The below is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of Peacemaker, which premiere on HBO Max Jan. 13.
James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad used a mix of absurdist humor and gratuitous violence to revive the DC franchise while providing some solid commentary on The U.S.’ history of meddling in Latin American countries and conducting horrific experiments on those deemed expendable. The three-episode premiere of Peacemaker, Gunn’s spinoff series for HBO Max, uses the same formula, and it scores by alternating between being deeply silly and weird and delivering biting social critiques.
The show follows John Cena’s character from The Suicide Squad, a jingoistic vigilante who has vowed to kill anyone in the name of maintaining peace. Following the film’s post-credits scene, Peacemaker has healed up and placed on Project Butterfly, another mission from the shady U.S. security agency A.R.G.U.S. While Viola Davis does make a cameo as A.R.G.U.S. director Amanda Waller, Peacemaker is mostly working with the aides that disobeyed her in the movie, an arrangement that seems to be a punishment for everyone involved.
Peacemaker quickly becomes a significantly more sympathetic character than he was in Gunn’s film, even if he is exasperating to his teammates such as Belle Reve warden John Economos (Steve Agee), who Peacemaker constantly accuses of dying his beard. Cena has a great sense of humor and seemingly no shame as he plays a sad-sack heel whose best friend is his bald eagle sidekick, Eagly. For instance, episode two opens with him wearing just his mask, some blood streaks, and a pair of tighty whities as he scrambles to cope with the bad decisions he made at the end of the previous episode.
Gunn really pushes his whole cast to embrace the show’s goofiness with a big opening dance number set to Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It.” Gunn’s fondness for music is on full display throughout the three-episode premiere, with a soundtrack dominated by rock and metal. Characters’ favorite albums periodically turn into plot points.
The show is filled with silly, meta dialogue, like Peacemaker pointing out that Project Starfish ended with a fight against a giant Starfish and asking if being part of Project Butterfly means he’s going to get a jetpack to fight Mothra. Waller’s crew in The Suicide Squad were able to capture the same sort of monstrous working banter found in The Cabin in the Woods, and they haven’t lost that here. For instance, fellow Suicide Squad alum field agent Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) dryly mentions that she’s “living the dream” on a stakeout where she’s likely to do a pretty unglamorous and morally grey task.
If there’s a singular theme for the show, it’s an indictment of admiration of characters like The Punisher. Like Frank Castle’s skull, Peacemaker believes his dove of peace is a symbol of inspiration for those who see it. In fact, he actually refuses to kill people without weapons detailed with his logo because it lends righteousness to his cause, though he’ll grudgingly draw a blob-like bird on a gun in a pinch. The entire concept of justified murder is called into question by Harcourt’s ruthlessness compared to team newcomer and relative innocent Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black), who would prefer a more merciful approach, introducing what will likely be an interesting morality struggle throughout the season. On the even further extreme is Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), Peacemaker’s self-described best friend and an utter sociopath.
The Tick previously did an excellent job parodying The Punisher and what he stands for with the character of Overkill, but Peacemaker aligns more closely with Watchmen and The Boys by also using the genre to reckon with white supremacy. A running gag is that people think Peacemaker is racist even though he points out that he’s “killed a fair amount of white people, too.” Peacemaker comes across as more clueless than hateful, but that’s actually a disappointment to his father Augie Smith, played by Robert Patrick with all his signature sinister menace.
Peacemaker and Bloodsport (Idris Elba) shared horror stories of the men that turned them into killers in The Suicide Squad. Meeting Augie, it’s impressive that Peacemaker isn’t even more of a monster. Gunn pushes the envelope throughout the first three episodes with violence and genital shots, but it’s Augie’s dialogue that’s likely to be the most controversial part of the series. He unleashes a string of racist and homophobic slurs as he berates his son for his failings. A chilling reveal about Augie at the end of episode two, meanwhile, leaves plenty of room for further development of his character and how he shaped Peacemaker.
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