First look TV review: Peacemaker Season 1
5 / 5 ( 1 vote )
Written by Arthur
John Cena relishes the chance to take centre stage in James Gunn’s darkly entertaining superhero satire.
Peace, by any means necessary. That’s the philosophy of Peacemaker, aka. Chris, who first appeared on our screens in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Played by John Cena with a mix of loud stupidity and total conviction, he was as much bad guy as he was antihero, and promptly stole the whole show. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that he should get his own solo outing – or that the end result turns out to be rather entertaining.
Peacemaker’s appeal lays right at the intersection between appropriate and inappropriate, with Gunn leaning into the satirical possibilities of an all-American white male convinced that he’s the sole answer to all of the world’s problems. HBO Max’s eight-part series understands that, wasting no opportunity for Peacemaker to say politically incorrect things – but, crucially, it also has the nous to surround him with characters calling him out for every wrong comment or action, giving them the one-liners and making sure that he’s the punchline.
Chief among them is Jennifer Holland’s Emilia Harcourt, from The Suicide Squad, who helps to recruit Peacemaker to join a black ops unit tasked with a dangerous mission. She’s as cynical as she is determined and sarcastic as she is intimidating. She’s brilliantly contrasted with Danielle Brooks’ Leota Adebayo, the young newcomer to the team who has her own reasons for getting the gig and a nervous sincerity that gives her pointed retorts and fast-talking humour a charmingly sincere warmth. They’re joined by the entertainingly spiky Steve Agee as the team’s tech nerd John Economos and the coolly mysterious Chukwudi Iwuji as team leader Mr Murn. Oh, and Eagly – that’s Peacemaker’s pet eagle. And yes, they do hug each other.
The latter is the kind of flourish that Gunn enjoys wielding with a knack for surprising absurdity even when you most expect it, and the script is stuffed with visual and verbal jokes deliberately placed to wrong-foot you. Also keeping you on your toes is the way that show veers unexpectedly into serious territory, as we get to know more about Peacemaker’s dad – Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick) – who associates with white supremacists and conspiracy nuts and loves nothing more than to insult his son. It’s a genuinely villainous turn that taps into something of how Peacemaker’s misguided mindset might have been formed, and that lingering commentary on toxic masculinity and modern America gives the series a quietly dark punch. It’s compounded by the presence of goofy sidekick Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), an unnerving send-up of the kind of sociopath who thinks that they are justified in taking justice into their own hands.
At the same time, there’s also something oddly endearing about Peacemaker’s gradual arc of understanding and development, as he does seem to grow as a person and a human. That’s partly thanks to the script, which pits Peacemaker against an extra-terrestrial threat to try and draw its moral lines more clearly. The six-hour runtime, however, means that the show inevitably tries to have its cake and eat it, balancing out every well-observed moment with something self-indulgent and puerile, leaving you wondering at times where it’s aiming its graphic sights – high or low?
But it’s Cena who holds this unlikely bag of ideas together with just enough coherence for it to work. He’s entirely committed to the brief, whether it’s singing along to The Quireboys in his underwear or jumping off a balcony without pausing to think. Not unlike Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street, it’s a disarmingly vulnerable performance from Cena, one that sells the action but also asks us to invest, to some degree, in one man’s search for peace within himself as much as the world around him. Plus there’s an opening credits dance number to keep you coming back for more.