Peacemaker review: The perfect Suicide Squad chaser, on HBO Max today

John Cena is surprisingly vulnerable as the glam metal-loving Peacemaker killing machine.

HBO Max

Peacemaker sets up his stand from the start. The opening credits, to brash riffs of the ultra-catchy song by Norwegian glam metal band Wig Wam, Do Ya Wanna Taste It, is unexpected and funny. But when the initial fun wears off, you have to ask yourself: is this joke going to wear off?

Peacemaker is a new eight-episode series premiering today, Thursday February 13th on HBO Max. It’s based on the characters from DC Comics, but it’s not like any other superhero show on TV. In fact, it’s a spin-off from last year’s scabrous and outrageous film The Suicide Squad. Written by the same guy, James Gunn, the show expands on the film’s crass, ruthless action with eight episodes of curse, stage rock, and body horror, all set around a surprisingly moving drama.

John Cena reprizes his role as Peacekeeper, an aspiring lunkhead superhero so devoted to vague notions of peace that he’ll assassinate anyone who gets in his way. In the movie The Suicide Squad, he was released from prison to join a group of misfits battling an alien threat on a remote island, and Cena’s performance was one of the highlights. The comically oblivious and hopelessly serious Peacekeeper emerged as a character you loved to hate as he launched a heinous betrayal against his comrades.

Movies post-credits scene teased the series, which HBO Max developed even before the film’s release. A bold move, but it turned out to be a solid choice: Gunn and Cena still have plenty of comedic energy to give this character even on the smallest canvas of an episodic streaming series.

Having sneakily survived the film’s mission, Peacemaker is quickly forced into a new covert operations mission. This time, however, he is at home. We follow the muscular troublemaker, real name Christopher Smith, to his flag painted trailer where even the garden ornaments are heavily and patriotically armed. He drives a star and striped ’70s muscle car and his best friend is an eagle, but he’s also devastated by the callousness of his father, a racist supervillain played with snarling rage by Robert Patrick at the crazy hair.

Danielle Brooks, Chukwudi Iwuji and Jennifer Holland Give Peace a Chance.

Danielle Brooks, Chukwudi Iwuji and Jennifer Holland Give Peace a Chance.

HBO Max

The film’s Hateful Peacekeeper becomes something of a distant memory the more time 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 big, overpowered cannons and he couldn’t help but compensate with a rivalry of posture. But although the TV show twins him with another cast, this time he’s a bunch of rejected agents and backroom nerds, giving Peacemaker (both the show and the character) a space to explore the doubts and fears of a superhero. Peacemaker faces the reality of being a remorseful killing machine, not to mention the complexity of being an old-fashioned cock-rock type in a modern world. But with lots of colorful slurs, slimy body horror, and deadly punches, obviously.

Cena is matched by strong performances from Orange is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks as a reluctant new recruit and endlessly sympathetic to the black ops game, as well as Jennifer Holland as exasperated badass Harcourt. Other highlights include the offbeat turns of Christopher Heyerdahl and Nhut Le as the gang’s bizarre foes, while Harry Potter and Bridgerton star Freddie Stroma steals the show as an even more distraught costumed crusader ( imagine if the Punisher was actually Napoleon Dynamite).

The growing connection between this group of losers and their personal crises as they strive to change, is what drives most of the series’ interactions. Where the movie was full of action and epic visual effects, the TV show is much smaller. The show takes place in a dusty video store and in the middle of ugly parking lots on the edge of a city nowhere in Central America. The fights are mostly deliberately inelegant, with only a weird camera or grinning slapstick violence to spice it up.

Between fights there is sometimes a feeling of wandering around, especially when an episode finds time to hang out with the characters or when they argue once again over some pop culture trivia. But even if it slows down, Gunn and his pals know how to shake things up with a cliffhanger at the right time. There’s also a clever evolution of the show’s most emotional subplot, shifting from character development to a gripping storyline as the crew’s actions awaken a new threat.

And these opening credits? After an episode or two, the joke seemed a little thin. But then I found out that after I finished each episode, I would start the next one just to see (and hear) the credits again – and see where that sad sack team went next. Go ahead, give peace a chance.

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