Strange as it may be to consider, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad—an effortfully gnarly second attempt at a Squad-based film—came out only five months ago. Though it seems we were a whole different species then, in those blissful post-vax but pre-omicron days, The Suicide Squad is still a very active, immediate property. Here to remind us of that fact comes Gunn’s new series, Peacemaker (on HBO Max now), keeping the momentum going with a character introduced on screen this summer.
It feels both too late and too soon. Or maybe it’s just presumptuous, the idea that this random antihero (played with smirking muscle by John Cena) has, by the public’s estimation, earned his own thing. We barely know the guy, and yet here he is, having a whole multi-episode adventure in the squishy, profane world Gunn has built. If Suicide Squad was a first flirtation, Peacemaker is an awfully quick jump into a long-term relationship.
With episode titles like “The Choad Less Traveled,” a soundtrack full of rippin’ hair metal tunes, and a deep commitment to saying as much taboo stuff as possible, Peacemaker will prove an acquired taste for many, if it’s acquired at all. Others will, of course, instantly take to the show’s brand of shock and rawness, because there is a seemingly unending appetite for mainstream material that advertises its naughty talk as true transgression.
I am very much in the former camp, and about twenty minutes into the first Peacemaker episode, texted a friend to say that I was in hell. But the more I pressed on, the more Peacemaker’s shaggy squalor started to endear. Because the performances are fluidly committed to the bit—and because Gunn pushes past the show’s initial burst of puerile provocation to interrogate the forces behind such impulses and inclinations.
Cena plays Peacemaker, a murderous vigilante who has convinced himself he’s doing good, some weeks after the events of Suicide Squad. He’s got a new mission handed down to him from the shadowy government agency run by Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller (who appears only briefly, but looms large over the season). Peacemaker is tasked to kill a U.S. senator for mysterious reasons, and is put in the care of a ragtag black-ops team there to either assist him or keep him in line.
A conspiracy is afoot, and those familiar with Gunn’s work—which includes Guardians of the Galaxy over at Marvel’s house (they have better snacks, but the parents are stricter)—will rightly suspect that there is something wild and otherworldly at the center of it. That increasingly absurd (though somehow familiar) story unfolds in engaging twists and undulations, while Peacemaker (a.k.a. Chris Smith) tries to reckon with his abusive white-supremacist father (Robert Patrick) and reconcile himself with the changing social codes of the day.
It’s not always easy to tell whether the show intends us to laugh with or at Peacemaker’s and others’ flagrant political incorrectness. But it does offer enough rebuttal from characters who aren’t merely tiresome scolds that I think Peacemaker is trying to have a genuine dialogue, to find some place where the out-of-touch relics can learn and the more with-it folks can see the humanity behind the witless offense.
Perhaps I’m giving the show too much credit, and was too easily (and damningly) charmed by something that has no business being charming. But Peacemaker’s cast works hard to sell it all. Cena’s blustering oafishness is cleverly rendered. Danielle Brooks—no stranger to over-the-top envelope-pushing after her years on *Orange Is the New Black—*winningly embodies a new agent’s “it’s my first day” disorientation. Freddie Stroma, whom some viewers will recognize as the first bachelor hunk on Lifetime’s UnReal, flips his appeal into fidgety nerd mode and somehow makes it work. Annie Chang gives good exasperated detective, while Jennifer Holland finds new beats to play in a typical tough-babe role.
They’re surrounded by heaps of gore and goo, Gunn doling out the grossness with abandon. Yet in that abandon there is also a restraint; though Peacemaker’s locations are drab and anonymous, there is a carefully designed aesthetic at play. Sometimes Peacemaker is too preening about its idiosyncratic style, such as in the opening credits sequence, a silly choreographed dance to Wig Wam’s “Do You Wanna Taste It.” At times one wishes Peacemaker wasn’t so hyped up on its own ~wEirDneSs~, though that practiced oddity is at least done wholeheartedly, with a sureness of purpose.