Part of the May 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Early in the first season of HBO Max’s 2022 series Peacemaker, the titular antihero collapses on the bed in his tiny trailer and breaks down sobbing. He’s finally processing the events of the 2021 film The Suicide Squad, which introduced John Cena as Peacemaker. In that film, he killed government agent and nominally good guy Rick Flag. He feels bad about it. Maybe he and Rick could have been friends? But he didn’t even give them a shot.
Cena, who plays the complicated hero, is a former wrestler built like an extremely buff, smooth version of Gossamer, the big monster covered in red hair who was always threatening Bugs Bunny. Because of pop culture’s longstanding ambivalence toward the idea of a man of Cena’s size and stature openly weeping, it’s hard to watch this Peacemaker scene and not think there’s meant to be an ironic gloss on it. This is … supposed to be funny, right? Like the scene from the 2018 comedy Blockers in which the same actor sobs as he butt chugs?
The ironic gloss falls away the more you look at it. Yes, the emotions are so heightened that the scene is a little ridiculous, but both Cena and director James Gunn play this moment as sincere. When Peacemaker slaps himself and says that nobody likes him, there’s something more raw there than you might expect.
Still, this is a superhero show, and the question of “How seriously am I meant to take this?” is endemic to everything James Gunn makes. He’s fond of complicated tonal mishmashes that sometimes involve asking the audience to take seriously a sentient raccoon tearing up. Peacemaker is thornier than even that, however, because it’s balancing that tonal mishmash across eight full episodes of television, with more to come, and in every episode, John Cena invites you to be baffled by his try-hard dad energy.
This scene strikes me as a useful synecdoche for a larger cultural moment. We’re living through a new boomlet of muscle boys in our biggest movies and TV shows. In addition to Cena, Jason Momoa (the heartthrob) and Dave Bautista (the slightly too-intense coworker) have broken through to starring roles in the last decade, following in the footsteps of the enormously successful Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel.
Yet this new wave of absolute units feels like a direct response to — and a subversion of — Johnson’s on-screen persona. Where The Rock tends to play unflappable, effortlessly charismatic guys who never met an earthquake or skyscraper or jungle-themed board game they couldn’t dominate, the new crop of stars is comfortable with the emotional tension that arises when you’re not sure whether to laugh at them or cry with them.
This new trio of bulky himbo friends embraces our growing understanding that men can cry, too. So does this new wave of anhedonic Adonises represent a substantial break from the past? The answer is: a qualified possibly.
A brief history of musclemen, vulnerable and (mostly) otherwise
Before we get into how Bautista, Cena, and Momoa subvert (or don’t subvert) the archetype of a man so enormous even God cannot lift him, it’s worth understanding what that archetype is. A complete rundown of the role of the muscleman in American culture would be impossible in so limited a space, so let’s narrow things down. When considering the current crop, it’s worth understanding three major roles that mountains of man-flesh have played in our popular imagination: the action star, the professional wrestler, and the object of queer desire.
The action star will be the easiest lens through which many people will view the up-and-coming hunks. Musclebound movie heroes have been with us always, but the ultra-buff hero archetype has its roots in two 1980s and ’90s stars: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two men came to stand in for a very Hollywood brand of hyper-machismo that wedded the taciturn stoicism of classic movie men to an enormous brawn that appealed to the consumerist Reagan era.
Stallone started out in vulnerable roles — he broke through with 1976’s Rocky, in which he played a down-on-his-luck working-class boxer — but he very quickly hardened himself. Schwarzenegger traveled a roughly opposite path, going from playing monosyllabic killer robots to family men as he became the biggest star in the world.
“The deeper Schwarzenegger got into his marriage [to Maria Shriver], the more domestic subjects became prevalent in all of his movies,” says Matt Singer, the editor of ScreenCrush, who has argued at length for Schwarzenegger as an auteur. “Can this Arnold figure settle down? Can he play a married man? Can he be happy being a married man?”
The enormous popularity of Schwarzenegger worldwide created the stardom archetype that all musclemen to follow would offer their own spin on, none more successfully than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson first obtained fame as a professional wrestler, another avenue through which big men could make their name. Though many wrestling superstars who attempted to move into other forms of performance found themselves unable to (Hulk Hogan bombed as a movie star), the performance sport commands a healthy audience even in this age of depressed TV ratings.
In wrestling, “the symbol of a real man is that he shows he can win. He loses, often, but he gets back up and he fights again,” says Sharon Mazer, a professor of theater and performance studies at the Auckland University of Technology and the author of the book Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. “The only difference is a good man wins by following the rules and defending the community. And a bad man wins by breaking the rules and thumbing his nose at the community.”
Almost all wrestlers switch with abandon between playing good guys (“faces”) and bad guys (“heels”) across their careers. Those roles also echo the simplistic roles they tend to play on the big screen when they break through, either taking on the role of the unstoppable force who will do anything to save the day or the burly brick wall who protects the villain from seeing any consequences.
Yet if you notice a commonality between the brawny action star and the hyper-muscular wrestler, it’s that both archetypes feel a little sexless. There’s a simple reason for this, theorizes Lee Mandelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky who teaches a course on gender in popular culture: For much of the first half of the 20th century, you were most likely to encounter the muscleman in the era’s equivalent of gay porn.
To get around obscenity laws at that time, many magazines catering to queer men would bill themselves as “physique” magazines. They would have articles about how to build a better, more muscular body, but they would also come with lots and lots of pictures of barely clad men showing off their figures. Most subscribers weren’t getting these magazines for the articles. As such, for most of the early 20th century, strongmen were heavily associated with homosexuality. That’s a legacy musclemen have run from, in complicated ways.
The poses in those magazines are not all that dissimilar to the poses that Schwarzenegger made as a bodybuilder or that wrestlers ape in the ring. Indeed, Mazer says, for much of the early history of mainstream professional wrestling, many “villainous” wrestlers were queer-coded, with names like “Gorgeous George.” They could still fight, but they were also suggested to be gay.
Mandelo theorizes that all of that combined into a weird psychosexual soup that added up to: Straight men should want to look like this but never want to fuck it. And that continues to this day.
“There’s a sexuality to that that made straight men very uncomfortable. You cannot have the power fantasy for straight cisgender men by staring at a John Cena without being able to completely desexualize it,” Mandelo says. “If the body that you’re staring at to fantasize about this ideal masculine man is erotic, then you are participating in that eroticization of a man’s body.”
As obscenity laws lifted and it became easier to legally obtain images of half-naked or even completely naked men, the idea of the muscleman as an object of queer desire never entirely lifted. Offsetting this, Schwarzenegger and The Rock tend to star in very chaste love scenes (if they do at all), and when characters played by Cena or Bautista suggest that they might be sexual beings, the other characters tend to find that idea mildly ridiculous. Obviously, individual attractions vary, and you might think any one of these actors is incredibly hot. In the wider popular culture of the US, however, our movies and TV shows typically present these men as action figures who almost might seem to lack genitalia.
So, burly action star, professional wrestler, extremely buff but weirdly sexless man: Put ’em all together and whaddya get?
On the significance of John Cena dancing in the Peacemaker opening credits
Big men never left our collective subconscious. For much of the 21st century, one of the biggest stars in the world has been Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson, however, is … kind of boring as a movie star. He stars in movies with names like Skyscraper and Rampage and Jungle Cruise, movies where the title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get.
“His body of work has the same effect as pouring some water on a sizzling hot sidewalk. In a few minutes, it’s going to disappear,” says critic Angelica Jade Bastién, who works for Vox’s sister site Vulture. “I’ve seen so many of his movies, and I barely, barely remember most. He’s not doing anything interesting physically or with humor. He’s just a block of body that has been sculpted, like some automaton that’s been created in a Hollywood lab.”
The hyper-competence and artificiality of Johnson left plenty of space for an enormous man who would show his softer side. A few dudes stepped into that niche. Vin Diesel became the chief creative mastermind behind the Fast & Furious movies and turned them into maybe the sappiest thing at the multiplex. Similarly, the work of Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello in the Magic Mike franchise presented two big, beefy boys who only cared about her pleasure.
“These are very buff dudes, and they’re presenting themselves overtly as like, ‘Hey, you can look at me. This is fine. This is for you,’” says writer and critic Jude Doyle. “When men have the humility that allows them to be soft and approachable and funny and when we feel like they’re presenting themselves to us, for our enjoyment, and not just inflicting themselves on the world, there are ways in which that shifts and challenges power.”
Thus, the stage was set for the rise of our current sensitive (but not too sensitive!) big men: Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, and John Cena. And that means it’s time to talk about the opening credits of HBO Max’s Peacemaker, specifically John Cena’s dancing.
This sequence could have come off as ridiculous. Cena seems uncomfortable, and his moves are stiff and unconvincing, particularly compared to some of his costars. Indeed, Cena wasn’t terribly comfortable! “I don’t dance; it’s something I’m not very comfortable with,” he told Vox sister site Polygon of a different dance number in Peacemaker.
Cena’s discomfort is a potent example of what makes these men seem so vulnerable on screen: They have a willingness to seem imperfect, despite their enormous, sculpted bodies. Directors like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad auteur James Gunn (who has worked with both Bautista and Cena) and Dune’s Denis Villeneuve (who has worked with both Bautista and Momoa) love to use those imperfections against the actors’ assumed on-screen personas. Villeneuve might turn Bautista into a sad robot who just wants to be a farmer or have Momoa play an expert warrior who nevertheless spends several moments before a huge fight staring at a bug crawling around on his hand.
Gunn is deeply invested in forcing you to see his stars’ imperfections. In the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, he slowly but surely shows you the soft underbelly of Bautista’s humongous, destructive warrior Drax the Destroyer. Drax has the requisite tragic backstory (his family was murdered), which is explored in the first film. In the second, Drax opens up even more, becoming friends with the new character Mantis, in a relationship that is as close to a raw, genuine friendship as the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows itself to get. The scenes are touching and even tender, laced with deep melancholy and occasional bursts of self-deprecating laughter.
Within the tightly controlled confines of the MCU, only so much in the way of genuine emotion that’s not undercut with snark is possible. Maybe that’s why Gunn goes even further in Peacemaker. Or maybe it’s just John Cena.
“I knew there was a vulnerability to John Cena that I would be able to help carve out and present to the world,” Gunn told the Hollywood Reporter shortly before Peacemaker debuted. And Peacemaker in particular goes over the top in terms of its attempts to get you to see Cena as more than his physique. He argues with his racist dad. He sincerely befriends the other members of his elite assassin squad. He makes fun of himself with abandon. And he dances, including in his tighty-whities.
The wonders and limitations of big men being vulnerable on screen
Momoa, Bautista, and Cena have very different on-screen energies. For instance, Momoa tends to play big guys who yell a lot, which would seem the opposite of vulnerability, but he’s also quite comfortable with being an object of on-screen desire. Of this trio of brawny stars, he seems most capable of pulling off a genuine love scene. And you can’t be comfortable being desired if you’re not comfortable letting your guard down just a little bit.
What’s more, both Cena and Momoa have been more than willing to show off their off–screen vulnerability in ways that underscore that they’re just enormous dudes who seem fun to hang out with. Momoa did a whole press cycle about how he’s glad to be super sensitive. Cena has arguably spent even more time expressing the idea that his vulnerability and his status as an enormous hunk can live right next door to each other.
“John Cena has done commercials about how the average American is not a white man, [in which he’s] speaking to predominantly other straight white men who would idolize him for his body and his fitness,” Mandelo says. “He talks about softness being important and how men should open up more.”
The degree to which these mountains of man-flesh have made that vulnerability core to their on-screen personas goes beyond what earlier musclemen have made central to who they are. It feels as though it’s in conversation with a larger willingness in our culture to talk about how men need to embrace their emotions.
Is that enough? Maybe not. Vulture’s Bastién threw a bit of cold water on my notion that these performers represent something exciting. Yes, they’re more interesting on-screen performers than Johnson, but … what a low bar! Bastién argues that these stars put on imperfections as an affectation. It doesn’t matter that John Cena can’t dance if his body is completely perfect.
“Leading men’s bodies and their star image exist at the intersection of virile and vulnerable. We’re in a moment where there’s no balance between those two poles. Someone like Timothée Chalamet is vulnerable to the point of being joked about as if he’s the ghost of a Victorian child,” Bastién says. “On the other end of the spectrum, they’re so muscular it feels like it’s in some weird, uncanny valley territory. We’re not really seeing male stars who exist on a more interesting continuum.” Cena, Bautista, Momoa — they’re all the virile subsuming the vulnerable, trying to be everything all at once. And that chokes out anything else.
No matter how vulnerable these actors are on screen, none of that re-sexualizes the muscular man because the idea that an enormous guy could also be hot runs headlong into our cultural homophobia. Mandelo points to K-pop star Wonho as the kind of big, muscular guy that would cause many American brains to short-circuit. Yeah, he’s built, but he’s also in videos like this one, where he’s just rolling around in bed.
“It is not the Superman body that is untouchable and idealized. This is a body that can be naked, that can roll around and get sweaty,” Mandelo says. “I think our discourse around desire has gotten so wonky and hyper-conservative since the ’70s that we have trouble seeing being the object of desire as a positive, particularly for men.”
When vulnerability is a weapon
The understandable temptation when thinking about how Peacemaker’s tears are a very, very slight course correction from former, more impervious heroes is to label those tears as somehow vaguely feminist or progressive. “Finally! Someone is saying men can have emotions!” goes the clickbait headline in my mind. As several of the people I talked to suggested, however, overstating the value of such an advance might run the risk of saying that all men have to do to build a better masculinity is be a little more open with their vulnerability. Men’s vulnerability isn’t nothing, but it’s not everything either.
That said: I don’t want to understate the importance either, because contrast John Cena dancing in the Peacemaker credits with whatever this is.
Excerpted from Tucker Carlson’s nightly Fox News talk show by Nikki McCann Ramírez, an associate research director at Media Matters for America, the clip is a forthright celebration of testosterone, which Carlson fears is disappearing from American life. The clip depicts manly men flipping over tires and firing guns and irradiating their testicles (like you do). It is, frankly, bonkers. (Mandelo snarked to me that “just about every gay man on the internet was, like, ‘Somehow he accidentally made the intro to a porn.’”)
When you contrast Carlson’s clip with the more sensitive performances and off-screen personas of Bautista, Cena, and Momoa, it’s tempting to read the two cultural movements as being in direct opposition, or at least pulling in wildly different directions. To some degree, that’s true. Carlson’s celebration of testosterone isn’t directly in conversation with a dancin’ John Cena, but they’re definitely two different visions of American masculinity. And Carlson’s vision is one designed to cater to and comfort an audience whose own manhood might feel less immediately potent as they age.
“Fox News’s audience tends to be a little older, and a lot of this masculine testosterone craze is targeted at people who are going through a natural cycle of aging. Their testosterone levels are decreasing. They’re not the virile men they were in their 20s,” says Ramírez. “What Fox does very effectively is conflate a natural progression of life and society as a personal attack by political forces.”
What’s super weird about this is that outside of the mega-buff Joe Rogan (who isn’t a Fox News personality but is deeply involved in the extremely masculine world of UFC), the right-of-center audience Fox News targets doesn’t have a physical form to hold up as “what a man is.” Instead, Carlson’s clip imagines a man who might possibly exist somewhere and will come to save testosterone. Or something.
“What they have are strains and pieces of things that they like, but there’s no whole person for them to project that onto. There’s no figurehead, really, outside of Rogan,” Kristen Warner, an associate professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama, says. “There is no symbol. There is no image to cast your eyes and your fantasies upon. So what they do is just kind of make shit up to approximate something real as best as possible.”
Yet Fox News keeps trying to prop up that imagined man all the same. Every few months, it turns up with another story about how maybe it’s weird when men cry. However, when emotions are expressed for a purpose that the network reads as worthy, then those emotions become okay to express. I probably only need to mention Brett Kavanaugh’s or Kyle Rittenhouse’s tears to make this point, but the network’s entire m.o. involves stoking anger and fear and frustration in its viewers.
“I actually think hegemonic masculinity allows for a lot of emotions,” Mandelo says. “In fact, it may mythologize that men are supposed to be stoic, but in reality, it’s more of an excuse to feel extremes of emotion and make them other people’s problem.”
That’s the thing: On-screen vulnerability is always being used somehow, whether to make a larger political point or just to get you to consider that maybe if John Cena can cry, you can cry too (which is also a larger political point). I don’t know if there’s a lot of value in seeing big, vulnerable dudes, but it’s also not valueless. And that’s why I and so many others I talked to for this article keep coming back to John Cena.
“He pushes farther than what Schwarzenegger and his peers did or thought they wanted to do,” Warner says. “He’s pushing into this place where he’s, like, ‘No, my body isn’t a symbol of all these things that you read it as. I would actually like to re-appropriate what my body signals and what my body stands for.’”
Peacemaker, after all, is a literal tool of the US government, a hard body who was used to do terrible things. Yet the arc of his TV show is about what it might mean to try to break free of that mold, to find a way to be a hero that doesn’t involve simply doing what he’s told. Maybe that’s not revolutionary to someone like me, who spends lots of time thinking about this stuff, but it sure seems like it’s revolutionary to somebody. Maybe, just maybe, it’s chipping away at some very old, very suffocating ideas, one tighty-whitie dance at a time.
Emily St. James is Senior Correspondent for Vox.