Even before The Suicide Squad (2021) was released, there was already news that filmmaker James Gunn would be working with John Cena to create a spin-off series based on his character, Peacemaker. Despite my being a fan of Gunn’s from his early career and very offbeat indie work, I wasn’t too sold on the idea of Cena being the lead in a series. Sure he is beloved by WWE fans, but his film work has been here and there (mostly there) and while he was fun to watch in The Suicide Squad he was working in an ensemble with other very good actors.
Now that we have a full season of Peacemaker, I am squarely on the side of the converted. The series has been interesting, well-paced, darkly humorous, and a lot of fun. We see across the eight episodes how deft James Gunn is at blending so many different tones and ideas. Most of the world already knows how good he is at blending action, comedy, and character work. But there’s a more mischievous sense of humor on display here. Also here are the body horror and gore played for both fear and humor that featured more in his early work.
First things first, do we need an eight-hour series spin-off? No, not really. I mean, in terms of the things that we need in the world, I don’t suppose that too many of us walked away from The Suicide Squad thinking that we wanted more of Peacemaker. But that’s perhaps one of the series’ strong suits.
Sure, it always makes sense to do a Superman show, or a Batman spin. And we see Marvel giving their various characters either features or shows. But no one expects to see Peacemaker, who turns out to be a pretty bad dude by the end of the movie, to be the main character. He just seems counterintuitive to the kind of superhero series that we expect to see.
This setup makes the show totally open and mostly unpredictable. Because we have never dealt with a character like this extensively in a lead role, it’s like Gunn and Cena have a blank canvas. And the two are outstanding in making things surprising, offbeat, and just the right kind of weird.
If you needed a taste, all you need is to watch the show’s opening credits. It gives you a strong sense of the show’s tone and feel, but also doesn’t give you any indication of where the story will run. You’re left guessing. And while there are elements here that are par for the course for superhero stuff, there’s more than enough that’s new, unique, and interesting.
Shortly after the events of The Suicide Squad film, Peacemaker wakes up from a coma. But even before he can try to return to his life, he is recruited by a special ops groups working under Amanda Waller. They plan to use his skills to eliminate a threat to the world. Sort of standard stuff.
What’s different here is that Gunn actually uses the base elements to build out new approaches to the genre. Sure he was brilliant in bringing together a sentient tree and a raccoon, but in this politically charged time he brings together an Edgelord with a racially and gender-diverse team. Some might not like it, but Gunn injects a dose of progressive politics amid all the mayhem.
Now here’s where I might find some of this narrative problematic. Peacemaker embodies toxic masculinity, edgelords, and the kinds of people who call other people “wokes” and snowflakes. He does some really horrible things in The Suicide Squad. And as the main character in his own show, he does get a redemption arc. Even more than a redemption arc, we are offered a rationalization for why he is how he is.
Some of the most interesting work that John Cena does here is show vulnerability and actually how messed up Peacemaker is. Again, he is willing to do anything for peace, especially to kill. That’s his vow. It is quite patently stupid and part of what makes this character so interesting is that he can be so incredibly oblivious, so totally lacking in self-awareness. Throughout the series we see the worst things about this character, including how much of a bully he can be. And then we are shown the kind of trauma and abuse the character endured which made him this way. It is problematic in that it might ask us to think about and empathize with this guy who is both abuser and abused.
There are no easy answers here. And in fact it’s in this kind of discomfort that I think narratives like this really work. If we were dealing with something firmly rooted in reality, it would be much more difficult to think and problematize these things. But here, within the superhero genre, there’s this layer of “safety” which means that we can at least come at these conflicting and challenging ideas. And of course whenever things might get too emotional or heavy, stuff blows up, characters are attacked, and so on.
What really makes the show though, beyond Cena’s surprisingly good performance, is the supporting cast that gets built around him. A mix of new characters and people we met in the movie, this supporting cast forces Peacemaker to grow, challenges his assumptions, and provides us as the audience with a number of perspectives.
All of these interesting ideas are wrapped up in a really well-paced superhero action-adventure. There’s a tendency to fall into some repetition, which is I guess what happens when you need to extend a narrative. But watching it week to week as opposed to in a binge meant that I wasn’t too bothered by things not moving as briskly as they could. Overall, the internet seems to think that Peacemaker is one of the best shows to come out recently, and I’m inclined to agree. It does so many interesting things, and even though parts of it can be really problematic, I would much prefer that we have work that is problematic and needs to be contended with. – Rappler.com