‘Peacemaker’ Review: The Amusing Douchebag Character From ‘Suicide Squad’ Is Just Obnoxious On His Own

HBO Max’sPeacemaker” show from writer/director James Gunn is a classic case of miscalculation and perhaps becoming so enamored (and indulging) in a too much of a good thing equation you forget the overall math. Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad,” arguably the most creatively satisfying and best superhero movie of 2021, is a terrifically calibrated mix of Gunn’s current and old sensibilities: the gore, offensiveness, and vulgarity of his nascent Troma beginnings and the empathy-for-people wisdom he’s gained in his humbling post-Disney firing. It all culminated in a heartening story that Gunn loves and often returns to beautiful oddball losers (see ‘Guardians Of the Galaxy’) and the meek inheriting the earth.

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One of “The Suicide Squad” standouts is the douchebag character Peacemaker (John Cena). This jingoistic, Trump-ian, gun-toting meathead who provided a lot of laughs with his misguided and oxymoronic, “I cherish peace with all my heart. I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it,” ethos. But Peacemaker works so perfectly in ‘Suicide Squad’ precisely because he functions as a contrasting musical ingredient in a larger tune—the bridge/middle eight comedy relief of Gunn’s film with a supporting role that leaves you wanting more. In Gunn’s “Peacemaker” limited series, the obnoxious, vainglorious anti-hero, aka Christopher Smith, is the entire song, and it’s a grating note that wears out its welcome incredibly fast.

“Peacemaker” picks up a few months after the events of “The Suicide Squad,” Peacemaker having healed from his seemingly mortally wounded injuries and ready for discharge (spoiler: he turned heel, slew Task Force X team leader Rick Flagg, and then was nearly killed by Bloodsport). Peacemaker “escapes,” delusionally thinking he’s scott free, but the eyes and ears of Task Force X and its merciless manager Amanda Waller (a briefly seen Viola Davis) are always watching and listening.

Much to his chagrin, Peacemaker soon realizes Task Force X has caught up with him, and they have a new coercing mission: join them in uncovering the secretive Project Butterfly project they must uncover, and act as their assassin, or go back to jail for his various crimes, compounded for the murder of Flagg. Two of the key ‘Suicide Squad’ Taskforce X team are back: hard-as-nails NSA agent Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and computer whiz John Economos (Steve Agee). They are joined by two new team members, both harboring secrets from their comrades, their tough new field leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), and newbie field agent Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks).

It doesn’t take long to figure out why Waller would entrust an inexperienced neophyte on this mission: she’s a mole meant to report to her boss on the operation’s progress. But Adebayo, a Black lesbian with a wife she is trying to appease, in many ways also becomes the second voice of the show, a contrasting polar opposite of Peacemaker’s views, that balances out his politically ugly, outdated, and toxic views.

Additionally, there’s a new goofy comic relief, Adrian Chase, aka Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), so unhinged and sociopathic, he makes Peacemaker cringe both in his views and psychotic actions. Suppose you know merciless Vigilante from the comics. In that case, this is a different version: a simp who is so painfully desperate to be Peacemaker’s BFF he somehow still manages to repel the narcissist’s need to be loved, enamored and center stage. Also factoring into the story is Peacemaker’s father, the white power racist and criminal Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick). Nhut Le also appears as the comically tiny but deadly villain Judomaster.

The plot of “Peacemaker”—uncovering the mysterious forces behind Project Butterfly—is really beside the point. This show is essentially a character-driven ensemble piece, which sounds great on paper but is lacking in practice and execution. The problem is simple— if ‘The Suicide Squad was 31 flavors of various types of damaged nutjobs— “Peacemaker” is essentially just a vanilla swirl of semi-competent assholes being cruel jackasses to one another. While briefly amusing at first, the series just does not have the same wit or mileage as “The Suicide Squad,” often because it misjudges how much time we want to spend time with its lead blowhard character (not a lot, to be honest) and does not build an interesting coterie around him. Though Gunn tries to make Peacemaker a sympathetic figure with a good heart buried underneath all the antiquated neanderthalism of his character—he’s sexist, borderline racist at best, and deeply problematic by today’s standards— while attempting to justify his behavior by showing his traumatic upbringing, none of it really convinces. Furthermore, “Peacemaker” fails to be more than just an ironic look at toxic shitheads and quickly becomes tedious, and more importantly, isn’t all that funny or engaging.

Writing a jagoff character like Peacemaker is probably a lot of fun. You get to embrace your inner asshole, all your provocative politically incorrect instincts, and muck around in the noxious political discourse of “woke” leftists vs. nutball extremists. But a lot of it is obvious, juvenile, self-satisfied, and never as clever as it thinks it is. Moreover, Peacemaker is an insufferable, cocky jackass, and so the show is a self-fulfilling prophecy of that doubled-down tone. For Gunn, that means a thickheaded, deplorable worldview, a conceited dipshit with an inflated sense of self and all the nuance and texture of a Mötley Crüe concert. In fact, the TLDR version of this review is Peacemaker as a braggadocio hair metal show. To that end, the series is slathered in ’80s hair-rock, groups like Cinderella, Hanoi Rocks, L.A. Guns, and a lot of genuinely corny and cheesy bands that only feed into the character’s insufferable tenor. Gunn also picks bands and songs that are genuinely cringe-worthy (Wig Wam, Kissin Dynamite, Foxy Shazam), and clearly, for him, so much of it is so bad, it’s so good. But for anyone not enjoying the winking irony of it all (the songs and the show), it’s just simply an orgy of douchebaggery that’s intolerable, not to mention disappointing considering how entertaining ‘Suicide Squad’ is. The comic-book-y goofiness of that movie is really enjoyable, Starro’s creature and all. Here? That same tone is dopey and missing the same mark.

So far, many of the superhero shows invading TV (Marvel and DC) have been a be careful what you wish for propositions: want more character and less mindless action? Well, that only works when the characters are multi-dimensional and the writing is top-notch. Argue all you want, about what’s been seen on Disney+ so far (and the less said about the embarrassing DC/The CW, the better), but “Peacemaker” does not make a case for its main character’s existence beyond the big screen, let alone as the front and center lead. [C-]

“Peacemaker” debuts on HBO Max on January 13.