4 out of 5

Created by: James Gunn

A movie or TV show being exactly what you expect doesn’t have to be a limiting statement, even if it ends up fitting exactly within those confines.

From the opening dance number credits – with that 80s glam rock sparkle – to the flashy, profanity-laced snark and the bloody, bloody action sequences, James Gunn’s addition to his Suicide Squad movie, Peacemaker, is tonally, visually predictable. Here would be my opportunity to flip that around and talk about how I love Gunn’s tone and visuals, but that’s not exactly the case. While I think the vibrance he brings to things is a nice change from the HBO DC shows generally darker look, it still feels like a carryover from Guardians of the Galaxy, splashed with a bit of his Troma-days goofiness; that second note is where I’ve always had a slight disconnect with Gunn’s stuff, as something like Slither mapped that onto a really confident blend of comedy and horror, but I’m not sure things ever got quite back to that level again, with James searching for a visual mood that was always a bit cockeyed to the material. And that same discrepancy is in Peacemaker: I actually love the juxtapositions Gunn codes into this, with the title character, as portrayed by John Cena, is a total cartoon character in a sorta kinda regular world, the rest of his Suicide Squad mates unpowered and sometimes pretty reg’lar joe lookin’; at the same time, it’s a comic book movie, and so we geek out with some extras thrown in there, and then there seems to be this kneejerk mandate held over from the Snyder flicks to make things super crass to counter Marveldom. Are the gross-out moments and uber-violence necessary? No?

But: my expectation of this stuff made it rather palatable, and perhaps more rewarding when the show proved to step beyond its antics into some pretty interesting material that butts Peacemaker’s bro-headed ways against his squad, and the world, without aiming for secretly glorifying his motivations as being simple-minded wisdoms – like, at all – and rather just trying to bring the world to us as such a jingoistic type might. And that crassness is tempered by something Gunn has remained incredible skilled at: timing, and character direction.

Cena really understands and nails Peacemaker, supporting that doofiness without, again, trying to force some “pure” soul underneath, but still keeping the character human; his suicide squad mates – portrayed by Danielle Brooks, Freddie Stroma, Chukwudi Iwuji, Jennifer Holland, and Steve Agee – all ping off of each other well in their various roles as The Funny One, The Crazy One, The Serious One, and etc., but similarly bring weight to their characterizations that allows them to carry whole parts of episodes without drag. The way this tracks through both an odd couple comedy and a Squad versus the world-threatening bag guys cosmic actioner across 8-episodes is especially impressive; again, Gunn – writing the whole damn thing – doesn’t force the inevitable bonding to happen too quickly, nor does he try to craft a threat that doesn’t “fit” for the also-rans nature of the Squad.

The show thus ends up being able to accomplish that mighty combo that the Marvel shows have been after and, thus far, generally missed: Fun + Quality Characters + Good Story; and if you think that even nailing one of these is easy, then I’d like to take a look at your selective viewing roster. Nailing all three – consistently – is pretty grand, and puts paid to DC’s / HBO’s flexibility with their shows’ approaches, over the often more homogenized MCU (though lately that’s been encouraging them to find more inventive ways to express themselves, which I think will also pay off), even if flying that premium cable flag seems to but a requirement on being potty-mouthed.

That R-rated nature does lead to some indulgence, especially in the fights, which tend to go on a tick too long without motivation, in order to make sure we get our buck’s worth of blood and broken bones, and, again, I’d wish for a bit less swearing overall, as a personal preference. And when we step outside of the main plotthreads for a subplot involving Peacemaker’s father, played by Robert Patrick, it never quite feels like it belongs, even as Gunn is continually trying to cede it back into the main story. Thematically it’s important, and there are definitely some worthwhile concepts there, it’s just stuck as a more dramatic thread that has to up its goof-factor to fit into the show, making things hit pause when we cut away to it.

But I never tired of this series. I watched those opening credits multiple times; I marveled (whoops) at the charm of the ensemble bits, and even rewatched some episodes with fuller attention, as story details piled up. Having a single “written by” tag is surely helpful for its consistency, and then the cast and writers and production all bring it together for a seamless dollop of TV superhero entertainment, bonus actual depth of content included.