‘Peacemaker’ Works Because John Cena Is A Star

Not so often, a star comes around who breathes charisma into the air through every screen they appear on whether it’s your tv, the cinema, or your phone. Without moving, opening their mouths, or doing anything, really, their mere presence is intoxicating and uplifting, like a human endorphin trigger. HBO Max’s superhero – or more accurately, anti-superhero – series Peacemaker, set in the DC Extended Universe and a spin-off of James Gunn’s 2021 film The Suicide Squad shouldn’t work. It’s a show about a relentless bully’s unlikely journey from douchebag to a little bit less of a douchebag. It’s violent, vile, and messy. But John Cena – the titular Peacemaker – makes the series work because of his relentless charm and intoxicating energy.

In the fifth episode of Peacemaker, Chris Smith (Peacemaker) lists all of the people John Economos (Steve Agee) could have framed for a murder instead of his white supremacist father (played by Robert Patrick). “What about Ariana Grande or Drake?” he screams. “Brad Pitt or Payne Stewart or Doug the Pug? Khloe Kardashain?” Chris goes on and on (and on even more in a tag after the episode’s end credits). Listing a bunch of pop culture references is not a new or groundbreaking form of comedy in a television series, but it feels so fresh because John Cena’s cartoonish facial expressions both clash with and complement his domineering, massive physique. As Chris gets deeper into his list of people, his voice crackles and his veins pop as he cries, “Eugene Levy????” with a hint of pain but a bit of a wink.

Peacemaker/Chris is a little broken; one of those alpha male bullies who exaggerates his masculinity in a misguided effort to mask his pain. The series is about Chris softening up by connecting with people and confronting his buried feelings about his monstrous father and the way he was raised. The wink comes from Cena’s own self-awareness as a performer. While Cena’s performance is sincere and absorbing, there’s always an underlying, ironic awareness that he is John Cena that should not work, but does. It works so well, perhaps, because it lends well to series creator James Gunn’s irreverent tone and style. But essentially it all works because John Cena works best when he is aware that he is John Cena.

Cena’s pro-wrestling to movie star predecessor and peer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, while also extremely charismatic, is very different in comparison. Johnson has adopted a family-friendly aesthetic that has encompassed his career over the past decade. Johnson almost always plays the same type of guy, and typically does not perform with the meta-awareness that Cena does. Dwayne Johnson – even by simply changing his credit from “The Rock” to Dwayne” The Rock” Johnson to Dwayne Johnson over the course of his career, has abandoned his wrestling personality to be taken seriously as an actor. While in Peacemaker, The Suicide Squad, and 2018’s Blockers, John Cena embraces everything we know about him and puts it into each performance.

Chris’s emotional journey in Peacemaker heightens in episode five when he bonds with his co-workers after, against all odds, defeating an alien gorilla. He has a drink with his co-worker, Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), who starts to see the human side of him. He also has an emotional moment with his pet eagle, Eagly, in a scene that only John Cena could pull off (all respect to Meryl Streep, who I’m sure would like to try acting with a CGI eagle). But the episode proves that Cena isn’t the only reason the series works. The rest of the cast of misfits – who play a team brought together to eliminate aliens known as butterflies that are taking over the brains of influential people – bounce off Cena’s magnetism brilliantly, but Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks is a stand out for her natural comedic chemistry with Cena, and the way she playfully competes with Cena’s charm. This team chemistry is demonstrated in the show’s opening credits in which the cast does a coordinated robotic dance with facial expressions that can only be described as “waiting at the DMV”. It’s funny on its own, but like the best opening credits in recent memory (Mad Men, Succession, Yellowjackets) it sets the tone for the series, which is not the same without the opening credit sequence.

Ultimately, the plot of Peacemaker doesn’t really matter. Peacemaker is merely a vehicle for John Cena to showcase his skills, skills that go beyond his natural charisma and into a range and depth as an actor, both comedic and dramatic. With Peacemaker, John Cena has proven that he can carry a show like he could probably carry me (five foot four, no muscles) — in the palm of his hand like a little bird.

‘Peacemaker’ is currently streaming via HBO Max.