Peacemaker review: HBO Max’ Suicide Squad series lets John Cena slay

“Eat peace, motherfuckers!”

That’s the comically hypocritical fight cry of Peacemaker (John Cena), who Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn refers to as a “superhero, supervillain, and world’s biggest douchebag.” Peacemaker is the titular character of HBO Max’s difficult R-rated Peacemaker series, a spin-off and extension of Gunn’s 2021 DC superhero movie The Suicide Team, Peacemaker follows the consequences of the movie for Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith), no longer in jail and now appointed a group to assist him in his mission for peace (“No matter how many men, women, and children” need to pass away while doing so).

As established in The Suicide Team, that group consists of 2 subordinates Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) placed on Peacemaker responsibility as penalty for defying her: tense tech person John Economos (Steve Agee) and the remarkably badass Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland). Joining this mangy group of misfits — some may call them some sort of suicide team — are novice Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks); Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), a much more violent and psychopathic “superhero” than Peacemaker; and leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has a bloody credibility from his black-ops work. Along the method, the group needs to work together to beat alien animals referred to as “butterflies” — and likewise handle white supremacy and hazardous masculinity.

With The Suicide Team promoted as originating from “the beautifully twisted mind” of James Gunn, it’s worth keeping in mind that Peacemaker isn’t simply a television task Gunn marked his name on as executive manufacturer and stepped far from. Gunn composed all 8 episodes of this series, and directed all however 3 episodes. Peacemaker is entirely James Gunn’s vision, which is, in a great deal of methods, a superhero Eastbound & Down. (That program’s co-creator, Jody Hill, likewise directed a Peacemaker episode, which tracks with the program’s tone and funny bone.)

The whole team of Peacemaker sitting in a booth at a family restaurant in a still from episode 1

Image: HBO Max

The Suicide Team’s hyperviolence continues in the series, with mindful attention took into useful impacts like having a background remains continue to exude blood. Salty language and unjustified female nudity likewise add to the R score. Offered this design, it’s reasonable to ask whether the series is buffooning edgelord-y teenage-boy perceptiveness, as the buffoonery of characters like Peacemaker and Vigilante would recommend that it is, or whether it’s leaning right into them. A great deal of proof recommends the previous, offered how the series deals with Peacemaker’s capacity for development. Gunn appears to get an adventure out of threading the great needle of lampooning exploitative excess, while likewise maximizing it. The technique enables fascinating efficiencies out of the entire cast, who stabilize heavy drama with crass, juvenile humor very well.

Much More than The Suicide Team, Peacemaker seems like the conclusion of what Gunn did with the 2010 movie Super, with vigilantes who are (in their minds) on an objective of peace and tidying up the streets, now brought to life with a larger spending plan and developed (though unknown) comics characters. Gunn develops Peacemaker and specifically Vigilante as far more reliable variations of Rainn Wilson’s The Crimson Bolt from Super, though nowadays, Gunn is much more thinking about tackling his anti-heroes’ ethical uncertainty and psychological headspace.

That particular concentrate on Peacemaker’s objectives make him interesting to follow after The Suicide Team, now that he needs to reckon with previous actions that many people would think about straight-out atrocious. He’s at a crossroads in his life as a self-identified superhero. As lovely as John Cena is, the preliminary concept of Gunn investing more effort and time focusing in on an “alt-right douchebag” mass killer with a deformed sense of peace didn’t look like a beneficial goal. However the series reveals Gunn is purchased questioning and examining how individuals embrace severe and hazardous beliefs, and how they may alter, not simply by themselves, however with other individuals’s aid.

Vigilante and Peacemaker sitting in a still from Peacemaker

Photo: HBO Max

Where the series gets a bit muddled is its villains. Gunn has no problem acknowledging as soon as possible that the season’s Big Bad is 100% a retread of the The Suicide Squad’s Big Bad: The series’ Project Butterfly is named for an alien butterfly villain. Gunn clearly wants to reveal that immediately, because the latest body-snatching villain isn’t necessarily the point of either the series or its first-season arc. But there’s a problem in Gunn’s insistence on withholding a reveal about whether the butterflies are actually hurting their hosts by inhabiting their bodies. That doesn’t come up until very late in the season — the characters don’t even ask the question.

Which would be fine if this wasn’t the type of thing an audience would ask. But Peacemaker lives in a “shoot first, ask questions later” (if ever) world that’s more concerned with how cool the violence looks than whether it’s necessary. In The Suicide Squad, Gunn pulls off the team’s lack of curiosity or examination of their situation more effectively, in a bit where the team tries to save Rick Flag from his kidnappers, and ends up massacring many innocent individuals. That gag worked as a relatively short bit in a two-hour movie. But stretching the same thoughtless action out over multiple hourlong episodes, and not examining it until the metaphorical eleventh hour, does a disservice to the story and its characters.

The show doesn’t fully absolve Peacemaker of his past actions, on or offscreen. He continues to be the misinformed doofus he’s been since his introduction, even if he’s trying to be better. But it does intentionally include worse people around to definitely make him look less bad. While Gunn apparently believes Peacemaker is capable of growth, he also presents a foil in Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), Peacemaker’s abusive, unrepentant white-supremacist father. Gunn confidently portrays him as absolutely incapable of change, even though his son is clearly desperate for it. And then there’s the absolute psychopath Vigilante, who indiscriminately murders people for even minor wrongdoing, and doesn’t understand or comprehend introspection. (Vigilante draws the line at explicit white supremacy, though, because Auggie is the worst of the worst.)

Much like seemingly every other movie and show of the past few years, Peacemaker is ultimately about navigating trauma — not just the aftermath of The Suicide Squad, but the trauma of being raised by a man like Auggie, and struggling to be someone an evil man can be proud of.

Robert Patrick and John Cena in a still from Peacemaker

Photo: HBO Max

Cena is given heavy, substantial material to work with, as Gunn tries to unpack the Peacemaker character and his sad state of mind. He’s capable of pulling it off, even while he’s being scored by cheesy ’80s metal. (“There’s no wrong time to rock” is an important part of Peacemaker’s ethos, from the captivating opening credits — which show Gunn actually set out to make a TV show and not just an eight-hour movie — to the near-constant soundtrack.) He’s already proven he can sell the comedy of the character, and it’s clear throughout the series that Cena is especially capable when it comes to improvisation. But the key to this series was always going to be his ability to manage the emotional gravitas that would make the character more than just a joke.

And that’s what lets Cena find the heart of scenes where he’s sadly rocking out to hair metal, or emotionally connecting with a CGI bald eagle. (Eagly, truly a highlight of the series.) He evokes actual, heartfelt reactions, and not just in scenes where he’s alone. (Or with CGI creations.) His earnest scenes with Brooks and Holland work to make the audience long for him to get his act together, even when it’s clear how many things are standing in his way. As the season progresses and the Peacemaker team spends more time with the guy, they realize that try as they may, it’s hard not to feel for the him. And it’s absolutely difficult not to wish to rock out with him and his family pet eagle.

The very first 3 episodes of Peacemaker best Thursday, January 13 on HBO Max. From there, the season will drop with weekly episodes.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.