How HBO Max's 'Peacemaker' became a hair metal superhero spin on the ensemble comedy

Brian Truitt

John Cena’s title character in the HBO Max action-comedy series “Peacemaker” can be an absolute jerk. But for those who love to rock, his musical taste is impeccable.

Hair metal powers the soundtrack to Christopher Smith’s violent and over-the-top life, and writer/director James Gunn’s eight-episode superhero spinoff (three episodes now streaming, then weekly on Thursdays) of last summer’s “The Suicide Squad.”

While Disney+ has become a second home to Marvel’s comic book movie characters, “Peacemaker” is the first HBO Max project to do the same for DC's current film universe. And while he might sport the same red, white and blue color scheme as Captain America, Peacemaker is a killer government operative who has a long way to go before becoming a good hero, a good teammate, or even a good person.

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Peacemaker (John Cena, far right) has a rough first night out with his new team (including Steve Agee, Jennifer Holland, Chukwudi Iwuji and Danielle Brooks) in HBO Max's "Peacemaker."

“He is a roller coaster, like the rest of us. If we don't have folks we love and care about to course-correct us and ground us a little bit, it could get into some pretty shaky water,” Cena, 44, says of Smith, “an idiot who did a lot of bad stuff” in “Squad” before getting shot, having a building fall on him and waking up in a hospital months later in “Peacemaker.” 

Smith is still part of Task Force X, in which incarcerated bad guys do Black Ops jobs for their country to shave time off their sentences. Peacemaker’s assigned to a high-stakes mission called Operation: Butterfly with a motley crew including rookie agent Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks); Smith’s steely handler Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland); tech expert John Economos (Steve Agee); leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji); and weirdo wild card Vigilante (Freddie Stroma).

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Naturally, there are supervillains and global threats at the heart of “Peacemaker.” As Cena points out, it’s ultimately about “people who need people,” with a lot of arguments, assassinations, misadventures, pop-culture jabs (at everything from "Riverdale" to the Berenstain Bears) and an awesome eagle sidekick. And as their increasingly bonkers assignment becomes more dangerous, Peacemaker allows himself to connect with others, while aspects of his troubled past  (and why he digs hair bands so much) are revealed. 

One important relationship is that of Peacemaker and Adebayo, who “have a completely different set of beliefs” but find similarities that bond them, Gunn says. They also each claim power-hungry parents who both believe they're heroes: Peacemaker’s dad, Auggie Smith, is a racist brutally cruel to his son, while Adebayo’s mom, a significant character, is a surprise reveal in the first episode.

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Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick, left) is brutal and cruel to his son Christopher (John Cena) in "Peacemaker."

Then there’s Peacemaker and Harcourt, who definitely don’t like each other at first, though the walls each have put up do come down a bit. “He's scared of her and he's in love with her, and we don't know exactly what she's feeling but she definitely comes to care about him,” Gunn says. Cena adds the pair “are presented opportunities to be brave and put out an olive branch. What's gonna make the episodes interesting to everybody is the ‘if’ or the ‘will they?’ ”

Holland appreciates the show’s sci-fi drama angle (reminiscent of Fox's 2008-13 J.J. Abrams series “Fringe”) but also loves the “Friends”-like ensemble comedy. So does that make Peacemaker and Harcourt the new Ross and Rachel? “I would be totally down for that,” Holland says with a laugh. “Harcourt and Smith's dynamic is pretty magical, and I love watching them together.”

Tackling his first TV show, Gunn was equally inspired by the campy 1979 “Captain America” TV movie he watched as a kid and AMC's "Breaking Bad" spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” “It’s a show that takes its time,” Gunn says. “It doesn't pander to the audience. It doesn't have to be any one type of thing. And it features this sort of sad-sack grounded character who is also good at one thing and not good at a lot of other things.”

Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) gives Peacemaker a piece of her mind in the first episode of "Peacemaker."

Music is often part of the storytelling in Gunn’s work – such as the use of 1970s tracks for the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie – and pop metal fuels “Peacemaker,” from the Wig Wam song that the cast dances to in the ridiculously fun opening credits to bands like Hanoi Rocks and Cinderella that are “the most positive influences” in Peacemaker’s life, says Gunn, who surrounded himself with glam rock when creating the show. (“He listens to the songs for each scene while he's writing the scene,” reports Holland, Gunn’s partner. “So I heard all of those songs 8,000 times.”)

Gunn says his relationship with hair metal is much like his relationship with Peacemaker: “He is the kind of douchebro that I grew up with and didn't like but sometimes had a fondness for because they were in my life. And when I start to listen to that music a lot more – and listen to the good stuff, not just everything – I start to love some of it. It’s cheesy, yes, but you start to see the beauty in all of it.”