The Pitch: If you watched The Suicide Squad last year and got told that one of the characters would be getting a spinoff TV show, would Peacemaker (John Cena) have been your first guess? Even with the post-credits scene setting up the series, probably not. Nonetheless, James Gunn‘s first major TV project takes this blunt instrument of an anti-hero and uses him as the base for an at times strange, at times pretty fun action-horror adventure. (The term “superhero”… does not feel particularly applicable, in this case.)
“Previously, in The Suicide Squad…” That’s not a bit — that’s literally how the first episode of Peacemaker opens, treating the film like the true pilot episode of the series. (Which, it could be argued, it was.)
What’s important to remember from that movie, if August 2021 is understandably too fuzzy a memory right now, is that during the Squad’s wild-ass mission to Corto Maltese, vigilante hero Peacemaker, a.k.a. Christopher Smith, followed orders from Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and killed Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) to try to prevent government secrets from getting out. While initially presumed dead thanks to a bullet from Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a post-credits sequence revealed that Peacemaker survived, and the series begins with him returning home after his recovery.
Unfortunately, his homecoming isn’t a very happy one, thanks to his bigoted asshole of a father Auggie (Robert Patrick) and his near-immediate recruitment into a new task force led by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji). However, he’s pretty happy to be a semi-free man, reunited with his beloved pet eagle Eagly (CGI) and making connections with his new teammates, who aren’t exactly thrilled to have him on board. Unfortunately, an ominous threat is bubbling up, one which could have global implications.
The Gunn of It All: In looking back at Gunn’s career since his 2006 breakout film Slither, what stands out thematically is a fascination with genre, especially horror and superhero stories, coupled with a unique streak of sincerity, along with what feels like an innate urge to push the boundaries of taste whenever possible (which wasn’t all that often, when making PG-13 Marvel movies).
These elements combined to make his Suicide Squad feel like the ultimate expression of him as a filmmaker: plenty of ultra-violence and imaginative creature work, but underlying it all a lonely heart aching for family and connection. And it’s in this spirit that the best moments of Peacemaker come to life.
While the season does largely feature an episodic structure, the feel of the season feels just a bit off-kilter, largely due to how much of what’s going on gets concealed from both Peacemaker as well as the audience. It’s hard to get a sense of momentum going when the lead character of a show doesn’t seem to know what’s really going on, and it takes a while for even the audience to understand the stakes in play.
Also, there are moments where that craving for edginess, instead of pushing the show in daring directions, just feels edgy for the sake of cheap thrills. This especially stands out in the show’s occasional tendency to spotlight Auggie saying super-racist stuff just to remind us how racist he is; perhaps these moments are important to the story, but also we get it, and these moments feel antiquated in their desire to poke a reaction out of the woke.
Really, It’s a Family Show: Where things really come together is in the character work, with a lot done to develop a unique and inclusive ensemble that really gels together nicely as the season progresses. The cast make-up is a fascinating one, when you consider the wide-ranging nature of these resumes (Danielle Brooks is a Tony-nominated actress! Freddie Stroma was on Bridgerton and the Kevin James sitcom The Crew! Robert fucking Patrick!), but they all coalesce remarkably well around Cena, whose performance is a well-calibrated parody of leading man energy.
Like many professional wrestlers-turned-actors, Cena has two superpowers — yes, his otherworldly physical presence, but also his ability to fully commit to a bit. So, we’re in luck here, because while it’s hard to describe the character of Peacemaker as anything other than an extended bit, Cena never breaks from the persona. But built into that persona is a gaping vortex of need and vulnerability, which powers so much of the series’ most emotional beats, as the character’s desire to belong seems to inspire that same instinct in those around him.
The Verdict: Even if Peacemaker the series was irredeemable crap, it would still be worth tuning in for its opening credits. A fresh take on the art form, it’s hard to encapsulate all the factors that make this 80-second burst of joy at the top of every episode (following the cold open) such a joy to watch, except to say that get ready for Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” to get permanently stuck in your head for days.
(There’s a whole special category for opening credits sequences at the Emmys — fingers crossed the Television Academy is paying attention to this one.)
To be clear, Peacemaker is not irredeemable crap, though its biggest hurdle is how it feels a bit like an afterthought, the spinoff no one asked for rather than a bold new story. However, thanks to the strength of the ensemble, along with some of the wildest action sequences seen in recent memory, the series does deliver a lot of joy, along with the continued reminder that as Gunn’s work as a storyteller continues to mature, it gets better and better. It’s not just that this is a great ensemble of actors — it’s that Gunn knows how to let them shine.
The first three episodes of Peacemaker premiere Thursday, January 13th on HBO Max. New episodes will premiere weekly.