To wrestling fans, John Cena has been The Man for the last 15 years. Since his debut in 2002, Cena has had loyal fans and even-more-loyal haters. He became a lightning rod because he was immediately ambiguous and immediately understood to be there to make the kids happy. That criticism — if it really is a criticism — supports the theory that Cena was always going to end up in Hollywood, a theory that holds an increasing amount of water thanks to a handful of notable and notably fun cameos and a star turn in the new movie Blockers, which is super good. So, how should Americans and, specifically, American parents, feel about the rise of John Cena, movie star?
Pretty damn good, actually.
You can’t talk about Cena’s transition into acting without discussing the only wrestler to make it bigger on the big screen than inside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had a lackluster early career in Hollywood – The Scorpion King, anyone? – before writers and directors figured out what to do with his big body and weird comedic timing. When they did, he broke big. Would the Fast and Furious franchise have hit its next gear (car puns!) without Johnson? Maybe, but Fast Five was the first film to really become a juggernaut at the box office. That whole “Franchise Viagra” thing is real.
Cena, on the other hand, hit Los Angeles at a run. Sure, he did a bunch of WWE Studios films that were, to put it nicely, not great, but his true acting career began with 2015’s Trainwreck. While that movie wasn’t perfect, Cena’s turn as Amy Schumer’s awkwardly-romantic boyfriend was widely praised. It felt like he was being graded on a curve, however; because he was a wrestler, he wasn’t expected to out-funny any of the featured comedians. He did. But if that was the only trick in his playbook, he wouldn’t be on the verge of stardom.
Cena’s next appearance was alongside Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in Sisters. Then he hit Daddy’s Home 2 with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. Then he voiced the titular lead in the animated Ferdinand. He got laughs in some of those movies, but Cena mostly won audiences over with doofy everyman charm. None of those characters were particularly complicated, but they all felt like people except the bull (who kind of did too, come to think of it). Which brings us to Blockers, the first Cena live-action vehicle. It’s good. And he’s good, which means he’s going to be everywhere.
Playing a seemingly-repressed dad to one of the movie’s teen girls, Cena is somehow both laced-up and comedically imposing. His million-dollar smile and wrestling physique combine to make him a larger-than-life presence alongside Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz, but it’s his commitment to the jokes that makes him stand out. The first trailer laid it out clearly, as Cena’s character, Mitchell, gets into a butt-chugging contest with one of his daughter’s friends. It’s disgusting and hilarious and not what you’d expect if you have been following Cena’s “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect” gimmick in WWE.
Those who have been following Cena, however, also know that he’s always game for whatever dumb thing WWE writers create for him. He’s been a Vanilla Ice-aping rapper, one corner of a love parallelogram, and even an opponent for Kevin Federline. It isn’t surprising that he would show the same gameness for Blockers. He seems to understand that he is a ridiculous building-sized human and ready to knock people down with it. It’s a great look. Even for non-WWE fans, it’s fun to see a big man get weird.
The Rock is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, and Cena might soon become a high-paid comedic actor in his own right. But what non-wrestling fans should understand is that those two are not the norm. For every excellent role played by The Rock, there are five or six “Triple H playing a vampire in Blade Trinity” roles. Sure, Dave Bautista has carved out an incredible career playing himself as a future superhero, but he’s inside the Marvel machine. What Dwayne Johnson did, and what John Cena is doing right now, is a lot rarer.
WWE trains wrestlers to adapt to a variety of different tones. That’s not to say that Hollywood should look to the squared circle for stars, but that when they do arise they tend to be versatile. They aren’t just stars. They are supernovas.
Cena isn’t there yet, but the prospect of Cena ubiquity should excite moviegoers. Blockers shows that John Cena can deliver a funny performance and a felt performance. We already know he can deadlift a Fiat. That means big, ridiculous star vehicles are in Cena’s future and that’s the best news possible. He’s got family appeal and can make something built to be kid-friendly and fun to watch by making it both a bit odd and very physical. This formula works (the new Jumanji was pretty solid) even when it doesn’t involve butt-chugging. It works because it prioritizes entertainment value over all else. Cena has always been great at that.