Peacemaker Review: The Suicide Squad Spin-Off May Be James Gunn's Vulgar, Violent Masterpiece

Writer and director James Gunn is a master of combining dark humor with heartfelt earnestness to create some of the weirdest, most wonderful movies in all of cinema. With "The Suicide Squad," he was given keys to the biggest possible playground, the DC Comics universe, and he delivered a story about found friendship among society's rejects that both embraced and subverted the superhero genre. With his new series, "Peacemaker," starring John Cena as the toilet-bowl-helmeted sorta-hero, Gunn takes his particular brand of shocking and surprisingly sentimental storytelling even further than ever before. "Peacemaker" features all of Gunn's great hallmarks, and fans of his previous work will see direct connections to not only his big-budget comic book movies, but his early work like "Slither" and "Super." 

"Peacemaker" seems like a silly juvenile romp from the outset, but it ends up being a thought-provoking meditation on trauma, parental manipulation, the patriarchy, and so much more. Though I only screened the first seven episodes (Warner Bros. didn't send the finale, likely due to a rise in spoiler leaks elsewhere in recent months), I think this is very likely the greatest creative achievement Gunn has ever made. It's his masterpiece, a thoughtful and hilariously vulgar take on not only the fictional world of the DCEU, but our own as well. It's also probably the most violent and emotionally challenging thing he's ever made, so fans should prepare themselves for some tough content. 

What Makes a Hero?

Peacemaker, real name Chris Smith, played by Cena, isn't the most likable character in "The Suicide Squad." He's kind of a jerk, to put it mildly, and "Peacemaker" picks up right where "The Suicide Squad" left off. Chris wakes up in a hospital, is set free, and then gets his home invaded by a team of black ops agents working for Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who inform him that he only stays free if he works with them. Executive producer Matt Miller described "Peacemaker" as "like 'The Office' as a superhero show," and that's not a terrible assessment. "Peacemaker" follows this rag-tag crew of pencil pushers and special operatives as they try to work together to stop an alien invasion in a secret "Project Butterfly." 

There are two driving conflicts in "Peacemaker": the team learning to work together and trust one another, and Chris learning to be a decent person. These end up going hand-in-hand, as the team inspire Peacemaker to be better, and they offer plenty of help along the way. The team, comprised of steely badass Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), former mercenary Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), "The Suicide Squad" alum John Economos (Steve Agee), absolute newbie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), and fellow costumed hero and idiot Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), each have their own personal battles as well. Gunn loves his gangs of misfits, and the crew of "Peacemaker" are no exception. The cast have fantastic chemistry and they end up creating a group of characters you root for in spite of everything. 

While the bromance between Vigilante and Peacemaker is a lot of fun, the friendship that forms between Adebayo and Chris is the one that ends up being the series' beating heart. These two characters can teach each other so much, and make us laugh a lot along the way. In the very first episode, Peacemaker repeatedly says and does things that are inappropriate, and Adebayo calls him on them all. She challenges his notions about the world and forces him to grow up a bit, all the while realizing that she misjudged him a bit, too. If "The Suicide Squad" started Gunn's exploration into second chances and redemption, "Peacemaker" takes it a big step further. 

You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Possibly Vomit

Don't get me wrong: "Peacemaker" is really funny. Gut-bustingly, side-splittingly, the-dog-stared-at-me-like-I-was-insane funny. It's also just a heartbreaking exploration of heavy themes including parental abuse, misogyny, homophobia, racism, American exceptionalism, trauma as an excuse for bad behavior, and much more. Gunn pulls exactly zero punches, and the villains are truly despicable. One central villain spews racist and homophobic slurs with the venom of a conservative news pundit, and even though those words are coming from a clear villain, they still contain a lot of raw power. The violence is intense, too: if you thought Pete Davidson's beach sequence in "The Suicide Squad" was too much, then "Peacemaker" is definitely not the show for you. 

While series like "Invincible" and "The Boys" are taking on comic books through the lens of satire, "Peacemaker" is a character-driven story with decidedly more personal stakes. The world-saving stuff is still there, but it takes a backseat to these characters figuring themselves out. Fans of Gunn's other work will find themselves drawing a lot of comparisons to his 2010 dramedy "Super," both in themes and tone. Yes, you'll get to see Cena singing hair metal and dancing in his skivvies, but you're also going to see him have a complete emotional breakdown. The emotional whiplash can be a little jarring to viewers who aren't expecting it, but it's pure Gunn goodness. Fans looking to see a bunch of references to the rest of the DCEU will probably be disappointed, though there are a lot of great references to the sex lives of various superheroes. 

"Peacemaker" is tough. On the one hand, it's a hilarious '80s-tinged romp about some incredibly charismatic morons and their team of handlers, but on the other it's about deeply damaged human beings working through their trauma in very bloody ways. It is the most mature and immature superhero series in existence, all at the same time. This one is going to be divisive, but I'm a huge fan. The soundtrack is killer (as always with Gunn), the performances are great, the fight scenes have serious impact, and the back half made me cry like a kid with a skinned knee. 

Check out "Peacemaker" when it premieres on HBO Max on January 13, 2021.