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HBO Max’s Peacemaker threads the needle with its edgelord humor

John Cena is a hero who’s surprisingly able to pull it all off

John Cena in full Peacemaker gear in a still from the Peacemaker show Photo: HBO Max

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“Eat peace, motherfuckers!”

That’s the comically hypocritical battle cry of Peacemaker (John Cena), who Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn describes as a “superhero, supervillain, and world’s biggest douchebag.” Peacemaker is the titular character of HBO Max’s hard R-rated Peacemaker series, a spin-off and continuation of Gunn’s 2021 DC superhero film The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker follows the aftermath of the film for Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith), no longer in prison and now assigned a team to help him in his quest for peace (“No matter how many men, women, and children” have to die in the process).

As set up in The Suicide Squad, that team includes two subordinates Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) put on Peacemaker duty as punishment for defying her: jittery tech guy John Economos (Steve Agee) and the surprisingly badass Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland). Joining this ragtag team of misfits — some might call them some kind of suicide squad — are rookie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks); Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), an even more violent and deranged “superhero” than Peacemaker; and leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has a bloody reputation from his black-ops work. Along the way, the team has to work together to defeat alien creatures known as “butterflies” — and also take on white supremacy and toxic masculinity.

With The Suicide Squad touted as coming from “the beautifully twisted mind” of James Gunn, it’s worth noting that Peacemaker isn’t just a TV project Gunn stamped his name on as executive producer and stepped away from. Gunn wrote all eight episodes of this series, and directed all but three episodes. Peacemaker is completely James Gunn’s vision, which is, in a lot of ways, a superhero Eastbound & Down. (That show’s co-creator, Jody Hill, also directed a Peacemaker episode, which tracks with the show’s tone and sense of humor.)

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

The Suicide Squad’s hyperviolence continues in the series, with careful attention put into practical effects like having a background corpse continue to ooze blood. Salty language and gratuitous female nudity also contribute to the R rating. Given this style, it’s fair to ask whether the series is mocking edgelord-y teenage-boy sensibilities, as the buffoonery of characters like Peacemaker and Vigilante would suggest that it is, or whether it’s leaning right into them. A lot of evidence suggests the former, given how the series treats Peacemaker’s potential for growth. Gunn seems to get a thrill out of threading the fine needle of lampooning exploitative excess, while also taking full advantage of it. The approach allows for interesting performances out of the whole cast, who balance heavy drama with crass, juvenile humor extremely well.

Even more than The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker feels like the culmination of what Gunn did with the 2010 film Super, with vigilantes who are (in their minds) on a mission of peace and cleaning up the streets, now brought to life with a bigger budget and established (though obscure) comics characters. Gunn establishes Peacemaker and especially Vigilante as much more effective versions of Rainn Wilson’s The Crimson Bolt from Super, though these days, Gunn is far more interested in tackling his anti-heroes’ moral ambiguity and mental headspace.

That specific focus on Peacemaker’s intentions make him fascinating to follow after The Suicide Squad, now that he has to reckon with past actions that most people would consider outright villainous. He’s at a crossroads in his life as a self-identified superhero. As charming as John Cena is, the initial idea of Gunn spending more time and effort focusing in on an “alt-right douchebag” mass murderer with a warped sense of peace didn’t seem like a worthwhile aim. But the series shows Gunn is invested in interrogating and investigating how people adopt extreme and harmful beliefs, and how they might change, not just on their own, but with other people’s help.

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 people. 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 might, it’s hard not to feel for the him. And it’s definitely hard not to want to rock out with him and his pet eagle.

The first three episodes of Peacemaker premiere Thursday, January 13 on HBO Max. From there, the season will drop with weekly episodes on Thursdays.