HBO Max's uproarious "Peacemaker" remembers to have fun in a brooding superhero landscape

In his "Suicide Squad" spinoff James Gunn uses John Cena's alt-right killer to mix comedy with a redemption tale

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 13, 2022 5:49PM (EST)

John Cena in "Peacemaker"  (HBO Max)
John Cena in "Peacemaker" (HBO Max)

Through "Peacemaker," writer and director James Gunn and its star, John Cena, tap into an understanding about the superhero entertainment genre that's been lost in the race for dominance between Marvel and DC. In our urge to seek profundity within these power fables, we forget that we're supposed to have fun with them.

Gunn gets that, evident in his interpretation of Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and 2021's waggish do-over of "The Suicide Squad" for DC. In Peacemaker, the alter ego of Cena's muscular doofus Chris Smith, the director has a seamless combination of Star-Lord's juvenile charm and the dangerous idiocy required to hang with the likes of Batman villain Harley Quinn.

Dropping Smith into another top-secret mission to save the world treats us to a welcome lo-fi version of a superhero yarn that takes a merry swipe at all the brooding and rumination that is his "Justice League" and Marvel counterparts' stock-in-trade. The world of Peacemaker is alive with garish colors, locker room humor, dick jokes and a testosterone-spiked glam-rock soundtrack.

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Every episode guarantees at least one kooky dance performance with Cena at the center, thanks to a stiffly choreographed title credits sequence set to the catchy fist-pumper "Do You Wanna Taste It," from former Norway Eurovision contender Wig Wam.

Even as it hurls all of that at us, along with storms of hyperkinetic violence and brutal pratfalls, "Peacemaker" admirably interrogates whether transformation is possible for people who commit terrible acts in the name of hideous, misguided beliefs.

Our eponynous alt-right murder machine is the lack of self-awareness personified, a walking critique of Christofascist "God and guns" hypocrisy who insists that all his weapons be emblazoned with his dove of peace insignia. But "Peacemaker," along with being a gleefully dumb romp, nicely doubles as a voyage of contrition and growth.

Cena makes all of this click, transforming the muscular manchild from a two-dimensional buffoon into a lost soul figuring discovering his purpose. The performer established his comedy bonafides long ago, but this blends that skill set with his image as an action hero specimen, albeit one who goofily gyrates around in his skivvies while lip-syncing to The Quireboys. Landing visual comedy is easy for Cena, but his quick-draw delivery is an endless breadsticks kind of treat, especially when it's served against a classroom full of merciless children in a late-season sequence that crowd-work fans will cherish.

Gunn, who wrote each of the first season's scripts, complements Cena's magnetism by expanding his co-stars' characters, including two fellow "Suicide Squad" crossovers played by Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland.

Agee's John Economos and Holland's Emilia Harcourt are part of the team that went rogue in the movie's plot, allowing some squad members to veer off mission for the greater good.

While this happened, Peacemaker was buried under a collapsed building, which happened after he stabbed the team's leader Rick Flagg (played in the movie by Joel Kinnaman) to death for trying to go against orders he knew were wrong.

You don't necessarily need to have seen "Suicide Squad" to connect with "Peacemaker" since the series sums up the pertinent action in its own "Previously On" sequence. But that fateful confrontation with Flagg sets Peacemaker on the dark night of the soul odyssey unfurling throughout these eight episodes.  

While locked onto a mission that the mercenary suspects is as impossible and ridiculous as the "need-to-know-basis" debacle at the center of "Suicide Squad, " he begins to realize his worldview may be grievously misinformed.

The government points him at catastrophic threats, assuming that no one would miss him if he were killed. When it comes to his abusive white supremacist father Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick) who loudly expresses his wish that he'd slit his son's throat on the day he was born, that's true. Chris makes it clear that he doesn't share his father's ugly prejudices, and Dad still makes his technologically advanced gear for him because, you know, family.

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A blossoming friendship with his new co-worker Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) and his friendliness with his new team commander Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), leads him to realize that maybe he's not as likable and considerate as he thinks he is. Coming to terms with all of this translates to a few ugly cries on the floor that are both hilarious and gutting.

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. 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.

Flanked by his jocular, worshipful ally Vigilante (Freddie Stroma, in a whiplash of a turn away from "Bridgerton") and his beloved pet Eagly (an entirely CGI-rendered creation and the series' true scene-stealer), Peacemaker is a socially klutzy crusader as well as one prone to pratfalls. But his relationships make him more human, anchored by Brooks' sincere performance and Stroma's ability to effectively flit between outlandish sociopathy and sharp pathos.   

Mind you, there's a slice of the audience who may be tired of figures like Peacemaker, lunkheads who are slow to learn the nuances of respectful social etiquette but dig in to defend their right to respectfully refer to a woman as "sugar tits." In a world overflowing with such swaggering boobs there's a high possibility that "Peacemaker" and its hero's frequent "deep state" references may rub some the wrong way.

But even if you've had your fill of boors and superhero properties, "Peacemaker" still triumphs through its dedication to the twin powers of irreverence and compassion accessorized by a soundtrack made for rockin'. We may not change our definition of Peacemaker from villain to hero by the end of the season, but the fact that Cena and his co-stars get us to care about him all is a win.

The first three episodes of "Peacemaker" premiere Thursday, Jan. 13 on HBO Max with a new episode released weekly afterward. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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