Why ‘Peacemaker’ is the superhero franchise we need right now

John Cena's title character is essentially Judge Dredd if Judge Dredd were Stifler from 'American Pie'

It’s been an interesting journey for the Peacemaker character since his creation almost six decades ago. He was originally part of the Charlton Comics stable, appearing first in 1966 and sporadically thereafter. But when that publisher went down in the mid-’80s, the character was acquired by DC and quickly evolved. In fact, the first time he appeared in a DC title, he was barely recognisable.

Peacemaker got a new backstory: once a pacifist diplomat, he had now been driven to madness upon learning his father was a Nazi death camp commander. Actually, the character otherwise known as Christopher Smith formed the principal inspiration for Watchmen’s The Comedian. Creator Alan Moore envisioned that character as “a little bit of Nick Fury” and “a bit of the standard Captain America patriotic hero-type”. Performatively macho, a hyper-sexualised flag-shagger, he embodied the worst traits of his home nation. Peacemaker influenced Watchmen, but it’s inarguable that Watchmen has now influenced this even newer version of Peacemaker, who now has his own TV series.

Written and directed by James Gunn, it picks up from Gunn’s very good The Suicide Squad reboot. The series bypasses the simple morality tales of comic’s Golden Age of superheroes and instead traces its lineage to Moore and Dave Gibbons’ gritty, R-rated vision. It’s not quite as cerebral as the aforementioned tome – nowhere in Watchmen does Dr. Manhattan announce that “Aquaman fucks fish”. But Peacemaker’s relationship with the superhero genre, half in thrall, half-amused by the pomp of the whole thing, is similar. The character is essentially Judge Dredd if Judge Dredd were Stifler from American Pie.

John Cena Peacemaker
John Cena in ‘Peacemaker’ CREDIT: HBO Max

There’s a growing thirst for superhero stories that are irreverent and much sillier. Few fans of the genre aren’t hyped for the return of The Boys in June. What Marvel wouldn’t give to have Deadpool exist in their cinematic universe. And the best superhero movie in recent times wasn’t a live-action adaptation at all, but a return to the genre’s inky roots in 2018’s zesty, animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The harder-edged stuff still has huge appeal; with a North American haul of $128.5 million, Matt Reeves’ dark and gritty The Batman enjoyed the second-best opening weekend of the pandemic era. But number one with $260 million? The infinitely more fun Spider-Man: No Way Home.

And so we return to Peacemaker, the bombastic eight-part series that positions John Cena inside the character’s shiny chrome helmet, drags back a host of talent from The Suicide Squad, and transpires to be exactly the respite we need in this age of war, disinformation, poverty, airborne illness and broken party politics. Let’s rock. Here are five reasons why Peacemaker is exactly what the superhero genre needs right now.

1. John Cena is a comic genius

Anyone who’s seen John Cena in a WWE ring will know the Boston-born bruiser has some impressive comic chops. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the majestic douchery of the Peacemaker character the way he does. A case in point: the half-naked actor’s impassioned rendition of The Quireboys’ 1990 hit ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ using a vibrator as a microphone. Could be the natural successor to The Rock? Maybe. It’s definitely preferable to being the next Hulk Hogan.

2. The music absolutely wails, dude!

If you’ve watched even a single moment of James Gunn’s creative output, you’ll know music is key to the way he writes drama: he often segues actual songs into the lines of his scripts. Where his Guardians of the Galaxy movies draw from pre-’80s pop music, here hair metal is the order of the day. This means we get ‘Love Bomb Baby’ by glamourpuss Welshmen Tigertailz, ‘Beat The Bullet’ by LA sleazeballs Vain and a skeletal cover of Mötley Crüe’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ played by Cena himself on piano. There’s also a bangin’ heavy metal cover of Foster The People’s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’.

3. It has the best title sequence… ever?

Speaking of music, the show’s opening sizzle – ‘Do You Want To Taste It?’ by Norway’s Wig Wam – is the perfect tone-setter for the drama that follows. A bit like the entire oeuvre of The Ramones, this song is dumb but cleverly so. Still, it’s the choreographed dance routine involving each member of the cast, in full costume, in what appears to be a disused ’70s roller disco, that will live longest in your memory. Such is the temptation to rewind and watch again, you might not even get to the main show.

Robert Patrick in ‘Peacemaker’. CREDIT: HBO Max

4. It says a lot about modern America

Though there are (sometimes overbearing, but always cleverly done) references to BLM, #MeToo, the NRA and – best of all – the ranting conspiracy of Alex ‘Infowars’ Jones, the most interesting comment on modern America can be found in the relationship between Peacemaker and father August (later known as white supremacist White Dragon). Superbly played by Robert “T-1000” Patrick, Smith Snr. is a lost cause. His son… not quite, but he’s  certainly damaged by having a beast for a father. There’s something deep in there about breaking the cycle of abuse, but it’s peppered with dick jokes and heavy metal.

5. There are excellent cameos

We won’t spoil them. No, just watch! But let’s say this: the argument that Marvel’s extended universe is better connected than DC’s is starting to sound a lot less credible…

Peacemaker is out now on Binge.

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