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HBO Max's 'Peacemaker' stars John Cena as a very unlikely anti-hero

But “Peacemaker” also tones down some of what made “The Suicide Squad” feel daring, resulting in a show that doesn’t quite pack the fist-in-your-face punch it promises.
Image: John Cena in a scene from \"Peacemaker.\"
John Cena in a scene from "Peacemaker."HBO Max

James Gunn was hired by DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures to all-but-remake the disastrous 2016 “Suicide Squad” only two years after it’s critical debacle. It seemed like a mad proposition. What Warner Bros. wanted was clear enough: a ragtag team of anti-(super)heroes, a la Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” What it got was a schizophrenic take that zoomed between David Ayer’s original ugly dourness and a tone-deaf comedy added in by committee. But Gunn’s subsequent not-exactly-a-sequel revived the brand, revealing how DC Films could find their way out of Marvel’s uber successful, but Disney-inflected shadow — by leaning into Tarantino-esque violence and a hard “R” rating.

Gunn’s singular vision also earned him “Peacemaker:” a John Cena-lead HBO Max adventure that includes all the dirty, wacky antics of the film that spawned it.

Gunn’s singular vision also earned him “Peacemaker,” a John Cena-lead HBO Max adventure that includes all the dirty, wacky antics of the film that spawned it, drawn out into an eight-hour series that is both as delightful as it is utterly unnecessary. A white dude whose ugly ignorance is only dwarfed by his utterly misplaced bravado isn’t most people’s idea of the leading face of a franchise (“WandaVision’s” clever, all-ages friendly meditation on TV this series is not.) In trying to have it both ways, “Peacemaker” ultimately tones down some of what made “The Suicide Squad” feel so fresh and daring, resulting in a show that doesn’t quite pack the full fist-in-your-face punch the set-up promises.

At least on paper, “Peacemaker” has the markers of a prestige TV drama, with Gunn writing all eight episodes himself and serving as showrunner. But prestige seems an odd word to apply to this bizarrely violent, semi gross-out, happily rude series that revels in shocking viewers with long strings of obscene epithets, desiccated bodies of bikini-clad would-be murderers, and Cena — clad only in tighty-whities — performing karaoke into a personal massager.

Cena, who played Peacemaker in the movie to great effect, looks every inch the former WWE wrestler here. However, unlike Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, who made the same leap from ring to A-list, Cena's performance isn’t about charm. He rather seems to be aiming for a self-depreciation so intense it borders on self-humiliation. His over-developed frame is the regular butt of jokes, as is his view of the world, which the show sums up repeatedly as “I’m committed to peace, no matter how many people I have to kill to get it.”

The film initially set up Peacemaker as the major villain of the “Suicide Squad” group. As the anti-hero of this new series, HBO Max has to find a way to make him more sympathetic to viewers, who may remember that he murdered one of the movie’s leading heroes and then died at the end of the film. The latter plot wrinkle was fixed in the movie’s post-credit scene, but the backstory that made him a primary villain still remains. In fact, the series makes sure people know just how awful the character is by summing up Peacemaker’s “The Suicide Squad” behavior before the start of the premiere episode.

Peacemaker is a fierce fighter, but his single-minded “superhero mindset” makes him unable to handle everyday situations. To that end, the show also brings back actors Jennifer Holland and Lochlyn Munro from the film, who reprise their minor character roles as office drones, now promoted to co-starring straight guys. (Notably, the show sidesteps having to pay Viola Davis to return as boss Amanda Waller by subbing in Chukwudi Iwuji as middle manager Clemson Murn.) Meanwhile Peacemaker’s worst characteristics have been toned down: His loudly bigoted opinions from the film are now espoused by his father (Robert Patrick), and his over eagerness to perpetrate violence has been reassigned to his sidekick Vigilante (Freddie Stroma).

The show also introduces a new friend for Peacemaker in Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). She is his complete opposite (nervous, gentle, and kind), though we soon learn they are two peas in a pod when it comes to social awkwardness.

But Gunn’s best weapon in making Peacemaker palatable is old-fashioned storytelling. Instead of treating the series like a mini movie, “Peacemaker” uses its eight hours to slow down and take in the scenery. Some of this extra time is allows Cena to lean all the way into physical comedy scenes that would feel utterly excessive in a two-hour film. But just as much is given over to long, sparse sequences that emphasize the character’s loneliness, and the small sadness of his existence.

Maybe fans will ultimately feel more sympathetic after watching the series. But in attempting to make Peacemaker less problematic (or at least more palatable), Gunn loses some of what made the character work in the first place.

Ultimately, this is far from the most necessary spinoff littering the streaming landscape. But it’s refusal to fit the mold of other multi-platform expansionist stories makes it interesting. Like Peacemaker, who is definitely a different take on the concept of superhero, the show is a different take on these franchise IP exercises. And, ironically, makes it feel more worth watching than it might otherwise be.