The following story contains spoilers for The Suicide Squad (2021).
It’s a pretty good time to be a superstar wrestler-turned-actor, huh? Dave Bautista is about to appear in Dune, just landed a coveted role in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out 2, and earlier this summer saw his blockbuster Army of the Dead blow up on Netflix (he’s also got his final turn in the MCU, 2023’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, on the way). Then there’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who, well, is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s always a good time to be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, especially this summer with Jungle Cruise releasing and Black Adam wrapping production. But the wrestling/acting man of the moment really has to be one John Cena, who with his role as Peacemaker in James Gunn’s R-rated, action-thriller-heist romp The Suicide Squad, has just pulled off the best role of his career—even with a big chunk of screen time spent in his tightie-whities.
Cena’s career has been a unique one to say the least. Without question one of the biggest stars in the history of professional wrestling, his film career didn’t have quite as illustrious a start. His first major film role was 2009’s 12 Rounds, which wasn’t anything to write home about, but nonetheless showed an eagerness toward a career as an action star. But it wasn’t until 2015, when Cena starred in both Trainwreck and Sisters, that it became clear that he was more than just his wrestling persona and a generic action star. Fast forward six years, and The Suicide Squad feels like the first time a movie has really made the most of Cena’s comedic talents and action star bonafides at the same time.
Prior to The Suicide Squad, Cena’s physical gifts had always been used in juxtoposition to his comedy. Perhaps his most prominent comedic role to date came in 2018’s Blockers, where the fact that he’s a hulking, wildly-jacked man comes second to the fact that he’s a sort of dorky, shirt-tucked-into-his-shorts overprotective dad. Same thing in his rather funny supporting roles in Trainwreck, alongside Amy Schumer, and Sisters, alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; both roles made absolute use of Cena’s massive physical stature, but the joke was always that the person he was was not the person he appeared to be.
In The Suicide Squad, writer/director James Gunn leans into both of those extremes. The humor of Cena’s character, Peacemaker, isn’t that he’s not what you expect him to be—in fact, the whole joke is probably that he’s exactly what you expect him to be. When Bloodsport (Idris Elba) meets Peacemaker early on in the film, a rivalry is quickly established. The two have great on-screen chemistry, and their first scene comparing abilities sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Cena has discussed what went into his version of the Peacemaker character before, in detail. He said in an interview with Den of Geek that while at first he was thinking to approach the character like the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, it wasn’t long before Gunn got him to change course. ” I’m looking for a douchey, bro-y Captain America,” Cena recalls the director telling him.
There’s no point in the film where that characterization is more apparent than a scene where Peacemaker and Bloodsport are both showing off their extreme skill at, well, killing people. In one scene on Corto Maltese, the two walk through a camp, going back and forth showing off their deadly prowess. It’s got to be the most fun sequence in the movie, filled with blood, gore, and even male nudity. But with Gunn writing, the dialogue keeps things playful as well. “No one likes a show-off,” Elba deadpans after Cena’s character demonstrates some explosive bullets. Cena goes full douche-bro, and, man, he sells it. “Unless what they’re showing off is dope as fuck.” Bloodsport can’t come back from that one. “Fuck.” he says again. “That’s true.”
It’s probably also worth noting that there’s no good reason that the character of Peacemaker should work. Like, it’s a guy who wears a bowl you’ve probably seen someone mixing a salad in on his head. But this is a case where the character is so obscure—despite making his comics debut in 1966, he’s not well known—that Gunn and Cena were able to build a persona around him that would be ideal for both our time and this film.
That’s not to say Peacemaker hasn’t made his impact on the superhero landscape. Alan Moore originally based Watchmen‘s The Comedian on Peacemaker, and the sort of “peace at any cost” mentality has persisted. And that mentality ends up being a deciding factor of what makes Cena’s performance so much fun to watch, and why it needed to be in an R-rated portrayal.
Cena sells the fuck out of his third act heel turn, and it’s a moment that the audience should 100% buy into. When Peacemaker reveals he won’t allow Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to go to the press with the Project Starfish information the team has uncovered, and is willing to kill him to make sure it doesn’t happen, it’s a shocking twist, but one that 100% makes sense. He told us what he stands for from almost his first moment on screen, and we just spent a couple hours seeing it put into action. It’s shocking to see the two protagonists face off. And it’s even more shocking to see Peacemaker murder Flag. But it’s an important reminder that we’re watching The Suicide Squad, and not Justice League.
These are the bad guys. These have always been the bad guys. Yes, Bloodsport and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) wind up leaning more toward anti-hero by the end, but an anti-hero needs someone to head up against, and Cena’s Peacemaker does this in a way that’s hard to forget. When he seemingly gets killed, shot in the neck by Bloodsport’s smaller bullet, it feels like a cathartic revenge for killing Flag, but also like a lost opportunity to explore more with this wildly-deranged but oh-so-entertaining character.
By the time the post-credits scene reveals Peacemaker’s survival, the movie has fully revved up the hype machine. We’re ready to see this lunatic “save the fucking world,” as Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) says, in 2022’s Peacemaker show on HBO Max. The movie’s most memorable line might just be Rick Flag’s dying words: “Peacemaker…what a joke.” And yes, his entire character is a clear contradiction.
Peacemaker is a joke. It’s a good thing someone as funny as John Cena got to deliver the punchline.
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