‘Peacemaker’: The ‘Suicide Squad’ Misfit Is an All-American Riot

The all-American superhero used to represent an idealized image of America. Righteous, well-mannered, handsome and ready to save even a cat from a tree. HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” is a rude, crude and politically incorrect romp that feels more appropriate for this particular American moment. James Gunn takes one of the misfits from his recent, satirically fun “The Suicide Squad,” with the task of making an entire series around an obnoxious personality. John Cena is integral to giving a likable charm to his character, in a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Gunn takes advantage of doing a project for HBO, by cheerfully including jabs about MAGA hat USA, aliens borrowing into people’s brains and pet eagles with a mean streak. He gets so worked up that the story loses gas while the jokes keep flying.

Set soon after the events of “The Suicide Squad,” where Peacemaker’s fate had been left somewhat ambiguous, the trash-talking anti-hero is lured back into action by a black ops team on a secret mission. Led by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), they are linked to the government project overseen by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Murn’s group includes deadly operative Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), very green rookie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) and scruffy tech expert John Economos (Steve Agee). They are all serious, focused professionals, which makes it hard to get along with Peacemaker, who instantly needs to get laid once released and doesn’t comprehend woke culture. Murn remains frustratingly vague as well on the mission, which involves stopping a scheme known as “Project Butterfly.” Before he can do any serious killing, Peacemaker reunites with his “best friend,” the loyal bald eagle Eagle-y and gets re-suited by his father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), a cantankerous old racist. 

“Peacemaker” doesn’t boast the visual wildness of Gunn’s movie comic book adaptations like “The Suicide Squad” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” over at Marvel. He directs the material like a throwback to ‘90s television. This is also part of how he subverts the genre. Clearly he loves the source material and doesn’t posture with trying to transform it into “serious” Peak TV. From the opening credits where everyone dances to Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” with neon credits, “Peacemaker” is about goofy laughs mixed with some edgier satire that mocks both itself and society. In “Suicide Squad” Peacemaker was essentially a representation of American imperialism, walking around the South American island of Corto Maltese like he owned the place, nonchalant blowing people away. As a TV regular, he’s a hero out of flyover country, still rocking out to ‘80s metal (viewers will rediscover Cinderella), driving an American flag-painted car, and shocked as to why he can’t say things like “sugar tits” around the team. At least deep down we sense Peacemaker has a good heart. His father Auggie watches an Alex Jones-inspired loudmouth on TV all day and spews his views on the “deep state,” immigrants and how Peacemaker is a disappointment. 

The core plot of “Peacemaker” boils down to another one of those nefarious creature invasions superheroes are called on to stop. For most of the season it’s unclear what exactly the invaders want. A challenge for the series to keep its momentum is that the jokes and characters are infinitely more entertaining than their purpose for coming together. Gunn introduces the monster threat with a rowdy scene where Peacemaker finally finds a one-night stand, but she turns out to be one of the killer critters. Following the explosive climax of that moment, following chapters are taken over by the quirks of this whole world. Peacemaker can’t kill anyone unless his weapon has a “dove of peace” engraved on it. He has a buddy, Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), a hilariously nuts hanger on who is also more cold-blooded when an assignment requires taking out children. These are not the kinds of friends most of us imagine ever wanting. When captured by a villain, Peacemaker thinks he’s doing good by allowing Vigilante to get one of his toes chopped off. The sweetest character is Eagle-y, who fills the required curious creature spot typical of Gunn with Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and King Shark in “Suicide Squad.”

Gunn has a natural kinship with misfits that colors his comic book movies and resonates here as well. Murn’s team is really a bunch of screw-ups. Adebayo is endearing because she’s so hesitant, or endures the humiliation of her wife’s sexting pics pop up during a mission review. She has a particular secret that connects nicely to “The Suicide Squad.” Peacemaker instantly crushes on Harcourt, who expectedly hides her feelings beneath a tough exterior. Peacemaker also develops one of the show’s funniest recurring banters with Economos by calling him “Dye Beard” over and over for the obviously manipulated shade of his facial hair. John Cena was a surprise comedic hit in “The Suicide Squad” and shows it off even more in the show as a costumed jerk with emotional scars. Gunn understands how comic book personalities are written with the nuances of novels within the range of the genre. Peacemaker is a caricature and also a plausible personality. He’s a misfit because he grew up under the shadow of a domineering, fascist dad who crippled his emotional growth. If you don’t get that, then you’ll never understand why comic book readers are so devoted to the genre.

Even when the story runs thin, Gunn splashes episodes with funny carnage and other gags. There’s a small bodyguard, Judomaster (Nhut Le) who gets even more dangerous once Peacemaker makes fun of his size. Plenty of crude sex and penis jokes abound, which isn’t so senseless when you consider Peacemaker isn’t as bad as the previous inhabitant of the Oval Office. “Peacemaker” may not be the greatest superhero show of all time, but it’s bawdy in a time when the MCU’s own offerings at Disney Plus may be both very creative and pretentiously high-brow. “Peacemaker” is an anti-hero entertainment that has a good time being both absurd and observant. There is no better personification of the state of the republic than a buffed helmeted guy with a big, glistening gun on his hip, who still dances to cock rock and walks around with a bald eagle ready to peck at intruders.

Peacemaker” season one begins streaming Jan. 13 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.