Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Search of a New Hero: The Current State of WWE's Product

After recently watching a few of my favorite shows (Arrow, The Following), recalling another (24) and watching Broken City starring Mark Wahlberg, I connected one central theme in all of them: A flawed hero is looking for salvation and redemption. No one takes interest in a "goody two shoes" who lacks development and depth.

That is where the problem lies for John Cena and the WWE.

Cena has been the company's face for  over a decade now. He started as a young, hungry and aggressive young buck. He later caught on as an edgy, rapping white guy who could also beat the crap out of other wrestlers. At Wrestlemania 21 he beat John Bradshaw Layfield for the WWE title in a move that was expected, but felt right as everyone knew big things were on the horizon for the young Cena.

He dropped the rap gimmick (much to the chagrin of the 20-30 year-old male demographic) and appeared in WWE's films, various network television shows and made many media appearances. Cena is the all-time leader in wish-making via The Make-A-Wish Foundation. He spearheaded the WWE's involvement with Susan G. Komen and raising money for breast cancer research last October. For all intents and purposes, Cena is the good-est good guy of all time.

But why?

WWE learned a while back that Cena's popularity amongst women and children will bring in money hand over fist. Market a new shirt, hat, wristband or garden gnome and they will buy it. Heck, appear on a cereal box while you are at it. He is their cash cow, and the WWE is determined to keep it so.

Vince McMahon and company are so determined to keep Cena as a good guy and the money coming in, that they'll even have their announcers tell you during matches and segments that Cena is the most beloved superstar world wide. A few years ago, the love/hate from the fans was down the middle; fifty/fifty. But as of late, the hate seems to have grown even more and Cena is the unintentional cancer of World Wrestling Entertainment.

It's not that people (mainly young males, 20-30) hate John Cena the person. They hate John Cena the character. He has a jaw chiseled out of granite, a ripped build and a clean cut look that makes him uber-easy to market to the masses. He is the constant in a world full of heel and face turns. His moral compass always points north and no matter what, he'll come out smelling like roses. In 2013, this simply makes no sense.

Ryan Hardy, Jack Bauer, Oliver Queen and Billy Taggert are all heroes for various reasons, but not without flaws. They have been through many battles and experiences which shaped who they are and guide their actions. They live in a world  with shades of grey where winning the battle of good versus evil doesn't always mean doing the right thing.

Cena lives in the WWE Universe, but fenced off in a world of black and white. All the other wrestlers and personalities are in a less definite realm, affected by experiences and growing as characters. Cena has been through various battles over the years with scars to prove it. He has been tested at times with making tough decisions and challenged with seemingly insurmountable odds. But regardless of how uphill the current situation may seem, he always ends up at the top of the mountain looking down on his fallen foes. Eventually (usually the next night after a pay per view) he'll laugh it off amongst the jeers of the crowd and the vicious cycle continues.

The most recent example and what some would call an iceberg moment was his two-year feud against the Rock. Rock held the WWE title and beat Cena last year at Wrestlemania, and WWE tried to write a story of the hero who fails, but is now on the path of redemption and determined to make things right. Tried. 

The problem with John is that no one believes he'll lose, or that he's out of it. His character isn't one wired to be in search of redemption. CM Punk once said he's not the 2004 Boston Red Sox- he's the New York Yankees; the dynasty. No matter how many chances he gets, everyone knows he'll get another and eventually he'll be on top no matter what.

Sunday was the "make it or break it moment". I wasn't drawn in by the aspect of two all-time greats clashing for the second year in a row on wrestling's biggest stage. I was intrigued by the thought of a possible Cena heel turn booked correctly with him spiraling into despair and desperate to be the Champ again. The money is in the chase, they say. I was colossally disappointed as Cena won as he always does: with an Attitude Adjustment. There was no finding salvation or redemption as WWE wanted it to seem. It was just a 20 plus minute match which ended with the almost certain outcome.

The two shook hands and hugged after the match and raised arms on the rampway, and that was that. Nothing left to ponder and nothing to really make you want to tune in the next night on RAW.

With HHH getting older, Rock off to Hollywood, Alberto Del Rio still fitting into his newfound face role and CM Punk taking time off to heal, WWE is hurting when it comes to needing a face. Cena fills that void, and I understand that. But in a time when most character are cut from the same cloth and differ just slightly, a flawed hero/borderline bad guy could be just what the doctor ordered to help create new stars. Steve Austin and the Rock in the Attitude days were not perfect by any means. They were themselves and the crowd loved them for it. They never did the right thing for the sake of doing it because it was expected. Sometimes they made mistakes, bu these mistakes added to their character's development and depth.

If characters were houses, Cena would be a one level.

As he normally does, he came out Monday and was back to his normal, bi-polar, jovial self. Gone was the serious, matter-of-fact-ness a week prior heading into his match with the Rock. He undermined Mark Henry with sophomoric jokes and repeated an eight-year old catchphrase. This led to a match later in the night.

In between these events, Money In The Bank winner Dolph Ziggler cashed in and won the World Heavyweight Championship from Alberto Del Rio. The raucous New Jersey crowd erupted, partially because they respected Ziggler's rise to the top and were happy to see him attain a longtime goal. The other reason was because it was new.

Cena later won his match via count-out. Henry proceeded to attack him when out stormed the massive Ryback to stop it. With Henry gone, Ryback helped Cena up, then proceeded to lift him up for his finishing move, the Shellshock. Down went Cena.

While for any other wrestler it  would be considered a heel turn, Ryback's actions did not. He soaked in the cheers from the crowd. The crowd got what they wanted: something unexpected and refreshingly new. But can Cena help deliver the same as he begins his reign as WWE champion and feud with Ryback?

Only time will tell.

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