Standing at just over six feet tall and weighing in at 251 pounds, John Cena, all square jaw and shoulders to match, is a gargantuan man.
Coming to prominence through his time with World Wrestling Entertainment, and crowned World Champion 16 times, Cena, just like his colleague The Rock before him, is now a certified movie star. After a star turn in last year’s The Suicide Squad, and a follow-up television show featuring his warped anti-hero/villain now halfway through its extremely successful maiden series, let’s unpack just how and why John Cena has finally found his home on screen.
Wrestler, Turned Actor
‘John Cena, the actor,’ really shouldn’t work as a sentence (and often hasn’t). But put him in the land of comic books, so dominant and all-encompassing right now, and he’s right at home. With a relatively lackluster film career thus far (with the exception of 2021’s The Suicide Squad), the transition from professional wrestling to comic book movies actually makes sense. No, really. The wacky characters, physicality, and yes, even costumes are all par the course for both mediums – not to mention that Cena, through his many years with the WWE, would have had to learn lines and understand how exactly to perform for a camera. Wrestlers and superheroes are similar like that, and they both have to learn one fundamental skill– how to charm an audience.
It could have gone so wrong. Except for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista (who are bona fide superstars now, no doubt about it), there really isn’t much to take away from wrestlers trying to make it as actors. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, and Hulk Hogan all had their moments here and there in ’80s Hollywood, but never properly held down careers. In a slightly more modern market, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin starred in The Condemned, while Triple H worked on Blade Trinity, with neither setting the world on fire in relatively thankless roles playing generally dislikable people. Hell, more wrestlers successfully run for office than achieve movie stardom.
Around the same time that these aforementioned films were being released, John Cena was main billing in The Marine from 2006 (oddly linking up with Robert Patrick, who would play his on-screen father in Peacemaker), and 12 Rounds from 2009. These films fit the same sort of canon as his colleagues before him, both being nondescript and bland efforts that haven’t been brought up again outside of this article.
Gradually, Cena charmed audiences through smaller but worthwhile roles in movies like Trainwreck from 2015. Under mogul comedy director Judd Apatow, Cena could shine in a cameo that showed his comic capabilities and willingness to send himself up. Fast-forward three years on and Cena could do it again in another broad comedy, Blockers, but this time with a starring role and main billing.
John Cena, the actor, was diversifying from blockhead wrestler and emerging into blockhead actor. Notice his workmanlike roles in both Bumblebee and Fast & Furious 9 as their respective villains. Couple that with his Suicide Squad appearance, and over the past five years it’s clear that Cena has carved out a career as a central antagonist in three unrelated, but all equally massive, motion picture “universes.”
Filling The Frame
Massive seems to be the appropriate word. Purely on a size basis alone, Cena quite literally fills the screen. He’s a titan in his Peacemaker costume, with its obnoxious red and blue attire and chrome helmet, show off his gun-toting arms with appropriate bulge, his veins popping and cascading along his biceps to the side of the screen. With his military-style haircut, outward ears, and nostrils in a constant state of flare, John Cena bursts from the screen like some jacked Easter Island head.
Peacemaker creator James Gunn seems to recognize this as well. Through his casting of The Suicide Squad and subsequently with the Peacemaker show, Gunn has spared no expense to include on more than one occasion this giant of a man in nothing more than the whitest of underwear, and/or dancing.
Gunn knows that John Cena‘s size is ridiculous, and so has made it a mission to get said height and weight on screen at every viable opportunity. Through this former wrestler, James Gunn has a real life Rob Leifeld sketch to manipulate and contort on screen for him, all bulging pecs and strange otherworldly proportions to boot. It’s no wonder Cena has been a fan favorite to play 90s video game hero Duke Nukem for so long – his silhouette straight-up looks like it’s made out of blocky and out-of-proportion Playstation polygons.
As such, the relationship between actor and director is a match made in heaven for the forever unkillable superhero genre. Through Cena’s raw physicality and earnest acting skills, all open and genuinely vulnerable, a proven name like Gunn really does have quite the opportunity here with a very specialized lump of clay. Aptly mirrored on screen between the actor playing him and the character themselves, no one gave a shit about Peacemaker before Gunn opted to put him in a movie about no-hopers. The casting of Cena, someone with skills who wills to be silly but was never given any good material, really could not have been more finely tuned.
Comic, On Screen And Off
In the opposite direction of dancing in nothing more than his briefs, Cena seems to understand the director off-screen as well. Whether it’s appeasing a dictatorship and apologizing for saying that, no, Taiwan definitely does not exist (in fluent Chinese, no less), or gamely donning the Peacemaker costume throughout the entirety of The Suicide Squad press tour, Cena knows how to play the game.
In his many public appearances, Cena is adept at showing that he’s really more than his jock wrestling persona suggested. This was a bright and measured, funny individual who just happened to also be seriously swole. He played up to all of that gamely, as when physically lifting Jimmy Fallon and Graham Norton like human dumbbells, or infamously telling Colbert that “If it breathes, or it’s green, I eat it.”
John Cena. The name alone (at least outside the wrestling world) has a running theme of feeling like a gamble that was funny at first, and then went too far– and then became funny again. Anyone unaware of his acting prowess would merely know the name and the accompanying horns of his wrestling theme tune. His “You Can’t See Me” wrestling catchphrase, no less, was a goading bet from his little brother, who was certain that he wouldn’t do it, but Cena always comes out on top when you take the risk of betting against him.
John Cena, as a whole, is a larger-than-life personality. His gradual education in the art of acting has been an interesting treat to watch as a fan, allowing viewers to see John Cena, the actor, grow and develop over the past two decades. Through weekly additions of Peacemaker on HBO Max, we get to watch that work out in real time. We can see him, and he makes the perfect superhero.
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