Peacemaker sets out its stall right from the start. The opening credits, set to the brash riffing of Norwegian glam metal band Wig Wam’s uber-catchy Do Ya Wanna Taste It, are unexpected and funny. But when the initial amusement wears off, you have to ask yourself: Is this joke going to wear thin?
Peacemaker is a new eight-episode series premiering tomorrow, Thursday Feb. 13 on HBO Max. It’s based on DC Comics characters, but it isn’t like any other superhero show on TV. In fact, it’s a spin-off from last year’s scabrous and outrageous movie The Suicide Squad. Written by the same guy, James Gunn, the show expands on the film’s foul-mouthed and unrepentantly trashy action with eight episodes of cursing, stadium rock and body horror all wrapped around a surprisingly affecting character-driven drama.
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John Cena reprises his role as Peacemaker, a lunkheaded wannabe superhero so dedicated to vague notions of peace that he’ll murder anyone who gets in his way. In The Suicide Squad movie he was scooped out of prison to join a band of misfits battling an alien menace on a remote island, and Cena’s performance was one of the highlights. The comically oblivious, desperately self-serious Peacemaker emerged as a character you loved to hate as he pulled a heinous betrayal against his comrades.
The film’s post-credits scene teased the series, which HBO Max developed even before the film was released. A bold move, but it’s proved to be a solid choice: Gunn and Cena still have a lot of comic energy to give this character even on the smaller canvas of an episodic streaming series.
Having sneakily survived the movie’s mission, Peacemaker is quickly coerced into a new black ops mission. This time, however, he’s on home turf. We follow the musclebound troublemaker, real name Christopher Smith, back to his flag-painted trailer where even the garden ornaments are heavily and patriotically armed. He drives a ’70s muscle car streaked with stars and stripes and his best pal is an eagle, but he’s also devastated by the callousness of his father, a racist supervillain played with snarling rage by Robert Patrick with crazy hair.
The hateable Peacemaker of the movie becomes something of a distant memory the longer we spend with the obnoxious but increasingly vulnerable guy under the shiny helmet, who just wants to be called Chris. The film saw him surrounded by superpowered big guns and he couldn’t help compensating with posturing rivalry. But although the TV show pairs him with another ensemble cast, this time it’s a bunch of cast-off agents and backroom nerds, giving Peacemaker (both show and character) space to explore a superhero’s doubts and fears. Peacemaker faces the reality of being a remorseless killing machine, not to mention the complexity of being an old-fashioned cock-rock kinda guy in a modern world. But with plenty of colorful insults, slimy body horror and bruising punch-ups, obviously.
Cena is matched with strong performances from Orange is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks as a reluctant and endlessly sympathetic new recruit to the black ops game, as well as Jennifer Holland as exasperated badass Harcourt. Other highlights include off-kilter turns from Christopher Heyerdahl and Nhut Le as the gang’s oddball enemies, while Harry Potter and Bridgerton star Freddie Stroma steals the show as even more clueless costumed crusader Vigilante (imagine if the Punisher was actually Napoleon Dynamite).
The growing bond between this band of losers, and their personal crises as they strive to change, drives most of the show’s interaction. Where the film was full of big action and epic visual effects, the TV show is much smaller. The show unfolds in a dusty video store and amid ugly parking lots on the fringes of a nowhere town in middle America. The fights are mostly deliberately inelegant, with only the odd lunging camera or wincing slapstick violence to spice it up.
In between the fights there’s a meandering feeling at times, especially when an episode finds time to just hang out with the characters or when they get into yet another argument about some pop culture trivia. But even if it slows down, Gunn and chums know how to jack things up with a well-timed cliffhanger. There’s also a clever evolution of the show’s most emotion-driven subplot from being all about character development to a compelling storyline as the crew’s actions awaken a new threat.
And those opening credits? After an episode or two in, the joke did feel a little thin. But then I found that after I finished each episode I started the next just to see (and hear) the credits again — and see where this sad sack squad were going next. Go on then, give peace a chance.
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