Just Business: WWE’s Heroes are Dying


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Just Business: WWE’s Heroes are Dying

This week on The Right Side of the Pond, Maverick and I sit down to discuss some general thoughts coming out of Survivor Series weekend, covering aspects of both the main roster’s inter-brand extravaganza and NXT’s reliably successful Takeover event from the night before, so be sure to fire up Lords of Pain Radio over on Blog Talk Radio in just a couple of hours for that discussion. In the meantime, I wanted to share a thought with you, a thought that cropped up during my chat with Mav: is it me, or are WWE’s heroes all dying?

It’s a fascinating state of affairs in WWE’s fictional universe these days, though you might not necessarily think it to begin with, thanks to a darkly clouded bigger picture that seems to somehow be going unnoticed. First with Becky Lynch, then with Johnny Gargano, then with Dean Ambrose and most recently with Daniel Bryan, one by one our heroes in WWE have been warping into something else entirely.

Some might chalk it up to coincidence. Some might use it as proof of WWE’s presumed spite towards its fan base. In honesty, I am eager to disregard both opinions in favour of discussing what it could be interpreted to mean on a deeper and, at the risk of sounding pompous (I know, right?), on an artistic level too.

Consider that WWE has always been the land of the hero. Where other fictional worlds created in other pro wrestling promotions have sometimes opted to utilise the chase as the primary means of getting the people behind the company’s elected hero – a method that inherently demands the dominance of a villainous champion – WWE, for better or worse, have normally opted for the opposite. Their history is awash with prolonged championship reigns of all-conquering heroes.

Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, John Cena and most recently Roman Reigns are all poster boys for both the creative method and the critical backlash it can often find itself inexorably attached to. Others, like Bret Hart, Steve Austin, The Rock and Daniel Bryan, benefitted from a less heavy-handed if no less confident approach – they still had their day, but not before they had to overcome believable, realistic adversity and had been seen doing so.

Imagine my growing fascination, then, with the recent changes to the WWE landscape of the last few months. The so-called ‘Land of the Hero’ seems to be showing its cynical post-modern side. In a world where audiences across mediums are provided with increasing amounts of ‘gritty realism’ in their art, not even the dogmatic WWE has proven itself to be immune to the temptation of tearing down idealism. One by one the previously incorruptible idols of these stories we love so much have turned, falling like dominos to the worst part of their natures.

Collectively, it’s a compelling anthology that sets up a highly unique atmosphere heading into WWE’s busiest time of year.

The fall of Ambrose, more personally motivated than any other similar self-destruction this year, has touched upon themes of self-loathing and suppressed frustration while toying with concepts of fraternal conflict and placing the inherently heinous nature of moral abstention at the heart of events. It has played out like a slow knife, one twisting painfully and relentlessly even now, finding its greatest horror from its sense of gradual inevitability.

Conversely, the fall of Lynch has proven to be a sympathetic one speaking more to the individualistic nature of the human moral compass, relatable to those watching and cheering on the self-proclaimed Man of WWE as a result. Lynch’s turn wasn’t Ambrose’s grind into inhuman barbarism but, instead, an explosive and indignant reaction to the perceived unfairness of the world. That Lynch’s condemnable actions continue to feel so easily justifiable is its most disturbing aspect.

The fall of Bryan has only just begun but even now offers up a vision of desperation and, in some respects, even of a pro wrestling-form of post-traumatic stress. Bryan has proven himself to be a man not in his right mind, seemingly overcome with the emotional hangover of the most traumatic experience of his character’s life (his enforced early retirement) and, thus, losing the struggle to find the right tools with which to process those events properly – resulting in an act of self-flagellation last Sunday, it seems, and a growing delusion of how the world works. He is a mortal reminder that there is no such thing as a ‘super’ hero, only human ones.

The fall of Gargano is another beast entirely, a more fantastical but no less compelling take on a familiar storytelling concept. We are all the hero in our own story, but what happens when there is no happy ending and we fail to measure up? What happens when heroism is just a flight of fancy? Johnny Wrestling is proving to be a pro wrestling Darth Vader; a boy of great promise, who becomes a man warped with the frustrated experience of not being able to achieve what he may very well believe he is destined to achieve. His is a fable of 21st century entitlement and insecurity.

These are harder-edged, considerably more three-dimensional and emotionally mature stories than the likes we’re used to seeing from WWE, especially when it comes to its staunchly solidified, usually borderline deified heroes. One by one the men and women who have represented some of the more morally admirable, morally unbendable characters in WWE’s fictional landscape, not just today but of all time, have collapsed in on themselves as their worst instincts have taken over. It’s a cynical, even pessimistic world view representative of the social atmosphere in the West today, and with it might come the natural result of a grittier, earthier and all-round grimier product.

Stories in pro wrestling, and especially in WWE, have never been more dependent on point of view than today. They’ve never been quite this subjective in their telling. There are those who will side with the fallen heroes of today. There are others, like myself, who will castigate their actions. Ultimately, though, it is like I say on tonight’s episode of the Pond: a rising tide raises all boats. Whether you’re for or against the actions of Lynch and Ambrose, Bryan and Gargano, their stories are each artistically and socially relevant, powerfully and emotively provocative, worth getting excited about in their own right and guaranteed to elevate the effect of their opposites – whether to you that means wrongs more deservedly hateful or victories more heroically uplifting.

Indeed, on that last note, for me it is noteworthy that, as these long-standing heroes continue to fall into ruin, rumours have started to circulate of a Seth Rollins / Brock Lesnar encounter at WrestleMania. Arguably WWE’s last remaining true hero of conviction facing off against WWE’s incarnation of pure evil at the heart of a growing storm at the height of its din – doesn’t that just suggest the starkest, most powerful contrast? It’s practically biblical!

It seems, then, to me at least, that the company has stumbled upon a unique and ever-expanding creative foundation for what could become an intensely emotional WrestleMania season in the months to come.

But that’s for then. For now, check out mine and Maverick’s thoughts on Survivor Series weekend in just a couple of hours on The Right Side of the Pond! Until then, if you have any thoughts on the themes I’ve discussed in this column, or about Survivor Series weekend in general, let them be known in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums, where TRSOTP and every other LOP Radio show has its very own discussion thread for you to throw some responses our way without the limitations of Twitter or Facebook; just click here to sign up!

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