I attended many strange pro wrestling rituals when WrestleMania 34 descended upon New Orleans like a body odor blanket last month. I watched a cheeseburger/bear hybrid wrestle other kaiju-costumed nerds at a midnight show adorned with cardboard cities. I stood in the world’s longest bathroom line at a Ring of Honor event because the bro-to-lady ratio at indie wrestling shows is way out of hand. I may have even joined in with the “This is awful!” chants that concluded Mania proper, despite the previous seven hours of sports entertainment making me look like an ungrateful turd for doing so (I honestly can’t remember if I participated in that complaint or not, but the show was exhausting). However, no Mania Moment was as strange as watching the raunchy teen sex comedy Blockers with John Cena in a theater packed with his biggest fans, an experience that only feels more bizarre the further I get away from it. This year’s WrestleMania happened to coincide with Blockers’s opening weekend, so a John Cena promotional appearance at a screening of the film makes logical sense from a marketing standpoint, but the event clearly didn’t factor in the nature of Cena’s usual pro wrestling fanbase. Thanks to AMC, John Cena, and the Universal Pictures marketing machine, I watched an R-rated teen sex comedy with a crowd of very young, very impressionable children who only wanted to meet their pro wrestling superhero. It was hilarious.
John Cena’s transformation into R-rated comedy wildcard has been a gradual one. Three whole years ago, I wrote a piece in the wake of Trainwreck anticipating his transition “From the PG Era to a Solid R,” noting how drastically different his comedic presence in films like that Amy Schumer breakout and the then-upcoming Tina Fey project Sisters was from his usual “Never give up”/”Eat your vitamins” superhero character in-ring. Cena was the face of WWE as it shifted away from the gruesome violence & in-your-face sexuality of the company’s storied Attitude Era to a dedication to producing more child-friendly content. Recently, the attention paid to performers on the roster has spread more evenly, leaving Cena free to develop his comedic persona outside of the ring. Unlike The Rock, however, Cena has never fully detached from the WWE and still regularly appears in-ring as a competitor between film productions (including a squash match with the now-unretired Undertaker at this year’s Mania). This division of his time has lead to some truly bizarre self-contradictions in his public persona, like, say, the superhero to children everywhere butt-chugging a beer and handling Gary Cole’s testicles in an R-rated, femme sex comedy. Nothing has illustrated how absurd that dual career overlap can be to me than AMC’s Q&A screening of Blockers in New Orleans, though, which lured young children into a room to meet their wholesome hero, only to be faced with the raunchiest details of his onscreen career to date (including his naked ass in a final humorous coda).
One of the most charming things about John Cena is his self-aware wit, something he’s likely learned from working crowds of thousands simultaneously chanting & booing his name (older, smarkier fans have long soured on his wholesome superhero routine). His first remark during the Q&A portion of the Blockers screening was that “So many kids have grown up so fast” as his eyes nervously scanned the room. His improvisational crowd-work was continually impressive as he fielded questions about what he likes about New Orleans (drive-through daiquiris), his current opinion of The Rock (left WWE too early), and his decision to appear naked onscreen (“I didn’t think anyone could see me”). It’s honestly less surprising that that he has fit in so well with the post-Apatow style of improv-heavy comedic filmmaking than it is that more pro wrestlers haven’t been tapped for the opportunity, given how life on the road immediately responding to vocal crowds train you for the skill. For my own part, I got to directly ask Cena a question that’s interested me since that eye-opening performance in Trainwreck: why has he been so clearly drawn to R-rated, adult comedies in recent years? The answer, unsurprisingly, was a well thought-out and entirely self-aware history of his career onscreen as a film actor, only confirming that the motivation I inferred was a deliberate, personal choice.
Cena answered the question by dialing the clock back to the early years of WWE Studios in the nu-metal 2000s, when he starred in more straight-forward, The Rock-ish action pictures like The Marine and 12 Rounds (the latter of which was set in New Orleans, appropriately enough). He explained that he participated in those productions to satisfy a desire from his “boss” (presumably WWE owner Vince McMahon) to expand the pro wrestling behemoth’s media brand. According to Cena, those were “bad” movies he filmed as a kind of contractual obligation (I personal enjoy both titles he referenced a lot more than he seems to), while newer projects like Blockers & Trainwreck have been much more personally fulfilling. He’s grateful to have “a second chance”s on the big screen and is finally doing what he wants to do . . . by appearing in R-rated sex comedies? John Cena is a 41-year-old man and, thus, not the clean-cut supehero character he’s developed in the ring. In an effort “to grow up” and “expand” his “depth of character” in his public persona, he’s deliberately choosing projects to challenge the wholesome image he’s developed within WWE in a shrewdly practical (and seemingly fun) way. What he didn’t admit, if you’ll allow me some room for editorializing, is that he’s also damn good at it. His roles in Trainwreck & Blockers especially got a lot of comedic mileage out of contrasting his straight-laced muscle man image with comedically incongruous raunch. It only makes the juxtaposition funnier to know that he’s incredibly aware of that image & how to actively subvert it.
To be honest, having children in the room for a raunchy sex comedy wasn’t even the most absurd touch to the Blockers Q&A. What was really bizarre was the image of a theater full of wrestling fans pawing at Cena for handshakes & autographs once they realized security was not going to impede their approach. It felt like watching the third act of mother!, except most of the admirers were children and a pro wrestler was attempting to maintain control at the godlike center. Children love John Cena and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hell, I think I love John Cena, even though I would have had a much more muted, complicated reaction to his persona just three or four years ago. My own turnaround on his presence is partly a response to WWE’s recent allowance for his spotlight to drift to other worthy performers on their roster, but it’s likely just as much due to his deliberate expansion of “depth of character” by participating in R-rated, horned-up comedies like Blockers. However, unlike The Rock, Cena still wrestles on TV fairly regularly, which means he’s maintaining his younger, more wholesome fanbase at the exact same time. For one wonderfully bizarre afternoon at the start of WrestleMania weekend I got to see both halves of that bifurcated fanbase converge for a screening of a very good, very much adult sex comedy. Only one end of the John Cena fanbase divide could have been corrupted or traumatized by that experience, though: the children. Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children?!