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'Peacemaker' review: John Cena is a big, dumb hero in a helmet in this fun 'Suicide Squad' spinoff

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

A spinoff of director James Gunn’s reboot of “The Suicide Squad,” which came out just six months ago, the HBO Max series “Peacemaker” might be the closest thing to a comic book adaptation that appeals to my sensibilities. It’s ridiculous and knows it’s ridiculous, with a fully R-rated Saturday morning cartoon sensibility that refuses to take itself too seriously. With John Cena in the title role — a ding-dong with muscles who nonsensically proclaims, “I made a vow to have peace no matter how many people I have to kill to get it” — the show is big, dumb, rollicking fun. I like it a lot.

I think it’s also worthy of some skepticism in the way it positions toxic masculinity as something childlike and even endearing when epitomized by Peacemaker, and also, conversely, a thing that has victimized him more than anyone else in this story. It’s a deft and cynical bit of spin delivered in such enjoyably comedic packaging you may not notice it at first. The show is very self-aware and doing a lot of this overtly — of course you’re meant to laugh at his oafishness, which prompts eye rolls rather than alarm bells from those around him — but I’m interested in digging down another layer and thinking through the ways this framing intentionally paints a person like this as harmless and sympathetic, even.

Peacemaker first appeared in a 1966 DC Comic and Gunn (who is the show’s creator and whose previous credits include the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films) has a proven track record when it comes providing an alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more chaste and family friendly quippery. Nudity, sex and pot smoking abound and this is a show that understands the value of silliness. It would never make the mistake of turning plot or character development into dark, brooding material. The corny dance choreography of the opening credits (which look like they were shot on an old Glamour Shot set from the ‘80s) epitomizes the show’s goofy, winking sensibility.

So, here we are: Peacemaker is recruited to join a small, ragtag, off-the-books team working a secret operation to take down some parasitic aliens who are walking undetected among us. That’s it. That’s the mission. I appreciate the simplicity of it and the stakes feel about right; the world isn’t on the brink of annihilation, there’s just this pesky invasive species thing to deal with, and Peacemaker and his compadres — the group’s cooly mysterious leader Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), flinty ex-CIA operative Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), schlumpy computer hacker Economos (Steve Agee), chatty fifth wheel superhero Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) and overwhelmed newbie Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) — are more or less the equivalent of a pest control crew. As Peacemaker himself, Cena is pretty good without being great; he’s playing a guy who is wonderfully dull but enormously watchable: A himbo in a helmet.

The assignment becomes even more complicated when a pair of local cops gum up the group’s efforts and mayhem ensues. Peacemaker’s best pal (a CGI bald eagle called Eagly) makes frequent appearances, as does his Klan-adjacent dad (Robert Patrick), who anchors a side plot that has nothing to do with aliens and everything to do with some of my critiques above. More on that in a moment.

Adebayo is the most “normal” of the group — a person without any special prior training who is abruptly thrust into this chaos — and she is the only one besides Peacemaker and Vigilante who gets something resembling a back story or an interiority, and Brooks makes the most of it. She’s easy screen company here, playing a woman who is relatably out of her depth amid these very intense black ops experts, when she’d much rather be at home hanging out with her wife and playing with their dogs.

 

But more than that, I’m curious about how Gunn positions Adebayo in relation to Peacemaker, who she acknowledges is “sexist (and) probably racist, but there’s something else about him that’s” — she pauses in sympathetic contemplation — “sad.” It’s really remarkable that Gunn has her more or less shrug off the “sexist and probably racist” part because ... Peacemaker is a sad boy. Consider this exchange they have about his father, who Peacemaker admits has issues.

Adebayo: “Issues? He’s a white supremacist who used to dress up as a super villain called the White Dragon.”

Peacemaker: “He’s not as bad as he seems.”

Adebayo: “He thinks people with my color skin are second class citizens!”

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