Stressed is the Peacemaker

Joe George

A kick-drum roll and a sing-along shout—that’s how every episode of HBO Max’s Peacemaker begins.

Set to the aspirational anthem “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” by Norwegian metal band Wig Wam, the opening credits of each episode feature the cast performing an elaborately choreographed dance number. Dressed in costume—from schlubby street clothes to the blue-and-black tactical gear of antihero Vigilante (Freddie Stroma)—the cast members wave their arms and pump their hips, their dour facial expressions revealing none of the goofy fun they’re surely having.

At the center of the number is Peacemaker himself, played by hulking, former pro wrestler John Cena. The scowl chiseled into Cena’s mug only accentuates his ridiculous costume, a red-and-white outfit topped with a silver helmet of indecipherable shape. The sequence crescendos with the cast assembled, their arms outstretched as an eagle flies into the foreground and spreads its wings with triumph.

Openings like this are par for the course for series creator James Gunn, whose musical sequences made both Guardians of the Galaxy movies among the most popular in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A spin-off of Gunn’s 2021 movie The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker finds the title character (aka Christopher Smith) recovered from his injuries in that film and forced back into government service by the cruel official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). This time, Peacemaker is tasked with assassinating an American politician. The mission quickly goes sideways and Peacemaker finds himself embroiled in a larger plot involving his father, August Smith (Robert Patrick); the white supremacist White Dragon; and brain-controlling alien refugees dubbed “butterflies.”

Like the movie that spawned it, Peacemaker walks the line between comic ultraviolence and genuine sincerity. Based on an obscure DC Comics character, Peacemaker is a man who says that he “loves peace so much, he’s willing to fight for it.” He doesn’t see the irony in that statement, but Gunn and his collaborators certainly do. The first episode climaxes with a pratfall-filled fight with a butterfly-controlled woman that ends with the assailant popping like a bloody balloon. A later action sequence stalls while Peacemaker engraves his weapon with a “dove of peace.”

More than mere gags, these sequences reveal Peacemaker’s character development. On the surface, Chris Smith prides himself on being a blunt instrument of justice, willing and able to kill those who threaten the safety of others. But in flashbacks and interactions with his father, we see that Peacemaker’s ethos is less a moral decision and more a reaction to abuse and insecurity. In addition to leading a KKK-esque hate group, August Smith subscribes to a simple, might-makes-right worldview. From childhood, he’s taught his sons that they matter only as much as they can fight and win.

The tragic consequences of this perspective play out in Episode 7, “Stop Dragon My Heart Around,” which flashes back to Peacemaker’s childhood. Members of August’s group lead young Chris and his older brother Keith (played by Quinn Bennett and Liam Hughes, respectively) into a pit outside their home, where they’re commanded to fight. August and his friends “cheer” on the boys by mocking their masculinity, urging them to prove their worth by bloodying each other.

The atmosphere shifts when one of Chris’ punches knocks Keith down and sends him into convulsions. Chris makes a joke about his brother’s twitching body, thinking he’s finally bested Keith and earned his father’s respect. Instead, August hurls only more insults at Chris, blaming him for killing his brother.

Peacemaker walks the line between comic ultraviolence and genuine sincerity.

As extreme as August certainly is, his perspective is not without real-world precedent. Even if they don’t don super-armor to do it, those in power often justify their mistreatment of others by characterizing it as a necessary display of strength. That was particularly true of the ancient Roman empire, which preached peace through domination.

Against the backdrop of the pax romana, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are revolutionary. When he declared “blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus wasn’t just reassuring his rag-tag listeners that God was with them. He was also reminding Caesar that the almighty God opposed his oppressive, dehumanizing ways. In the Old Testament, long before Jesus’ sermon, prophets attested to God’s rejection of the conquest and violence employed by worldly kingdoms. In Isaiah 14, the prophet invites Israel to direct this taunt toward Babylon:

How the oppressor has come to an end!

How his fury has ended!

The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked,

the scepter of the rulers,

which in anger struck down peoples,

with unceasing blows,

and in fury subdued nations,

with relentless aggression.

The fact that Isaiah presents this statement as a taunt reveals that there’s joy to being a peacemaker, an exuberance that comes from living according to God’s design.

As much as Peacemaker revels in the absurdity of pursuing peace through strength, it also reveals another, better way. Unsurprisingly, hard rock plays an important role here too. Before that fateful fistfight between brothers, we see Chris and Keith bonding over music. Headbanging together to “Home Sweet Home,” by Mötley Crüe, the brothers are in harmony. Similar moments can be found throughout the series, from Peacemaker connecting with a woman while playing Quireboys records to his new team finally coming together while rocking out to 11th Street Kids. In Peacemaker, rock brings about peace in a way guns never can.

In that light, the show’s opening sequence carries much more weight. Despite the great antagonism between the characters in the actual episodes, here the costumed actors are moving in one accord, dancing in harmony, at peace. If that’s not blessed, I don’t know what is.

Topics: TV