The World Turned Upside Down (The WrestleMania That Wasn't)
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Just to get this out of the way: this is not a piece about why wrestling forging on In the Time of Corona is or is not a good idea. I assume we've all heard the rumors about this decision to continue being more about a certain chairman's ego and we can all agree that continuing to produce wrestling shows is an extremely risky decision that is bound up with the impossible demands late stage capitalism places on all of us--and furthermore, I hope we can all agree that if wrestlers had a union anywhere near as powerful as the NBAPA, NFLPA, NHLPA, etc. things might look a lot different. But setting all that aside, let's look at the monumental task that WWE (and AEW, for the record) have laid out before themselves.
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Over the course of the next few weeks, WWE would set up the two big cinematic "matches": first AJ Styles challenged the Undertaker to a "Boneyard Match" and then Bray Wyatt (as "The Fiend"), a wrestler in the middle of a creative renaissance due in large part to a series of segments that take place in a demented B-horror version of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, challenged perennial WrestleMania headline-maker John Cena to a "Firefly Funhouse Match." The expectations couldn't have been lower for the Boneyard Match--it sounded like a complete joke just in name alone and Undertaker's in-ring work has been very below average by his standards for quite a few years--and couldn't have been higher for the Firefly Funhouse Match for all the reasons mentioned above. Both delivered in a way that I don't think anyone could have truly anticipated.
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Lucha Underground was actually well into its third season when Matt Hardy introduced the world to the Broken Universe and, more importantly, to perhaps the seminal example of an actual cinematic wrestling match in the modern era: a special episode of Impact! Wrestling entitled The Final Deletion. Even Lucha Underground, with all its cinematic qualities, had never really delved fully into doing an entire match filmed cinematically in a location other than a wrestling ring. The Final Deletion and the Broken Universe have been one of the most talked-about and most refreshingly creative and entertaining things in the wrestling world for the past four years. Even as Hardy returned to WWE and seemed to slip back into a Normal Matt Hardy gimmick before morphing into a bastardized version of the "Broken" Matt Hardy gimmick dubbed "Woken" Matt Hardy, people clamored for this shot of creativity he had been providing.
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It shattered them.
This was high art. It was poetry. It wasn't just dumb fun--to be sure, there was still plenty of camp and schlock but from a storytelling standpoint, this was quite possibly the most complex, nuanced, meditative segment that WWE (or perhaps any wrestling promotion) has ever produced. It was a thoughtful meditation on the full 18-year journey of John Cena the man and the character and his history with Bray Wyatt, confronting Cena with his deepest and darkest demons and seeming to accomplish the one thing that no other wrestler has ever accomplished: affecting permanent change in John Cena. I could go on forever diagramming everything about this journey but others have done this so much better than I ever could so I'll just refer you to the incomparable Brandon Stroud of UpRoxx's extensive analysis as well as independent wrestler Jay Walker's much more succint Twitter thread.
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And that got me thinking: you could make the argument that each of the cinematic wrestling matches at WrestleMania represents one of the two basic philosophies of WWE. The Boneyard Match could appeal to just about anyone--certainly there are character histories and a coherent story of sorts involved but even without those, any non-wrestling fan (especially if they love grindhouse or B-movie horror cinema) could absolutely get sucked in and love every minute of it. We'll call this the Vince McMahon philosophy--and, to be fair, it's likely more complex than this but there is a definite perception that the Vince philosophy is to appeal to the people that don't watch the show on a regular basis. It sacrifices character development and coherent storytelling in favor of making in-roads for new fans (and even this is likely giving them the benefit of the doubt in a big way). This philosophy has long-dominated the WWE main roster with a few (always VERY notable) exceptions. However, over the past 5-6 years the die-hard fans have been gifted with an exciting new product that seems to hold the exact opposite philosophy: NXT is, by and large, for us. We'll call this the Triple H philosophy as he is famously the chief creative force behind NXT.
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I think wrestling is the same, to some extent. As much as I love the stories Lucha Underground told (and I LOVED them with my whole goddamn heart), one of the biggest drawbacks to that approach is that you will never be able to fully appreciate Lucha Underground unless you watch the entire thing from the beginning and most people just aren't willing or able to do that. (Editor's Note: You can now use your quarantine time to do just that with Lucha Underground being FREE on Tubi!) Even other serial television shows have to do this with "Previously On" montages and the like but there's SO much going on in Lucha Underground that even those are insufficient. You need to give people in-roads into your show while still giving them logical, coherent, compelling stories and character development. It's a very difficult, delicate balance but I think it can be done. The pairing of the Boneyard Match and the Firefly Funhouse Match seems to support this thesis.
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Now, with WrestleMania 36, a show that almost didn't happen and perhaps shouldn't have, the evolution of wrestling in the post-kayfabe era appears to be on the precipice of a monumental sea change with cinematic wrestling as the centerpiece of that change. Triple H himself has already hinted at the possibility of WWE doing more cinematic matches in the future. The creative possibilities are endless in this new and exciting format and it could very well breathe life into an art form that so often feels stale and stuck in its own past. There are purists who may mourn the loss of the days of traditional, pure wrestling but I believe wrestling, like all things, must evolve to survive. And I can't wait to see what happens next.