It’s hard to talk about HBO Max’s Peacemaker without bringing up creator James Gunn’s previous work. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films helped catapult him into cinematic stardom after creating a solid resume of B-movies, and he was brought into the fold at Warner Bros. to write and direct The Suicide Squad after he was (temporarily) removed from the long-gestating Guardians Vol. 3.
The shadow of Gunn’s career so far, specifically his Marvel movies, looms mightily over Peacemaker, made incredibly clear by its opening titles. As “Do You Wanna Taste It?” by Wig Wam plays, the cast straight-facedly performs an elaborate musical number under neon lighting that truly wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the Guardians films, if Gunn had been given the chance to direct such a sequence. Isolated on its own, it’s a fun display of work from all involved that shows off Gunn’s love of music, direction, and comedic timing. But it also highlights, for better and worse, how much this spinoff focused on John Cena’s ideologically confused Christopher Smith owes to the misadventures of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and his galactic entourage. He’s as big a man-child (bigger, in some respects) as Peter Quill, with the same amount of love for ‘80s rock bands and penchant for saying absolute nonsense. Quite frankly, Cena has more range, enough so that the outlandish asides and quips land much stronger, and that allows him to have a lot of fun with the role he’s been given. Not many actors today could make shouting “freedom!” while climaxing during sex, or earnest glee at being supposedly hugged by an eagle sidekick (named Eagly, of course), as hilarious as he does.
Cena being a complete doofus while everyone else gets exasperated by his nonsense would be funny on its own, but Peacemaker perhaps wisely has decided to let its supporting cast be as weird and quirky as its lead character; it’s as if his strangeness is enhancing the frequency of everyone else’s oddities. In the moments where the cast gets to play off each other and react to one another, the show has shades of a workplace comedy in the vein of Archer or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s also when it’s at its strongest, thanks largely to Danielle Brooks’ hilarious Leota Adebayo, the most normal person of the bunch. Brooks brings a lot of charm to a character that should be as far away from everyone else as possible, and she has great chemistry with Cena and Jennifer Holland’s Emilia Harcourt. With everyone amped up to 11 all the time, it’s a riot whenever Adebayo brings things to a halt thanks to her inexperience or the absurdity of being a married lesbian taking a job as part of a black ops team.
Watching Peacemaker’s first three episodes that dropped on HBO Max, it’s clear that Gunn wants to make the most of his time with DC’s antihero and is having some fun in a way that the MCU movies don’t really allow. So yes, Peacemaker the character is leering towards women and gleefully has (or offers to) sleep with any woman who catches his eye. The action, particularly at the end of the pilot and later in episode three, is crunchy and nasty in a way The Suicide Squad’s action wasn’t… until it got to the fight between Peacemaker and Joel Kinnamon’s Rick Flag. (Flag’s death is mentioned a handful of times in the first two episodes and the scene is shown during the recap at the beginning of the pilot.) It’s also a lot weirder than its ads have made it seem, as Gunn indulges in the sort of freaky, body-snatcher horror that made his 2006 flick Slither a cult delight. With DC’s more grounded but nonetheless sillier characters like Freddie Stroma’s lovably stupid Vigilante and Nhut Le’s awesome but underused Judomaster on hand, Gunn continues to excel at casually delivering pain to human bodies as both a punchline and a display of horror in its own right.
Peacemaker is Gunn’s first show, and the transition from film to TV exacerbates Gunn’s weaker points that began cropping up when he started doing superhero movies. His writing has yet to be needlessly cruel to anyone as was the case with Mantis in Guardians 2 or Suicide Squad’s Polka-Dot Man, but he still has a habit of making banter be a little longer than it probably should be. Similarly, the second episode sees Peacemaker try to escape from an apartment complex, a sequence that takes up about half of the 40-minute episode when it could’ve been shorter. And like the aforementioned films, it feels like the show is in danger of over-escalating with its potentially world-ending threat, as a way to give Peacemaker a way to become the superhero he claims he is.
But despite all that, Peacemaker manages to work and sell its absurd slice of the DC Universe. Two sequences best encapsulate the vibe the show is going for: the first is a riot of a montage when Peacemaker and Vigilante use weapons and explosives to blow shit up in the woods like two oversized children with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. The second closes out that same episode as Peacemaker’s father Auggie (Robert Patrick) smirks while being greeted by fellow white supremacists, all of them on their knees and saluting their returning leader. Fittingly for a show featuring body snatchers and where almost everyone is putting up emotional walls, Gunn puts a lot of foolishness and heart on display. But there’s also certainly something darker just waiting to make itself known.
Also starring Steve Agee and Chukwudi Iwuji, Peacemaker premieres new episodes weekly on HBO Max.
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