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

By Nina Metz

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!”

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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