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HBO Max's Peacemaker is an absolute blast: It's a funnier, leaner and meaner Suicide Squad

  • "From its fantastic dance-routine credit sequence (set to Wig Wam’s 'Do Ya Wanna Taste It') to its overstuffed soundtrack featuring cuts from Cinderella, Hanoi Rocks and Mötley Crüe, Peacemaker—the show, and the character—has a gung-ho glam-rock spirit," says Nick Schager of James Gunn's Peacemaker, starring John Cena reprising his DC character. "Momentum is central to the series, whose episodes never top 50 minutes, and whose story zips along with the same freewheeling energy that characterizes its dialogue. Pop-culture references abound, never more so than in an extended Peacemaker rant about all of the notable people John might have framed for a particular crime ('Bill Cosby—he just got out, he’s got time on his hands!'). Gunn also makes sure to have his protagonist derisively mock his fellow superheroes, including Aquaman (who apparently pays to have sex with aquarium fish), Batman (who’s responsible for countless innocent deaths because he refuses to just kill the Joker once and for all), and Superman (who supposedly has a poop fetish). The source of Peacemaker’s demented facts? Facebook and Google, of course. Gunn takes aim at easy targets but refuses to make Peacemaker a vehicle for sermonizing, instead using of-the-moment cultural topics as amusing embellishments. The series’ guiding aim is delivering off-kilter R-rated bedlam with a dash of character drama involving Peacemaker, whose mounting introspection begets a crisis of confidence and purpose that complicates both his mission and his feelings about his hatemonger father. Cena’s unhinged performance (replete with singing and dancing) is thus the lynchpin of the entire endeavor, straddling the line between cartoonish viciousness, stunted-adolescent bro boorishness, and damaged-soul kindness. He’s a dysfunctional macho military action figure come to life, and the actor manages the impressive feat of maintaining Peacemaker’s inherent over-the-top idiocy while simultaneously peeling back layers to reveal his grief, resentment, and guilt."


    • Like Doom Patrol, Peacemaker takes a fundamentally irreverent approach to the superhero genre as a whole and to DC Comics in particular: "Peacemaker claims that Superman has a poop fetish and name-checks obscure comics characters like Bat-Mite and Matter-Eater Lad," says Alan Sepinwall. "Where Disney+ shows like Loki are cogs in a much larger Marvel storytelling machine, Gunn seems to have been left alone in his own filthy corner of the DC universe. Each episode features a post-credits scene, but rather than tease characters from upcoming shows and movies, they’re just extended versions of comedy bits from earlier in the hour. The budget is clearly more modest than the ones Gunn had to work with in Suicide Squad or the Guardians of the Galaxy films, making for a striking contrast in production values whenever we get flashback clips from Peacemaker’s big-screen adventure. But Gunn remains an inventive writer and director of action even within these limitations, and each episode features at least one absurdly choreographed fight scene, whether it’s the lumbering Peacemaker struggling against the diminutive but quick Judomaster (Nhut Le), or Peacemaker getting some graphically violent assistance from his pet eagle/best friend, Eagly (a marvelous CGI creation). It is not a show for the faint of heart, though Gunn and his collaborators frequently manage to make the gore part of the joke." He adds: "The series functions as a sincere character study of its flawed hero — and the unfortunate souls who have to work alongside him — just enough for the joke to never quite wear thin. Even in a wildly oversaturated market for tales of hypermuscular men and women punching their way to justice, Peacemaker stands out. You’ll wanna taste it, even the parts that are in incredibly bad taste."
    • Danielle Brooks steals the show in Peacemaker: After The Suicide Squad, it was hard to think of John Cena's Peacemaker deserving to have his own show. "In its most interesting moments ... Peacemaker’s just a giant baby," Caroline Framke says of the HBO Max spinoff. "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 sh*tty 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 third 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."
    • Peacemaker's biggest flaw is that it stops just shy of going full-throttle in terms of its lead's worst character traits, only to end up assigning them out to other, more despicable presences: "His capacity and willingness to take out whoever he (or the government) deems necessary gets shuffled over to Vigilante, while Peacemaker's extreme nationalism is handed off to his own father, personified with disguised menace by Robert Patrick," says Carly Lane. "Fans of the comics will know that the character has his own inarguably terrible history, and while that is explored to an extent, the show's overarching theme of shitty dads feels like Gunn playing a version of his own greatest hits, albeit a less memorable one. Other story threads involving minor characters are relatively half-baked in execution; Nhut Le's Judomaster mostly appears for the twin purposes of beating people up and snacking on Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Even Peacemaker's biggest end-of-the-world-stakes plot seems like more of an afterthought dropped in amidst all of the intimate, character-driven storylines, which are significantly more engaging if not always emotionally impactful. As the first potential spinoff devised from The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker is definitely a less bombastic series, dealing more in relationships than action overall, but it might have also proven more successful if it wasn't so focused on trying to render its lead more of a likable douchebag or retroactively justifying his murderous past. It's possible he may have been too good a villain in his first appearance, because the series itself doesn't serve as enough road for him to fully change course in a satisfying narrative way. There are intermittent shining moments, briefly-glimpsed reminders of how Gunn can also thrive in the earnest elements within exaggerated, comic book-rooted comedy — and of course, the soundtrack undeniably slaps. (Good luck getting the opening theme song out of your head after you first hear it.) But what makes Peacemaker such an interesting and compelling character is his unrepentant awfulness, and the series choosing to back-pedal on what could be considered his defining traits only makes for an aggressively fine follow-up."
    • Peacemaker is surprisingly a bit of a blast considering how polarizing its title character proved to be in The Suicide Squad: "The antihero-centered superhero series in large part asks: Can the unique style of comic book fare that filmmaker James Gunn turns out sustain itself on an episodic basis, spanning eight-ish total hours?" says Matt Webb Mitovich. "The answer is… pretty much, though your experience may vary depending on how you personally feel about what Peacemaker aka Chris Smith (winningly played by John Cena) did, and who he killed, on the big screen." He adds: "Perhaps the biggest, most interesting casting surprise here is Freddie Stroma as Adrian Chase aka Vigilante, a comic book character who has been reconceived here as… well, as he never has been before. A kill-happy and sometimes whiny dork, he is as far removed as can be from the Dashing Hunk Persona that Stroma previously honed on UnREAL and Bridgerton, and because of that his scenes with his hero, Peacemaker, are a reliable hoot."
    • For the most part, softening the Peacemaker character works, especially with a pet eagle sidekick: "Peacemaker still says stupid, offensive things," says Ben Travers. "He’s sexist, racist, and a bully. All of these traits are played for laughs, and many of them get brushed under the rug by another character insisting he really is a good person on the inside. Still, Peacemaker shows just enough awareness of its lead’s reprehensible behavior to avoid too much criticism of having its cake and eating it, too. (His far-worse father creates a compelling question of generational racism and what it takes to overcome the sins of our primary educators — more on that in a bit.) The series makes it clear that pleading ignorance when punching down isn’t a forgivable flaw after it’s condemned and then repeated anyway. Chris can’t just promise to be better; he’s forced to go through with it. But that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Much like The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker spends a bit of time dwelling on the sometimes-blurry line between heroes and villains."
    • Peacemaker makes its title character more likable, at the cost of making him less interesting: "So much of the material surrounding his journey feels half-hearted," says Angie Han. "A sense of obligation sets in any time the script returns to the overarching save-the-world plotline, which involves a mysterious task force assigned to a mysterious mission labeled Project Butterfly for mysterious reasons. The ensemble cast fill but don’t transcend the character types they’ve been assigned — the tech-y nerd, the lady badass, the no-nonsense leader — though Danielle Brooks does succeed in flooding the picture with warmth whenever she’s onscreen as a conflicted newbie. There’s at least one major character whose relevance to either the plot or themes of the show remains a total head-scratcher to me after the seven (of eight total) episodes I’ve seen for review. Even the stuff Peacemaker does well feels like stuff that’s been done before and better. Besides Peacemaker himself, the most colorful character is his unhinged BFF Vigilante (Freddie Stroma); he’s Deadpool with half the brain cells. The ’80s-flavored rock soundtrack and impassioned rants about same has shades of Thor: Ragnarok or Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy movies. And Peacemaker‘s emotional beats feel of a piece with The Suicide Squad‘s own most sentimental tendencies, without the maximalist scale, bleak commentary or individual quirks that made the film so intriguing."
    • Peacemaker knows the importance of having fun amid a brooding superhero landscape: "Given all the seriousness poured into all things Justice League-related, to think Peacemaker takes place in the same universe may bring on a dizzy spell," says Melanie McFarland. "Gunn plainly aims for that effect by including contentious debates about Batman between Peacemaker and a disdainful elderly neighbor, along with juvenile banter about Aquaman's sex life and mentions of fellow also-rans from the larger universe such as Bat-Mite. But the creator also draws bright contrast between the metropolis-set, high-budget adventures of those other name-brand supers and Peacemaker's flyover-state challenges, which mainly involve confrontations with neanderthals and low-level adversaries such as Judomaster (Nhut Le). Gunn's scripts still adhere to the classic structure of a hero's psychological journey, down to the standard father-son issues, but even the tragedy that creates Peacemaker is subsumed in his off-the-wall way of stampeding through the world."
    • Peacemaker is an enjoyable diversion, but it's forgettable: "It’s hard to explain why it's a bit forgettable—lack of ambition, thin plotting are probably to blame—but give me this kind of low-key goofy charisma over the self-seriousness that sinks so many superhero TV series any day," says Brian Tallerico. "While shows like WandaVision and Hawkeye are trying to rewrite the Marvel universe, Peacemaker is over here saving the world in a way that only he can. With an eagle."
    • Peacemaker is a stacked deck of fearsome insanity and there’s a lot to accept in these first three episodes: "It’s vulgar, violent, prone to non sequitur, and has more than one dance sequence in store for you," says Jarrod Jones. "(Get ready to love the intro sequence, set to 'Do Ya Wanna Taste It' by Norwegian hair metal band Wig Wam.) But don’t you dare let its ceaseless barrage of profanity, nudity, and slaughter dupe you into thinking otherwise: James Gunn’s Peacemaker comes packing, among other things, a beating heart. (With all due respect to Col. Flag.)"
    • It’s clear that Gunn wants to make the most of his time with DC’s antihero and is having some fun in a way that the MCU movies don’t really allow: "Cena being a complete doofus while everyone else gets exasperated by his nonsense would be funny on its own, but Peacemaker perhaps wisely has decided to let its supporting cast be as weird and quirky as its lead character; it’s as if his strangeness is enhancing the frequency of everyone else’s oddities. In the moments where the cast gets to play off each other and react to one another, the show has shades of a workplace comedy in the vein of Archer or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia," says Justin Carter. "It’s also when it’s at its strongest, thanks largely to Danielle Brooks’ hilarious Leota Adebayo, the most normal person of the bunch. Brooks brings a lot of charm to a character that should be as far away from everyone else as possible, and she has great chemistry with Cena and Jennifer Holland’s Emilia Harcourt. With everyone amped up to 11 all the time, it’s a riot whenever Adebayo brings things to a halt thanks to her inexperience or the absurdity of being a married lesbian taking a job as part of a black ops team. Watching Peacemaker’s first three episodes that dropped on HBO Max, it’s clear that Gunn wants to make the most of his time with DC’s antihero and is having some fun in a way that the MCU movies don’t really allow. So yes, Peacemaker the character is leering towards women and gleefully has (or offers to) sleep with any woman who catches his eye. The action, particularly at the end of the pilot and later in episode three, is crunchy and nasty in a way The Suicide Squad’s action wasn’t... until it got to the fight between Peacemaker and Joel Kinnamon’s Rick Flag. (Flag’s death is mentioned a handful of times in the first two episodes and the scene is shown during the recap at the beginning of the pilot.) It’s also a lot weirder than its ads have made it seem, as Gunn indulges in the sort of freaky, body-snatcher horror that made his 2006 flick Slither a cult delight. With DC’s more grounded but nonetheless sillier characters like Freddie Stroma’s lovably stupid Vigilante and Nhut Le’s awesome but underused Judomaster on hand, Gunn continues to excel at casually delivering pain to human bodies as both a punchline and a display of horror in its own right." 
    • Steve Agee calls Peacemaker a "dream come true" because he gets to be part of the action: "This is the first time in probably fifteen years that I've been a regular on a show and actually had full scenes and an arc," says the character actor. "Even in the past with stuff like that, it was still like a guy sitting at a computer or a guy who's sitting on the couch high. This is my first time being a guy who actually goes out and shoots guns and beats people up and kills people. It was a dream come true, I've got to tell you, man. As a nerd, it was really exciting to do some of that stuff."
    • Why John Cena's Peacemaker wears a silver helmet on the show: “He’s a guy who really, really wants to be loved,” says James Gunn. “And one of the ways he does it is by wearing a mirrorball helmet, a bright red shirt, and tight white pants...And it doesn’t work for him, that’s the sad part.”
    • Danielle Brooks says she ended up on Peacemaker because James Gunn is a big Orange Is the new Black fan: "He wrote this part with me in mind," she says. "I was really excited because first of all, I just had a child. Working was very important, because now we have a new mouth to feed. But also we had just come into the pandemic, and it’s like, when will I work again — especially after having a kid. It’s also this kind of nerve-racking experience, because you really want to fit in their world. When you audition and you get the part, you know that you were the right choice, but when you didn’t audition, you’re like, 'I hope they don’t feel like they made a terrible mistake.' So we ended up having a meeting, and we just hit it off. I explained to him (that) I’ve never seen anyone like myself in this world. It was really exciting for James to say, “I like you the way you are. I don’t want you to get all this training and try to lose 100 pounds” or all this stuff. He didn’t try to make me fit into his world. He said, 'You already fit.' I really appreciated that."
    • James Gunn hopes Peacemaker's musical opening credits will eliminate the "skip intro" button: “I really wanted to do a dance number where everybody was doing something incredibly ridiculous, and looked incredibly serious while they were doing it,” he says of the opening number, featuring the music of Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It." Among other things, he envisioned it as a way to “vanquish the skip forward button” and allow people to see the credits of those who worked on the show. “I thought it was something that would, you know, be a signpost for people that this isn’t just your normal DC or Marvel TV show," he adds. 
    • How Better Call Saul influenced Peacemaker: “It’s the ability to take its time in telling the story,” says James Gunn in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “Both Saul and Chris are kind of sad-sack characters who are really good at one thing and then really bad at a lot of other things. So I think it’s really just taking that incredibly smart dialogue, that relaxed nature of grounded life and then mixing that with the other things that I wanted to do with the show. But I love Better Call Saul. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, if not the best.” Gunn also points out the key difference between his feature scripts and his teleplays. “I took what I know from screenwriting and I just allowed things to play out a little bit more. That’s really the only thing,” Gunn explains. “You could not tell the story of Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Peacemaker in a movie. It’s too weird where they start, where they go and where they end up. So it’s just a much more complicated relationship, and you need things to be more cut and dried in a two-hour movie.”

    TOPICS: Peacemaker, HBO Max, Danielle Brooks, James Gunn, John Cena, Steve Agee

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