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Peacemaker Season 1 review: James Gunn wins again with Suicide Squad spinoff

When it comes to Marvel and DC Comics, there’s little agreement among the loyal fans of each franchise and their cinematic universes. However, there’s one person both sides are likely to feel similarly about: Filmmaker James Gunn, who’s been an equal-opportunity superhero star-maker in recent years.

The writer and director of Marvel’s blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy films and 2021’s The Suicide Squad for DC parent company Warner Bros. Pictures, Gunn returns to the world of the latter for the HBO Max series Peacemaker. A spinoff from the R-rated 2021 sequel The Suicide SquadPeacemaker puts John Cena’s titular, silver-helmeted character front and center for another high-stakes mission alongside returning characters from The Suicide Squad (not to be confused with its predecessor — the article-less Suicide Squad) and several DC Comics heroes and villains making their live-action debuts.

Digital Trends received an early look at the first seven episodes of the series’ eight-episode first season. And much like The Suicide SquadPeacemaker succeeds on the strength of its ensemble cast and Gunn’s signature blend of over-the-top action, clever storytelling, and irreverent, self-aware humor.

John Cena, right, and the cast of HBO Max series Peacemaker.

No notes needed

Although Peacemaker is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Suicide Squad, you don’t need to have seen the latter in order to understand the series, which picks up shortly after the events of the film. The show makes quick work of summarizing the noteworthy plot so far, both for Cena’s aspiring, meat-headed hero and the black ops agents who find themselves reluctantly working with him again.

Newly released from prison and struggling to find his place in society and the superhero world, Peacemaker finds his pursuit of peace at all costs (“no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill  for it”) challenged by the lessons of his past and his experiences with Task Force X that were depicted in the film.

Joining Cena in the series are returning The Suicide Squad cast members Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland, playing former Task Force X handlers John Economos and Emilia Harcourt, respectively, as well as newcomers Danielle Brooks and Chukwudi Iwuji as additional members of Peacemaker’s team. Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) plays Peacemaker’s sadistic father, while Freddie Stroma (Bridgerton) plays Peacemaker’s friend (and fellow costumed killer) Vigilante.

John Cena, Danielle Brooks, and Jennifer Holland in the HBO Max series Peacemaker.

The part when we dance

While there’s a compelling story and fun performances all around in Peacemaker, the series’ musical opening theme is worthy of a callout all its own.

At a time when elaborate, memorable opening sequences have become the norm, the synchronized dance to Wig Wam’s Do Ya Wanna Taste It that opens each episode of Peacemaker is hilariously on-brand for Gunn’s oeuvre (which has never shied away from memorable musical moments), and sets the tone for everything that’s to come over the show’s first eight episodes. It’s a silly, wonderfully performed little ingredient of Peacemaker that’s easy to end up looking forward to with each episode.

Peacemaker (2022)
tv-ma 1 Season
Genre Action & Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Cast John Cena, Steve Agee, Danielle Brooks
Created by James Gunn

Democracy rules

Much like Gunn’s other superhero — or supervillain — ensemble films, Peacemaker also strikes a smart balance between all of its characters, giving each of them time to shine in ways that create some unexpected fan favorites.

Stroma’s Vigilante, for example, might be the show’s breakout character, mixing a social awkwardness firmly set somewhere on the spectrum with a cornucopia of psychotic tendencies that make him as deadly as he is sympathetic and endearing. As Peacemaker’s abusive, manipulative father, Patrick also delivers another truly menacing performance playing a character who harbors some dark secrets of his own.

Maybe the best of the bunch among the show’s supporting cast, though, is Orange is the New Black actress Danielle Brooks, whose character is uniquely positioned as the audience’s surrogate of sorts. Brooks’ Leota Adebayo is thrust into a world of superpowered heroes and villains and secret agencies that she’s forced to roll with as she tries to wrap her head around the insanity of it all, and her attempts to do the latter filter all the superhuman happenings through a genuinely human perspective.

Freddie Stroma and John Cena in the HBO Max series Peacemaker.

You can see him

Of course, there wouldn’t be a Peacemaker series without Cena’s return as the title character, and the actor doesn’t miss a step as he pivots from being one crazy character among many in The Suicide Squad to arguably the craziest character of them all in this series.

He’s not asked to carry the series on his own, but Cena still does plenty of heavy lifting as the show dives into Peacemaker’s early years and explores the traumatic events that led him to become the deluded, jingo murderer introduced in The Suicide Squad. Whether he’s solo dancing to glam rock, dispatching a crowd of heavily armed white supremacists, or working through an intense emotional episode, Cena looks impressively at ease in the role and everything it requires of him.

Gunn packs plenty of nuance into the show’s characters. But Peacemaker’s evolution isn’t exactly subtle — like the character himself — and it plays well to Cena’s overt, active style of performance. It’s no small feat to rehabilitate Peacemaker’s image after the events of The Suicide Squad, but Gunn and Cena make it look natural.

John Cena in the HBO Max series Peacemaker.

Head-punching with heart

Gunn has a knack for finding the heart in wild stories, no matter how colorful the characters. Although Peacemaker offers a more grounded story than The Suicide Squad — and the Guardians of the Galaxy films, for that matter — it still manages to be just as fun and unpredictable as those films without sacrificing any of its emotional heft.

Loud, raunchy, gory, and hilarious, Peacemaker feels perfectly in sync with both the spirit and tone of The Suicide Squad, and offers another reason why Gunn’s tremendous talents might be the one thing Marvel and DC fans can both agree on.

Season 1 of Peacemaker premieres January 13 on HBO Max.

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