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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

Peacemaker: “People change.”

Adebayo: “And he’s actually a good guy inside?”

Peacemaker: “Yeah.”

So, let’s talk about this. It’s ludicrous, right? The show isn’t ignorant of the cognitive dissonance between the phrases “white supremacist” and “actually a good guy inside” and in fact it gets worse because Peacemaker closes the conversation with: “He’s still family.” This is a mindset that really exists and I don’t have a problem with a fictional character embodying it. But he’s never challenged on it beyond this exchange (notably he gets the last word) and the show is telling us in clear terms whose point of view is being prioritized when it’s the protagonist uttering these words. Meanwhile, a gay Black female character is tasked with doing the expositional cleanup work of letting us know he’s actually a good guy — or at least not as bad as his dad, which is at least something, right?

“Cobra Kai” has taken a similar approach with William Zabka’s Johnny, a one-time high school bully who failed to live out his golden boy promise, and he is just as much of a doofus-y, quasi-cuddly Cro-Magnon as Peacemaker in terms of how they interact with the world — and importantly, how the world treats them back. They may prompt an exasperated sigh or two but really they just need a hug. We see their vulnerability, which I think is important, but this also renders their machismo and misogyny and racism as kinda sorta forgivable because, well, at least they’re trying. It’s probably no coincidence that both have a predilection for ‘80s-era hair bands; it’s a disarmingly cheesy and specifically ironic story detail because the aesthetics of hair metal are always going to be in conflict with their aggressively hetero ideas of manhood.

This is how toxic white masculinity often gets laundered in popular media. Look, I get the appeal of these characters — there’s so much potential for comedy in the way they are forever baffled by a changing world around them — but I also think their existence in pop culture is meant to shift, or at least dampen, the way we think and talk about the dangers posed by men like this in real life. They were indoctrinated in their youth to be this way by violently overbearing paternalistic figures and it’s not their fault that they’ve dragged this sensibility with them into adulthood (or so the shows would have you believe) and that they’ve managed to break free from the worst of this is the best we can expect from them. “Cobra Kai’s” Zabka is an especially skilled and nuanced actor who finds a hilarious and hugely effective way to play this kind of buffoonish character. It’s first-rate stuff and he is absolutely deserving of an Emmy nomination. But he and Cena are both fundamentally serving similar functions in their respective shows, what I would describe as the “there, there-ing” of men who do little more than look away (or past) the ugliness around them because the sheer fact that they aren’t curb-stomping anyone is enough.

 

Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the show. You should. You really should! “Peacemaker” is a good time and there’s so much to appreciate about Cena’s performance because there’s not a lot of movie star vanity getting in the way of things. He’s willing to look like a fool and happily so. You’ll develop a soft spot for Peacemaker because of course you will, that’s the power of good writing meeting a canny performance. I’m just saying, it’s worth thinking about why this type of character has been designed to generate your sympathy.

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“Peacemaker” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: HBO Max

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