The opening credits for “Peacemaker” feature John Cena and the rest of the cast in a choreographed dance number that is joyously goofy, setting the tone for what’s to come. If only this HBO Max series spun out of “The Suicide Squad” was consistently as good, despite (and partly because of) the freedom afforded writer-director James Gunn to utterly cut loose.
In what feels like a very Marvel-ous maneuver, Gunn planted the seeds for the show in the “Squad” movie released in August, moving Cena’s weapons-expert assassin from an ensemble to center stage, surrounded by new characters and bizarre sci-fi-style threat to humanity, albeit at a very slow-moving pace.
Cena’s bulky physique belies just how comfortable he is playing the clown, and “Peacemaker” allows both him and Gunn an opportunity to indulge that in the most R-rated manner possible with precious little adult supervision.
Having as much fun as they appear to be is, alas, another matter. Even for comic-book geeks, the crush of winking jokes and coy references to more respectable quadrants of the DC universe begin to feel overdone, narrowing the project’s appeal. Similarly, although some of those insider-ish moments are clever, as often as not they’re simply juvenile.
Granted, that general attitude worked for “Deadpool,” and even if the attraction is limited to a cultish contingent, that’s probably good enough for a streaming service looking to build loyalty (like CNN, HBO Max is a unit of WarnerMedia). Even so, “Peacemaker” feels a little too committed to playing in the superhero genre’s small-ball zone.
After his near-death experience in the movie, Cena’s Peacemaker is released into the custody of an elite team, charged with performing assassinations to stave off an existential peril basically hiding in plain view. The squad includes another new arrival (“Orange is the New Black’s” Danielle Brooks) bearing her own secret, an intense leader (Chukwudi Iwuji) and his second in command (Jennifer Holland), with whom Peacemaker keeps clumsily flirting despite her stated lack of interest.
Adding to the silliness is the Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), another costume-clad assassin who looks up to Peacemaker and is even more unapologetically psychotic.
Eventually, the various strands begin to coalesce, but Gunn — who wrote all eight episodes, and directed several — appears far more enamored with the overall atmosphere than in advancing the story, indulging in detours and musical flourishes along the way. That includes a grim subplot involving Peacemaker’s dad (Robert Patrick), a White supremacist whose history is dark even by the show’s anything-goes standards.
At eight episodes, “Peacemaker” represents both a fairly breezy binge and an illustration of the excesses that streaming enables as an an enticement to attract big-name talent. While there wouldn’t have been much theatrical market for a dedicated spinoff, on HBO Max — already the home to DC series like “Titans” and “Doom Patrol” — it’s more ammunition to retain hard-core fans, and creatively speaking, all bets are off.
By that measure “Peacemaker” doesn’t exactly miss, at least for those predisposed to buy into it. But even allowing for that, and Gunn’s shotgun approach to comedy, nor does it completely find its target.
“Peacemaker” premieres Jan. 13 on HBO Max with its first three episodes.
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