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John Cena Is Trying His Best

On his new show ‘Peacemaker,’ the wrestler-turned-actor once again demonstrates why he’s a likable onscreen presence. But his earnestness doesn’t always mesh with a series that strains to be irreverent

My favorite part of John Cena’s new series is its opening credits. On a nondescript soundstage, Cena, alongside his co-stars, all dressed like their characters, perform a synchronized, knowingly amateurish dance to Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It,” their serious, deadpan expressions suggesting they’re attempting to create something balletic out of a cheesy slice of retro glam metal. Peacemaker is an irreverent show about superheroes and badass chicks, full of violence and four-letter words, but with his huge action-figure frame and chiseled jaw, Cena projects an earnestness that’s both sweet and delightfully goofy. He knows that we know he’s not a good dancer, but we enjoy watching him give it a go — we grade on a curve because we like that he tries his best.

Ever since the 44-year-old put aside wrestling to pursue acting, this has been Cena’s M.O. In his movies, he often plays the guy who’s a little too something — too nice, too aggressive, too oblivious — and his sheer size amplifies that quality, like he’s a walking caricature drawing. It can be pretty amusing, but it also has its limits, and I think Peacemaker exposes those definiciences. It also doesn’t help that the show just isn’t that great — like Cena himself, it’s likable enough, but not something you feel strongly about one way or the other. He gives his all, but is his all good enough?

Premiering on HBO Max on January 13th with three episodes — the rest of the season will unspool one episode at a time each subsequent Thursday — Peacemaker is a spinoff from last year’s quite good The Suicide Squad, in which Cena played Peacemaker, part of a ragtag group of villains who come together to save the planet. The movie, not to be confused with 2016’s really bad Suicide Squad, was written and directed by James Gunn, who had a blast amping up the vulgarity and bloodshed, while at the same time crafting a surprisingly emotional narrative about outcasts who finally find something worth giving a damn about. In the 2021 film, Peacemaker betrayed his cohorts, becoming the story’s villain. This jingoistic, rude, hyper-violent character believes that the more people he kills for the good ol’ US of A, the more he can ensure peace across the globe. Or, as Cena said Gunn described Peacemaker to him, he’s a “douchey Captain America who would shoot a kid.”

Peacemaker, also created by Gunn, shows what happens next. Recently released from the hospital after the near-death experience he had in the film, he’s recruited for a new black-ops mission led by Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has a dark past but explains that they’ve been assigned to take out a U.S. senator for murky reasons. Peacemaker’s team — Economos (Steve Agee), Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and newbie Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) — profoundly despise him, his reputation for being a murderous asshole preceding him. But while Peacemaker may have his racist and sexist tendencies — plus, he loves hair metal way too much — Peacemaker means to humanize the jerk. We’ll discover that he has a white-supremacist dad (Robert Patrick) and a complicated backstory. Maybe, deep down, this bad guy is really a good guy.

There is so much superhero content, both on the big and small screen, that a new program needs a compelling reason to exist to help it stand out from the pack. Considering that The Suicide Squad was seen as a commercial underperformer, despite being one of the best comic-book movies in recent years, it only makes Peacemaker feel even more like a weird, unnecessary afterthought. But it does provide Cena with one of his most promising platforms — surely better than that fireman movie or his stiff performance in F9. I just wish he did more with it.

I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say that over the course of the seven episodes made available to critics — the eighth and final episode airs February 17th — Peacemaker and his crew will discover that their assassination attempt is part of something far more disturbing, with each installment providing more clues, as well as shining new light on how this flag-waving lunkhead got to be that way. (It’s fitting that the guy has a pet bald eagle, and that he named him Eagly — dude’s just not that bright.) Like a lot of action-thriller television, Peacemaker is twists upon twists, with each episode ending with a shocker designed to keep you hooked. What it’s not, however, is quite as raucous or impertinent or visually stunning as The Suicide Squad, and it’s not nearly as inspired, either. 

John Cena and Jennifer Holland in Peacemaker

You can blame the show’s shortcomings on lots of things, including the inevitable law of diminishing returns when you keep trying to be even edgier and more vulgar than you were before. But it’s hard to get away from the fact that Peacemaker just isn’t that great of a character. Or, rather, he was in The Suicide Squad, squaring off against Idris Elba’s ruggedly noble Bloodsport and Margot Robbie’s twisted Harley Quinn. But Peacemaker suggests that Peacemaker isn’t interesting enough on his own to command a series, making the show more of a Joey than a Frasier

Fatally, Peacemaker is undercut by a contradiction Gunn can’t make gripping: Yeah, Peacemaker is an asshole, but he’s trying to change his ways! (Kinda.) As a result, the show suffers by wanting it both ways. Peacemaker means to be a snarky, NSFW action-comedy, cracking wise about racist tropes and political correctness, while also having a sentimental streak as Peacemaker comes to terms with his messed-up childhood and reveals a softer side. This mixture of snide and sincere is something Gunn can do well — he’s responsible for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — but here, it feels formulaic. Even so, I think the problem is also Cena himself. 

Since he started in film, Cena has had to endure endless comparisons to fellow wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson. (They’ve squared off in the ring as well.) Johnson’s career has been pretty spotty as well, but there’s no denying that he’s established an onscreen persona that’s recognizable and often pretty appealing, playing tough guys in action movies or slyly mocking his own physical awesomeness in self-deprecating comedies. Johnson is larger than life, a fact he either flaunts or lampoons in his films. Even when you don’t enjoy his movies, you enjoy the idea of him.

But Cena? As the loyal, possibly closeted boyfriend to Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, he displayed a light touch and some emotional heft. (His declaration that Schumer isn’t a nice person after they break up is among that film’s most touching moments.) But too often since then, he hasn’t felt comfortable in comedies (Blockers) or blockbusters (F9). You always get the sense that he’s trying really hard, doing his best, which I don’t mean in a belittling way. His earnestness is what can make him awfully endearing, adding a drop of vulnerability to a man who otherwise seems like an eerily perfect human specimen. 

But that lack of confidence — the sort of movie-star swagger you can’t teach — is readily apparent on Peacemaker. When Peacemaker is being a jerk — bullying Economos or hooking up with married women — he’s rarely an entertaining jerk. Cena doesn’t let the character’s rough edges be amusing; he doesn’t make us love the bastard in spite of ourselves. But when we’re given glimpses of Peacemaker’s absurdity or sensitivity — like when the guy slow-dances by himself in only his tighty-whities to a godawful power ballad, feeling every saccharine sentiment down to his toes — Cena’s natural sweetness comes out. Only in those moments do you get a glimpse of what kind of star Cena could be: a hulking teddy bear, a gentle giant who plays characters who aren’t the smartest but are genuinely bizarre enough that you can’t quite figure them out.

I’m not being glib when I suggest that maybe my favorite thing John Cena has done in his acting career is a 2016 Love Has No Labels ad in which he spoke directly to the viewer to discuss patriotism and bigotry, and the importance of reconsidering what “we” think of as authentically American. The campaign, called “We Are America,” was the sort of lump-in-your-throat commercial meant to elicit warm, fuzzy feelings. Perhaps it’s just one more example of Obama-age cringe, but it’s amazingly effective because, well, John Cena looks like the sort of guy you might assume would be bigoted. But instead, out came this heartfelt message of inclusiveness and unity. He’s never seemed so relaxed, or so winning, on camera.

That same subversion of assumptions probably informed Gunn’s casting of Cena as Peacemaker. Muscle-bound and badgering, arrogant and crass, the character wants to preserve an outdated form of rah-rah American exceptionalism — one with lots of wicked guitar solos and loud rocket launchers — and you can easily picture a former wrestler playing the dude. 

But thus far, Peacemaker hasn’t been able to really toy with our expectations of Cena or of the character. For an antihero meant to surprise us, demonstrating that there’s more to him than we initially thought, Peacemaker just isn’t that much fun to be around. In some ways, that sums up Cena’s career to this point, too. For someone so towering, he seems to shrink from view. He tries so hard, and all you see is the effort.