the element of true surprise that a character like Adebayo could bring.