There weren’t that many surprises for me in the new Amy Schumer-penned romcom Trainwreck. As was typical with almost all Judd Apatow comedies, the film was generally pleasant and supported a wealth of great gags & a wonderful cast, but also was in desperate need of some third-act editing. Recent over-exposure to Schumer’s more unrestrained writing on her sketch comedy TV show had me looking for something a little more (excuse the pun) off the rails from Trainwreck than the usual Apatow fare, though, so my expectations for something more unconventional were more than a little off base. I liked it; I just wasn’t caught unprepared for most of its content.
However, I was taken aback by the comedic performance of pro wrestler/in-the-flesh superhero John Cena. My surprise with Cena began before even the opening credits, when a trailer for an upcoming Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy called Sisters featured the typically clean-cut wrestler decorated in neck tats & a beanie, informing a hot-to-trot Fey that his safe word is “keep going”. That was just the start. In Trainwreck itself, Cena is even more subversive in dismantling his squeaky clean persona by appearing as he normally would in public, but with much raunchier content backing him up. It was difficult to determine from the film’s trailer how just how much of Cena we’d be seeing outside of that quotable “Mark Wahlberg” one-liner, but it turns out that we get to see way more of him than most people would’ve asked for. His character, Steven, engages (with varying degrees of success) in dirty talk, fully-nude on-screen lovemaking, undercutting questions about his own sexuality, and an intense pantomime of an ejaculation that will . . . not . . . end. As a fan of raunchy sex comedies, I found these gags just the right tone of playfully amusing. As a pro wrestling fan, I found them downright shocking.
For anyone who (understandably) has not been paying attention to the WWE since the creative heights of its so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s/early 00s, John Cena has more or less dominated the company’s narrative for the past decade. Shifting away from some of the more gruesomely violent & overtly sexual content of yesteryear, WWE sorta-unofficially promoted Cena as the face of the company. With his classic military looks & his character’s (almost) forgotten beginnings as a white rapper, Cena has been scripted within the ring to be more or less a superhero for young children to look up to. His stubborn refusal to “turn heel”, constant sloganizing about never giving up & always being respectful, and his never-ending championship victories appeal directly to younger fans, which drives a lot of older, nerdier smarks to disgust, deeming his reign as The PG Era. This behavior has spilled outside the ring as well. In his WWE Studios movies, Cena has always played the unblemished hero, like in his action movie vehicle The Marine, or a superhero version of himself, like in the Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover where he defeats a robotic ghost bear & an Indiana Jones style bolder with his bare hands. Then, there’s the fact that he in “real life” has more Make-a-Wish Foundation charity work than any other celebrity on record. In short, he is a ludicrously wholesome persona inside the ring & out.
The thing about Cena is that he really is likeable. There’s just way too much content out there about him being likeable. If you religiously follow WWE’s two flagship shows, Raw & SmackDown, (God help you) then there’s six hours of content on a weekly basis about how likeable John Cena is. And that’s not even counting the monthly Pay-Per-Views or the reality shows. That’s gotta wear even the most enthusiastic viewers down after a few years. Fortunately, though, things seem to be (gradually) changing. Cena’s niche at the company has been looking more like a respectable midcard position for the past few months (although, as I’m typing this now it looks like they’re pushing another championship match for him at this year’s SummerSlam) and he’s been putting in some of the best in-ring work of his career & helping get over lesser-known talents through his recent John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge angle. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how he’s subverting his spotless image through comedies like Sisters & Trainwreck.
I first noticed this shift during the last few episodes of the now-legendary NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, where Cena appeared as himself on the episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (one of my favorite episodes of the series). Cena did little to taint his superhero image in that appearance, but there was a spark of hope there in his willingness to make a fool of himself, when he so often manages to land on top. It also helped that Parks boasted a deep roster of talented comedians that could land Cena bit parts in worthwhile bigscreen comedies through networking. It’s tough to say whether it was Poehler’s Parks connection that helped Cena land his part in Sisters or the odd fact that Amy Schumer once dated pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler that helped him land his persona-shedding role in Trainwreck, but it couldn’t have hurt in either situation. No matter what the cause, Cena now seems to have his foot in the door for a life on the bigscreen (as opposed to WWE Studios’ straight-to-VOD dreck) and his career could be at a pivotal point because of it.
It’s a very rare feat for the WWE to successfully launch a career in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan is certainly the earliest example, but even he had a tough time making a lasting go of it after his ridiculous start in titles like No Holds Barred & Rocky III. Outside of a couple 90s goof-offs like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, he hasn’t made much of a memorable mark outside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, on the other hand, has been a much clearer success story with his roles in franchises like The Fast & The Furious and G.I. Joe. Even The Rock’s been struggling to branch out & express himself as an artist, though. Despite a few wildly off-the-wall turns in films like Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, he’s been landing a lot of roles he would have been typecast in over a decade ago. Schlock like Hercules & San Andreas aren’t nearly enough of a step-up from his days as The Scorpion King, considering the talents he’s put on film in his his stranger roles.
Both The Rock & Hulk Hogan have long struggled to expand the scope of their acting careers once they got their foot in the door and now it’s John Cena’s turn to fight that battle. Starting his career in major films by degrading himself in raunchy comedies is honestly a brilliant first step in that direction. Cena’s showing us that his spotless superhero persona does not necessarily define him as a talent. Let’s face it; a lot of the kids who would’ve latched onto the original version of his current “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” routine in its initial run would be in at least their late teens now, so it makes total sense that his content would grow up with them. I could be wrong & Cena could be slipping back into his old ways (starting as soon as SummerSlam next month), but there’s at the very least a glimmer of hope for change in his roles in Sisters & Trainwreck.
I’ve recently grown to like Cena despite my initial misgivings. His repetitive nature really isn’t all that unique within the world of pro wrestling, after all, and he can be really entertaining when he puts in his best work. Besides, it’s really difficult to deny the power of those Make-a-Wish numbers. I’d just also like to see him continue to branch out into these filthy, degenerate characters in goofy comedies until it’s no longer jarring to the audience. It might be his best chance at establishing himself outside of his roles as a “sports entertainer” and an eternal “good guy”. As Hogan & The Rock have proved time & time again, the WWE ring will always be there with open arms for whenever he needs it. There’s no reason, then, not to go out there & make himself vulnerable in a gross-out comedy or two. Judging by his work in Trainwreck alone, he’s already off to a great start.