You can probably guess by now that I am a huge James Gunn stan, and pretty much every project he’s put out in the last 10 years has skyrocketed to the top of my favorites list. He’s not perfect by any means, and can get lost in the weeds of his wild imagination. But “Peacemaker” season 1 is yet another example of how the best Gunn is Gunn unchained.
The formula of a rag tag group of seemingly unlikeable characters facing impossible odds who swear like sailors and lose it over fart jokes yet somehow come around to a rather heartfelt and developed conclusion hasn’t lost its steam yet. “Peacemaker” is no exception, and while the barebones of the series are pretty much a checklist of Gunn Go-Tos, it works. And if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “Peacemaker” season 1 is an absolute delight, packed with fun, violence and irreverence yet somehow managing to tell a heartwarming story about letting go of the past and redefining yourself and your relationships with the people who matter.
The skill of being able to give the people what they want without any deviance from a tried and true formula while STILL being able to deliver twists and turns and shocks is something I don’t think Gunn gets enough credit for. We all know what we’re signing up for when we fire up a James Gunn project, and “Peacemaker” more than delivers on all of it for every single episode. Over the top violence with blood and guts? Check. Snappy, irreverent, toilet humor banter between anyone with a speaking role? Check. Running gags that just barely go on too long? Space alien invasion? Check. Giant, flesh colored, Multi-eyed intergalactic space monster? Check, check, and check. “Peacemaker” quite literally checks every single box of Gunn’s arsenal, yet somehow ends up being exactly what we wanted, needed, and can’t wait for more of.
Rather than rehashing the things I loved about the show from my initial first impressions (review here) and the incredible amount of work that Gunn pours into his projects (here), I want to unpack season one in broader strokes. Namely, highlighting key performances and whether or not the pay off was worth the journey. Gunn gives us a lot to enjoy and talk about in “Peacemaker,” but I’m cognizant of the fact that not everyone has the time or ability to consume media as much as I do throughout the year, so broad brush strokes help to steer clear of spoilers and specific plot points. I would love nothing more than to dedicate an entire episode to the antics of Eagly, but that doesn’t really help to tell the story of whether or not season 1 is worth watching. So if you’re looking for a more in depth, scene by scene recap or a long form rave about the final episode, this is not that review.
That being said, let’s talk about the season as a whole – how it works as a foundation for a continuing series, the narrative execution and pairing of director to performers that sell “Peacemaker,” a few things that don’t work and a quick speed round on the good from the series. It is incredibly difficult to take a fringe character from an even more fringe comic book franchise and put that person front and center and force them to carry a story no one asked for in the first place. Gunn clearly saw something we didn’t back in “The Suicide Squad,” and his backdoor entry (stop laughing…what are you, 12?) into a different side of the same world is the first thing that really sets “Peacemaker” as a whole apart. Gunn didn’t look at his work and ask what do the people want. He looked and said this is what people NEED, and gave a fantastic, funny, heartfelt series that scratched an itch we didn’t even know we had until this series shows up.
“Peacemaker” proves that the DCEU works best when it sheds its self importance and leans into the ridiculousness of it all. We’ve got Batman for brooding, complex commentary on justice and crime. The hard truth is, superheroes are silly and dumb by nature. And while it’s completely fine to transform the silly into meaningful, complex social commentaries and connected story arcs, sometimes we just want a 2 minute scene of characters making fart noises with their mouths. There is nothing wrong with low brow humor so long as it’s done right and contextualized to serve the characters rather than trying to force a laugh from your audience. Farts are funny, and you can’t be so stuffy in your pursuit of high art that you forget that ripping one and laughing with your friends about it wasn’t a part of your youth. “Peacemaker” does this AND gives us characters and stories to care about, something far more difficult to do than we tend to give credit for.
The whole season is wildly funny albeit packed with low hanging fruit jokes, but it is also in line with the very people we are following. From a narrative perspective, the show never lets the humor runaway with the story it’s actually trying to tell. The humor is the vehicle for a more personal and heartfelt story, one that explores personal biases, dark pasts, current social conversations and ya, aliens. Cena’s Peacemaker absolutely feels like the kind of guy who loves rock no one listens to anymore, wholly ignorant about the world around him and is never, ever one to pass up a well placed dick joke. Because it’s not out of character for the majority of the potty mouth cast, it doesn’t feel out of place in the story.
This allows “Peacemaker” to bury its true purpose beneath the surface, and allow the cast to bring out the heart and emotional depth required to make them deeper characters than the humor would show. Everyone is solid here, but the series truly comes to life with John Cena and Freddy Stroma. I will never forgive Hollywood for hiding Stroma from us. I get it; he’s a baby faced Brit with the body of a greek god and all the onscreen charm and charisma to have a lucrative career as a Hallmark movie sweetheart. But “Peacemaker” proves that that is a waste of talent and a massive disservice to what Stroma is actually capable of.
Stroma’s Vigilante is a damn near match made in heaven to Cena’s Peacemaker, matching the star beat for beat, joke for joke, nuance for nuance. It is a showcase of his true capabilities, and I really hope this opens the door for more diverse work for the young actor. “Peacemaker” is a statement performance for Stroma, but equally one for Cena as well. Gunn seems to know exactly it takes to get the most out of Cena, and the series solidifies him as a well rounded, capable actor. I was not aware of the emotional range that Cena possessed, and it is on full display here. I knew that Cena had found a niche in comedy; his expert timing and complete abandon to be ridiculous for the sake of a joke is something I’ve truly enjoyed watching develope over his last few outings. But “Peacemaker” makes Cena do something I legitimately didn’t know he was capable of: act.
That sounds harsher then I mean it, but Cena displays just about every single range of emotion and character depth a lead role would require. Comedic timing? Check. Conflicting convictions? Check. Dramatic character changing moments? Check. TEARS?! Check, check, and check. The combination of Gunn and Cena seem to be the crux of everything that makes “Peacemaker” work as well as it does. Add in the supporting cast of Jennifer Holland, Danielle Brooks, Steve Agee, and the always wonderful Robert Patrick who all rise to the occasion and match the narrative tasks required of them, and you have a can’t miss ensemble cast of terrific actors who are fully aware and invested in the project and purpose of “Peacemaker.”
I know that this has been a rave review so far, but nothing is perfect and even something as close to perfection as “Peacemaker” season 1 gets, there are still some flaws. For starters, however complimentary I’ve been about the balance of humor to heart, Gunn’s vision isn’t for everyone. You may still think that farts and dick jokes are funny, but you don’t want an entire show predicated on it. Admittedly, you have to kind of already be a fan of everything that Gunn does to appreciate what Gunn is doing. He is a purposefully off-putting filmmaker, and if you’re not on board with that vision from the start, “Peacemaker” will be largely inaccessible. Additionally, the humor does have a tendency to get away from the story sometimes. It’s not so much that it splits the series into opposing sides, but even someone as complimentary of the balance can recognize a few moments where the need for a joke gets the better of the need for storytelling.
Additionally, the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to the first season does leave a little bit wanting, and rushes through some of the more intriguing plot points that end rather unceremoniously. Judomaster (Nhut Le) is a good example of this small misstep. “Peacemaker” goes out of its way to continually include him into the story at just about every turn, and his purpose in the larger story seems to get lost as we continually pull on and unravel different threads. He seems to just always be there when the plot needs it instead of being there because the story requires it. There is a bit of struggle when it come to this kind of pacing. Characters and plot threads seem to be incredibly meaningful in one episode, only to get resolved or ignored entirely in the next.
There is a lot going on in “Peacemaker,” and it almost felt as though Gunn didn’t believe he would get another shot at this (even though he is going to even before the series concluded with season 2 being announced ahead of the finale) so every single idea he could think of or find from the source material he crammed into season 1. The finale was great, and packed with everything that made the series great. But it did feel a little underwhelming, with the stakes never really feeling as high as they should’ve been. The race against time is juxtaposed with long pauses for silly conversations that for the first time in the series feel like they are purposefully wasting time for jokes instead of letting the jokes drive the urgency. This takes away from the impact of what happens when things really get going; just when it turns on the fire, Gunn puts it back to a simmer.
That’s not to say the season finale of “Peacemaker” was bad, and I for one actually really enjoyed it and felt that as far as season finales go, its ranks high on the list as one of the better ones. We have to remember that most shows flub this up more than they get it right, so even giving us an 80% score on the finale meter is technically an 99% on the curved season finale scale. And there’s a lot to like in the finale: a standout performance from long overlooked Steve Agee, blood, guts and glory for a solid 10 minutes of screen time, an incredible nuanced performance from Cena, and some solid reveals and cameos that make it all worth it.
Speed round on the good: The DCEU belongs to Gunn. Just give that man the keys and a shit ton of that HBO Max money and let him run amok for the next few years. Cena is becoming a legitimate actor before our very eyes and I’m completely on board for anything he wants to do next. PUT STROMA IN EVERYTHING! As far as surprised cameos go, this one turned a likable actor into a bonafide favorite and I love everything about it. The supporting cast is so good and while the show belongs to Cena and Stroma, I don’t want to discount the incredible work being done by the proverbial people in the van. More Judomaster, please. Just, all of the Judomaster. EAGLY FOREVER! Lastly, that intro is literally my everything and I’m currently recruiting for flash mob members. I watched it every single episode and it’s still not enough. Wig Wam lives!
Overall, “Peacemaker” is delightful. Violent, irreverent and heartfelt, the series is exactly the kind of show we didn’t know we needed by now can’t live without. It’s not for everybody, and as a fun as it is I can see how it can put plenty of people off. But dammit is it just good old fashion fun. Pure, unadulterated entertainment that knows what it is and why it exists, and that self assuredness and purpose is a stand out in a sea of manufactured franchise formulas that dominate the current media space. The superhero genre may be the new standard, but for all its success it requires just as much diversity as anything else to be sustainable. “Peacemaker” is that next step forward, the kind of throwback self aware narrative that really seems to be missing in this particular genre.
Bring on season 2. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a “Do You Wanna Taste It” flash mob rehearsal in 10 minutes.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“Peacemaker” season 1 is currently streaming on HBO Max. You can watch the trailer below.
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