'The sentiment was f*** this guy': John Cena talks early 'Peacemaker' backlash, a hit season and that massive finale cameo (spoilers!)

John Cena in Peacemaker. (Photo: HBO Max)
John Cena in Peacemaker. (Photo: HBO Max)

Warning: Major Peacemaker spoilers ahead

John Cena is a humble, gracious man. It’s evident in any conversation you have with him — we’ve had a few — and it’s all the more impressive considering his pedigree in the braggadocious world of professional wrestling. Not to mention his very large muscles.

But even through all his gratitude, read between the lines and it’s clear Cena, 44, wouldn’t mind slapping on his helmet and taking a victory lap right now.

James Gunn’s unlikely The Suicide Squad spinoff Peacemaker brought Cena’s unhinged, douchey, maybe-a-little-too-anti-human-antihero Chris Smith to the forefront and arrived on HBO Max in January with only moderate fanfare. Smith was thought to be DOA even by some of the staunchest DC Comics fans, and that’s not just because he caught a bullet and a building on top of him at the end of The Suicide Squad – which, while admired by viewers and critics, by the way, wasn’t much of a hit.

Peacemaker wrapped up Season 1 Wednesday, however, with an absolute sonic boom. Not to mention a quick renewal for a second season.

It proved an irreverent, violent, campy, vulgar, hilarious, singular new entity in the Warner Bros/DCEU canon. In teaming Smith with a new black ops crew to battle an invasion of body snatching alien “butterflies,” it made stars out of supporting cast members like Danielle Brooks (Leota Adebayo), Jennifer Holland (Emilia Harcourt), Steve Agee (John Economos) and Freddie Stroma (Vigilante/Adrian Chase).

With a 95 percent approval rating, it became the highest rated DCEU entry, above every movie. Its finale had the biggest single-day performance of any original series on HBO Max. And oh yeah, that finale also managed to stun fans with surprise cameos from the Justice League.

While on a coffee break shooting the upcoming action comedy Freelance in Colombia, Cena reflected on Peacemaker’s success story, that “integration” finale and what could be ahead in Season 2.

Yahoo Entertainment: Well, Peacemaker just made believers out of millions. How you feeling these days? You feeling the love?

John Cena: Well, it's always a great feeling to do something you love. I mean, I kind of got into the movie business for the wrong reasons. My boss wanted to make WWE superstars bigger stars. … My whole life I've been very lucky, but then I was lucky enough to get another shot at it with the small roles in movies like Trainwreck and Sisters and Daddy's Home and so on and forth. And that was kind of a shift. I really started pursuing projects that I loved and Peacemaker has been the ultimate in being able to do something that I truly love with a group of people that I care very dearly for, and to be able to put your heart and soul into something and then have people enjoy it … I'm used to the other way around. I'm used to people being extremely critical of my work and the chances that I take and all that. So it's a tremendous feeling. I'm very happy. Personally, I'm very happy for my castmates and the crew and certainly for James. Because James takes a lot of bold chances and this one was no different. He got everybody in an environment where they were willing to swing big, and big swings can be big misses, but when you connect, it pays off. And it is really a good feeling. And not only from the audience response, but certainly from HBO Max and Warners and the DC families for giving us another chance to make fools of ourselves for Season 2.

James Gunn and John Cena attend the Warner Bros. premiere of The Suicide Squad in August 2021. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
James Gunn and John Cena attend the Warner Bros. premiere of The Suicide Squad in August 2021. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In terms of Peacemaker as a character, we see the layers peeled off throughout the season, and he’s certainly more pure, more vulnerable than we thought. But on the surface, going into this series, he was looked at as this highly inappropriate, culturally insensitive guy. Did that feel like a risk, especially given how society in general seems to be getting more sensitive these days?

Yeah, well, did it seem like a risk? Sure. But not a bad one because it’s human. Peacemaker is heavily flawed. But what a difference a season makes. When we announced there'd be a Peacemaker spinoff series, he's so heavily flawed that the DC fan base, in loud voice, were like, “This is the worst f***ing character in The Suicide Squad. Why Peacemaker? Why not anyone else? Bloodsport, Ratcatcher 2 …” Like the sentiment was, “F*** this guy, because he's a bad guy.” And I get that because that's what they saw in The Suicide Squad. But there are those subtle moments, where he remembers to buy Ratcatcher 2’s rat Sebastian a drink. When he contemplates his entire existence in the tenth of a second when he kills somebody he admires [Rick Flag]. When he has a barrel pointed at Ratcatcher 2’s head and he is gonna just complete the deed because he's thorough, then overrides his inner-conscious. I saw a lot of layers there. And man, I think we can all relate to flaws. And once again, we're making television and we're making entertainment. And I think in that realm, you are allowed to take risks.

Not to mention what we find out Chris had to overcome to become a better person. His father’s a white supremacist supervillain. On a smaller scale it’s really relatable for any of us who’ve had a problematic parent, who has had to work to overcome or erase the thoughts they might’ve put into our heads as children.

I’m … uh … I’m searching for a question there. I’m very happy you were able to express your perspective. And I think a lot of people can see eye-to-eye with that perspective. I think a lot of people, in the process of growing up and figuring life out, it's safe to say that a lot of people probably had conflicts with their parents at one time, or a person that's really bad that might have had influence in their life at one time. It’s also safe to say that trauma isn't over in a 47-minute episode. I love the fact that Peacemaker remains flawed, even though the curtains fall on Season 1. He's grown a lot because he's been surrounded by a new environment, but he's still really heavily flawed. … James is a hell of a writer and a hell of a storyteller. And I like that he doesn't put a bow on something that impossible. It's just impossible.

Sorry if I got a little too personal there.

There's nothing wrong with that. If we can make something that brings people together, especially something that talks about something like that, I think we’ve done a helluva job.

Were there things you were surprised you got away with in Season 1?

I think it was just the integration [meaning the Justice League cameo] that you see in Episode 8. To me, that was really special. And I know it was done in light, and done in the taste of humor, but I really think that integration gave a lot of validation to Peacemaker as a member of the DC Universe. They really did us a huge favor and certainly I want to thank those involved. I think taking the audience on the eight-episode ride we did, it was extremely, extremely entertaining. But to have a button like that at the end of the show, man, that was great for the show. So I'm just very, very thankful for that. That's something I didn't think we’d pull off.

You could tell just by the social media sentiment, that that really knocked some socks off.

At one point Peacemaker says that he has a helmet that lets him breathe underwater. And then shortly after, we get that Aquaman cameo from Jason Momoa. Are you guys teasing a crossover where Peacemaker goes underwater with Aquaman?

I've done a few of these interviews after the finale and every one of them wants to speculate about what the hell is gonna happen in Season 2. And that makes great conversation because there’s excitement over the next season. But holy s**t, I'm not responsible for any of those choices. I don't write the thing. You gotta talk to the madman named James Gunn for that. I think he's very clever in everything he does, and he doesn't waste a sentence. So, in my perspective, those might indeed be safe dots to connect, but you never know. We may never see that. I don't control any of that stuff. And we can talk ourselves in circles about what's gonna happen on Season 2, but it's really up to just one guy.

Is there one thing you’d like to see Peacemaker do in Season 2?

I didn't have any hope for Peacemaker to even have a season. I thought after The Suicide Squad, I was a member of the squad that was eliminated. We kind of went into this thing with no expectation. I mean, I remember when James called me originally, he was like, “I got a show for Peacemaker and I wanna do eight episodes.” I'm like, “Damn, Peacemaker’s dead, dude. How do we do it?” He says, “I got you covered, are you in or out?” And I was in. So I don't know … I have full faith in James and whatever he writes, I'm into.

At least answer me this. Do you want to keep the same opening credits for Season 2, or do a brand new dance routine?

Once again, if you'd asked me, “Hey, what do you think about a crazy dance number for the opening credits?” I would’ve told you to f*** off. But James wrote it so we did it. And he cracked the code. People didn't skip the intro … And that's not just for one episode, people looked forward to it every episode. So he’ll come up with something crazy and he'll take a big chance. And if we did a huge dance number for Season 1, God knows what we're gonna do for Season 2. But I should be prepared to do anything. So we'll see.

John, it's always a pleasure to speak with you. I appreciate you taking time from set today.

I’m usually doing press to tell people to watch stuff. It’s an absolute privilege to talk to people after the fact about how much they enjoy something. So thank you. Thank you to all the viewers around the world. I mean this show has undoubtedly changed my life, so thank you. I'm very aware of that. I'm very grateful for it and I know it doesn't happen without people. If nobody watches a show, then it's not a success. So these types of interviews are rare and really cool to do. So thanks for your time.