HBO Max’s ‘Peacemaker’: TV Review

In the first episode of Peacemaker, a character offers a snap judgment of Christopher Smith, aka Peacemaker, aka the title character played by John Cena. “Sexist. Probably racist,” she says. “But there’s something else about him that’s … sad.”

That “something sad” proves to be the bruised heart of Peacemaker, beating from underneath thick layers of juvenile humor and self-aware snark. Like so much else of creator James Gunn’s work in the super-something realm, the series is equally interested in provoking giggles at exploding heads or dick jokes as it is in wringing tears for its poor tragic weirdos. And while it more or less succeeds on both counts, it struggles to stand out in a sea of other superhero content doing much the same thing — often at the hands of Gunn himself.


The Bottom Line

Mostly fine, sometimes fun, rarely fresh.

Airdate: Thursday, Jan. 13

Cast: John Cena, Danielle Brooks, Freddie Stroma, Jennifer Holland, Steve Agee, Chukwudi Iwuji, Robert Patrick

Creator: James Gunn

As established in a “previously on” at the start of the first episode, Peacemaker picks up shortly after the events of 2021’s The Suicide Squad, which left the character looking like an odd choice to lead his own spinoff. Peacemaker emerges from the film as — spoiler alert — an antagonist, whose warped ethos is best summed up by his vow to have peace at any cost, no matter how many men, women and children he needs to kill to get it. He wasn’t likable, but he was interesting as a representation of a certain imperialist flavor of self-serving obliviousness.

Peacemaker makes the character more likable, at the cost of making him less interesting. The character we meet at the start of the series is a troubled one, although he insists to anyone who’ll listen that he’s doing just great. (He’s not crying, he tells a concerned friend — he’s just exercising his face muscles.) The turning point seems to have been his killing, in The Suicide Squad, of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), whose last words echo through Peacemaker in repeated flashbacks: “Peacemaker. What a joke.” But the series traces his foundational trauma much further back, to his childhood with a violently abusive father (a perfectly hateful Robert Patrick).

Whatever Peacemaker’s flaws — and this is a guy who spends the first episode calling a waitress “sweet cheeks,” hitting on one of his colleagues and spreading rumors about Aquaman fucking fish — he looks much more sympathetic when pitted against Patrick’s Auggie, a proud white supremacist who spits out slurs and snarls at his own son for “letting” himself get shot. The case for a Peacemaker redemption arc is never more convincing than in the pair’s scenes together. Cena softens his chiseled face and action-figure posture to reveal the little boy under all that macho bluster — aware he’ll never win Dad’s approval but unable to stop himself from widening his eyes in search of signs he’s finally found it.

But so much of the material surrounding his journey feels half-hearted. 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.

To be sure, something does not have to be original to be deeply charming: One of Peacemaker‘s most winning characters is Eagly, a pet eagle who’s basically just a puppy dog in feathers. But by the time the characters are bickering about the Berenstain Bears Mandela effect in the third episode, it feels like they’re bickering because that’s what characters in a show like this are supposed to do, rather than because it fits with any distinctive qualities about these people.

When someone starts a sentence with “No, you’re not a dick vampire …” it’s possible to mouth the end of the sentence in real time: “… you’re just a dick.” Does such humor still count as irreverent when it’s been a staple of superhero comedies for at least the past six or seven years? Does a tragic backstory still feel like a revelation when it’s the most reliable way of ginning up sympathy for a flawed hero?

For all the show’s feints toward edginess, it colors well within the lines laid out by its predecessors. That’s not entirely to its detriment — it makes Peacemaker a comfort rather than a challenge. Too much familiarity over the course of a season, however, leads to a series that’s easy not to mind watching instead of one that’s hard to quit watching. In its quest to shed new light on a character who came out of his last movie looking dangerously close to outright villainy, Peacemaker loses too much of the darkness that made him compelling in the first place.

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