Moment for moment, HBO Max‘s Peacemaker might just be the most entertaining installment of the DC Extended Universe to date. Man of Steel‘s more action-packed, Wonder Woman more empowering and inspirational, and Aquaman more over the top. But Peacemaker should leave a near-constant smile on your face. With a couple of caveats. One: it helps to like James Gunn’s specific sense of humor. And two: anyone who is specifically a hardcore fan of either Peacemaker or the Adrian Chase version of Vigilante as they appear in comics might be disappointed by the lack of fealty to the source material. But fans of lunkheaded, retrograde would-be heroes like Ash Williams, Archer, or Futurama‘s Zapp Brannigan — and that’s most of us — should dig the fact that in the universe of Zack Snyder’s solemn, stoic Justice League, there also exists this nigh-invincible screw-up.
Like Cobra Kai, Peacemaker takes a character previously depicted as an antagonist and recontextualizes him by taking his point of view. It’s not quite the same age-wise, because John Cena would have been in elementary school when The Karate Kid came out. But like William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence, his Chris Smith began a case of arrested development at his moment of greatest trauma. And since then, the toxic ideology of a father figure has formed his current mindset, while his taste in music never changed. Essentially, he’s a big kid with some really bad ideas. He also happens to be an expert in hand-to-hand fighting, and weapons.
Gunn’s done the delusional superhero with no powers bit before, with Super, in which Rainn Wilson believed God chose him to beat bad guys with wrenches. Peacemaker is not merely a retread of this ground, as it takes place fully in the DC universe. It stays on a smaller canvas, mostly set in and around Peacemaker’s Pacific Northwest-ish home town of Evergreen. And the characters utilized might charitably be called C-list at best. But just as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could also take on world-threatening events in the shadow of the Avengers, so can Amanda Waller’s C-team in Superman’s world. Which is to say the jeopardy is real, and not simply some other insane bodybuilder in a costume.
Released from hospital after surprisingly surviving a nearly lethal gunshot, Chris “Peacemaker” Smith still retains the bomb and tracking unit in his head from The Suicide Squad. As such, he can still be compelled into service, this time for a Waller-backed team that’s even smaller and more off the books than Task Force X. What feels like punishment for all involved — insubordinate subordinates John Economos (Steve Agee) and Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) from The Suicide Squad, newcomer Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), and Peacemaker himself — ultimately becomes a much bigger deal, under the stoic leadership of Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji). Peacemaker’s self-appointed BFF, Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), eventually self-appoints himself onto the team too. He does this by virtue of being omnipresent to the point of annoyance.
Marvel Studios has saturated our screens with streaming shows loaded with surprise cameos and revelations. DC probably only gets this one shot before The Flash reboots the universe. And the next few scheduled shows take place in The Batman‘s separate reality anyway. But while Disney keeps each of its individual episodes under strict lock and key, HBO Max showed us seven of Peacemaker‘s eight episodes. And many play pretty raunchy with content, including fully nude sex scenes and frank language, that would even push a theatrical R-rating. Not to mention the fact that Peacemaker’s dad (Robert Patrick) is an unrepentant bigot, with all the vocalizing that implies.
Fans of Gunn’s work will see echoes of all that came before. Super, Dawn of the Dead, Slither, and Scooby Doo (Gunn loves teams in vans) all get narrative nods. And like Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a retro soundtrack with an in-universe explanation. Although this time it’s mostly ’80s hair metal power ballads. The opening credits each week feature a full-cast dance number that’s exactly what we would expect. But thematically, Gunn’s kept very consistent throughout his career. Basically, he loves his teams of gifted people who have screwed up along the way, but come together in the end. As far back as his script for Craig Mazin’s The Specials, Gunn has been writing characters like this. But now he has the budget to actually showcase them in action.
Gunn also loves to utilize at least one non-human team member with limited or no vocabulary, and into that role flies Eagly the eagle. As expected, the bird frequently steals the show. Just be aware that real birds of prey will not hug you back, viewers.
It’s ironic that in WWE rings, The Rock kept innovating and playing interesting roles, while Cena steadfastly played the bland good guy for so long that some fans started to hate him for it. Cinematically, their paths have now reversed. Dwayne Johnson now predictably plays a thoroughly focus-tested version of himself as crowd-pleaser, while Cena excels at playing foul-mouthed jerks. It’s hard to tell without having the scripts to hand, but he seems to be doing a lot of improvising here. The post-credits scenes, which are mostly outtakes, strongly imply it.
Much like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in their movies together, Cena’s Chris Smith frequently indulges in screaming matches where he keeps upping the ante with ever more ridiculous comebacks, sometimes with obviously made-up words. Somebody needs to put him and Ferrell together in something. In the meantime, he’s ably countered by Freddie Stroma’s relentlessly clueless take on Vigilante, and Danielle Brooks’ Adebayo, who is deeper than the oversharing, nervous fat-girl trope she initially feigns.
And yet…Cena can do the ugly cry as well, both for comedic purposes and genuine poignancy. While the man’s not likely to win an Emmy just yet, he commits to every acting choice as hard as a fall from Hell in a Cell.
No, this Chris Smith isn’t a former diplomat. Nor is Adrian Chase an attorney. They’re buffoons in costumes, who just happen to be great in a brawl. If that’s a problem, this may not work for you. Gunn litters the dialogue with copious DC references, but when it comes to his own leads, he takes every liberty he feels like. Considering Peacemaker and Vigilante likely won’t see adaptation again any time soon, these will likely become the definitive live-action versions. But they also play like satirical deconstructions of old ’80s ideas about machismo, in a way the Marvel Cinematic Universe will probably never attempt. If Zack Snyder’s swearing, shooting Batman seemed to push the envelope, Peacemaker pushes it off the cliff.
Will audiences buy an arc that essentially has a toxic dude learning to check his privilege? We’ll have to see how much he seems to have grown, or not, when the final episode airs in mid-February. But on the whole, it’s such a wild ride, and one so pleasingly akin to those of Ash vs. Evil Dead and Cobra Kai, that just this once, John Cena might pull off a babyface turn that the fans approve of.
Grade (Episodes 1-7): 5/5
Peacemaker debuts on HBO Max January 13 with episodes 1-3, and runs weekly thereafter through February 17.
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