Monday, March 30, 2015

TV Recap: WRESTLEMANIA XXXI (Partial)

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Did one of these for the old outlet a year ago, figured I might as well put a new one up here and see how the reaction goes. Almost didn't, because the "venue" I chose to watch the show wound up not actually putting it on the main screen until almost an hour in because a prior sports-event tied and ran long, but I saw what seemed to be the "big" matches so I'm going for it. I feel like there's a pretty solid crossover between Wrestling fandom and the rest of geek culture, but I also feel like it ought to be even moreso. Anyway, we'll see.

PROLOGUE (NON-SPOILERS):
On the off chance that you've decided to read this recap as a non-fan (or casual fan) of pro-wrestling, a brief explanation behind (some) of what's going on here: Wrestlemania is the WWE's biggest annual event, and while it's not a strict rule this is the show where the biggest spectacle match-ups (i.e. "you never thought you'd see these two fight!") and title defenses are expected to take place and where (some) of the year's long-running kayfabe (in-ring/in-character) biggest storylines are expected to either resolve or twist in some dramatic fashion.

(More prologue and SPOILERS after the jump)


Last year's 'Mania was one for the ages (or, at least, it's being short-term remembered as such) mainly based on two huge moments: The Undertaker's 21 year/21 match undefeated streak being ended by former UFC wrecking-machine Brock Lesnar and uber fan-favorite underdog Daniel Bryan (real name Bryan Danielson) becoming World Heavyweight Champion. Those two angles, happening at once, seemed to (and seemed meant to) solidfy Lesnar and Bryan and the new top heel and babyface (villain and hero) of the company, and storyline that could've potentially carried through much of the year... but didn't.

Bryan sustained an (actual) injury that ended up grounding him for months, by many accounts scrambling a good number of intended creative directions, leading to franchise-mainstay John Cena getting thrust back into the top face spot (replacing his then-waning "white rapper" persona with a semi self-aware Superman/Captain America-style implausibly-earnest good guy routine) and endure an utterly brutal squash (re: super-lopsided) match against Lesnar at Summerslam that most suspect was meant for Bryan. The intended (narrative) outcome was the same re: The Championship Belt is now on the waist of the hated "legend-killing" heel who not only enrages fans with his cocky lack of repect for WWE history but also terrifies... well, pretty-much everyone by looking more physically-lethal than anyone else in the business now (seriously, go look up a picture of this guy - he looks like something out of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR.) But it helped supercharge an awkward rift between WWE and it's own fanbase.

Short version: Present-day WWE is working through what's being called "The Reality Era." This is supposed to mean that the kayfabe storylines stick semi-close to either actual reality re: Wrestler's personalities/life-situations or a semblance of reality in general - no more magic powers, no more outlandish excuses for rivalry. What it actually means, so far, is WWE doing the same storyline stuff it's always done, just augmented by oddly-arranged boundaries of "realism." For example: No one is supposed to believe "scary" characters like Undertaker have supernatural powers anymore, but we are asked to believe that they can control the practical special-FX, pyrotechnics and arena electrical-systems used to simulate those powers... and that this is just as dangerous. See also: Big Show (real name Paul Wight, aka "The Giant") is allowed to roll his eyes and laugh-off the silliness of starting off his professional career billed as the vengeance-seeking son of Andre the Giant (he's not)... but his most-recent heel-turn into an enforcer for reigning heel-squad The Authority? That's "real."

Problem? The "reality" of the business as envisioned by WWE Creative itself (or, if you buy the scuttlebutt, as-envisioned by aging WWE CEO Vince McMahon, with the rest of the company being more in-sync with the fanbase but powerless to change the boss's mind) is increasingly at odds with fandom. The best illustration of this is Cena, a workhorse perpetual-babyface beloved by younger fans (supposedly he's resisted a long-expected heel-turn because it might impact his usefulness to charities like Make-A-Wish) but increasingly disliked by older fans weaned on "Attitude Era" (re: WWE's violent/sexually-charged 90s incarnation) anti-heroes who drive the message-board and podcast side of wrestling fandom. It doesn't help that he's also emblematic in general of the "Vince-preferred" superstars (big-personality stars whose skill-set is often second to looking like live-action comic book heroes) that core wrestling fandom views as getting unfair pushes over guys like Bryan (i.e. scrappy multi-talents with real technical grappling chops but who don't have the "look" the company prefers in champions for marketing purposes.

As such, the REAL "reality" storyline of the last year has been crowds (fairly or not) vocally refusing to support the kayfabe narrative - which, since these shows are live, can derail matches and force Creative's hand. As a result, fans turned on Cena (hard enough to effectively derail the "Death & Rebirth of Superman" story meant to spin out from the Summerslam squash) and even more harshly on Roman Reigns, a relative newcomer also seen as a "Vince pick" (depending on your frame of reference, he either looks like Cena and The Rock had a baby or if Khal Drogo joined G.I. JOE) which has thrown the face/heel dynamic into utter disarray: Heading into 'Mania, a good deal of fans are actively rooting against Cena in favor of "bad guys" like Rusev (a Russian-aligned, America-hating usurper of the United States Championship) and even Lesnar - since it's Roman Reigns who emerged from The Royal Rumble having won the right to challenge the champ.

So what happened? Here we go, match by match (including the ones I didn't see) with FULL SPOILERS:

PRE-SHOW: 
Wasn't able to see either of these (okay Vince, you win - I'll get The Network) because I was watching the regular PPV feed at my usual hangout for 'Manias of the last few years (shouldn't have this year, because of the delays), but it's weird to see the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal - such a fun event last year - relegated to the two pre-show matches (the other was a tag-team title fight, and WWE's tag division is dull as hell right now). The change is likely mostly to do with last year's winner, Cesaro, failing to get real heat off of it, but it still feels like a miss considering they wound up using this match to end the "Mizdow" storyline (Damien Sandow being the "stuntman"/indentured servant to The Miz) and handed the tropy to a dominant Big Show. Now comes the big (pardon the pun) question: Does Show take this opportunity (I doubt he's going to have a title run again, realistically) and retire into a Legends contract?

LADDER MATCH (Daniel Bryan, Stardust, Dolph Ziggler, Luke Harper, Dean Ambrose, R Truth & Bad News Bryan for Intercontinental Championship):
Only got to see snippets of this, because of venue issues, but it's the one I'm most looking forward to seeing (I'll update this recap afterwards) because these guys are all damn good performers and it's being called the match of the night by some folks I trust. Booking-wise, this is the kind of "meta-match" (i.e. the kayfabe storyline is a nod to real-life fan/sport/business issues) that seems set to define the Reality Era: The IC belt has been passed around so much at this point, WWE has essentially thrown up it's hands and said "fuck it, just hang the damn thing above the ring and let six guys fight over who gets to pull it down."

The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion: Bryan takes the belt and the title. At first glance this seems like a downgrade, relegating the fan-favorite (of vocal "hardcore wrestling" fans, in any case) to a mid-card title, and maybe it is... but it also feels like a canny move. WWE has been letting the Heavyweight belt become less frequently-contested as it moves to having more and more "superstars" under limited-appearance contracts like Lesnar, so putting a "second tier" belt on a crowd-pleaser like Bryan potentially gives them opportunity to have regular title-stakes matches with at least one guaranteed draw on non-Mania PPVs the rest of the year. Bryan gets another title run, fans get high-profile matches more regularly and the IC Title itself gets some much-needed prestige back.

RANDY ORTON vs SETH ROLLINS
Shitty venue impediment #2 (last one, I promise), only caught the end of this one. Decent match (these guys are good) that wound up as a Battle of The Special Moves, but lacking heat because Orton has already been allowed to get his revenge on Rollins (he bounced Orton out of The Authority back when they were both henchmen) by brutalizing him on Monday Night RAW the last few weeks. Basically, it was overly transparent (even for Wrestling) that this match only existed to provide a plausible excuse for Rollins to be at the show other than to cash in his Money In The Bank briefcase (a totem won in a yearly contest which its owner can exchange for an anytime/anywhere/no-exceptions shot at the Heavyweight Title) but did we really need a whole match for that?

STING vs TRIPLE H
Okay, a little more history for non-fans who (for whatever reason) might be reading this: Once upon a time, WWE had an equally (for the most part) powerful rival Wrestling outfit in WCW (World Championship Wrestling) which both peaked and ended during the 1990s "Monday Night Wars" (both companies had competing Mondays shows). Big stars used to go back and forth between the two companies based on who was offering better contracts (or hiring guys the other league had kicked out), but not always: Sting stayed with WCW all the way through to it's eventual conquering and assimilation by WWE and never once changed teams; effectively making him WCW's equivalent to both Undertaker (eternally loyal to WWE) and Hulk Hogan (Sting has almost-always been one of the good guys.)

Now, he's making his first ever WWE debut at the age of 56 for what most assume will be a handful (at best) of big Nostalgia Bait fan-service matches to ensure his place as a proper Wrestling legend since - with WCW gone and apart from a stint in the short-lived TNA outfit - he's been out of the game long enough that a whole generation of fans doesn't really know him. This is the first of these matches, against Triple H (aka "Hunter Hearst Helmsley" - also not his real name) who was also a Monday Night Wars fixture but has since ascended to being an in-ring part-timer with powerful connections to WWE management (he's married to Vince McMahon's daughter Stephanie, which actually started as an angle and turned into the real thing) that have him playing the role of (kayfabe) Chairman.

Problem: This is a match fans would've killed to see... 15 years ago. Today? These guys are both in shape you or I might even in our 50s, but they're still past prime in terms of physical combat - even partially-staged. So they went and made the match memorable by doubling-down on 90s Nostalgia and old-school rasslin' silliness. Sting entered via a Japanese drummers' corps, Triple-H rolled out flanked by Terminator endoskeletons (I don't get it?) The match itself was mostly a mid-speed, methodical slugfest and exchange of special moves... and then the crazy shit started.

Triple-H's 90s bad guy team, Degeneration X, came out to help him. Sting got his own backup in the form of his WCW frienemies The New World Order (Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall). Yeah, it was a bunch of old men pretend-fighting for a nonsensical nostalgia pop. But, damn it... DX VS NWO AT WRESTLEMANIA!!! STING GOT HIS BAT! TRIPLE-H GOT HIS SLEDGEHAMMER! HOGAN ACTUALLY TAKES A BUMP! SCOTT HALL (who was near-death not long ago, supposedly rehabilitated by Wrestler-turned-yoga-guru "Diamond" Dallas Page) STING'S BAT CHOPS THE HAMMER IN HALF!!! AND IT ENDS WITH A MUTUAL-RESPECT HANDSHAKE THAT'S TOTALLY OUT OF CHARACTER FOR BOTH GUYS BUT WHATEVER!!! The whole thing was stupid-awesome in the way that only Wrestlemania can be. Sting ultimately lost, which was to be expected - it means he'll be doing at least one more match (the worst kept secret in Wrestling is that WWE is hoping Sting and Undertaker remain able to move under their own power for a double-retirement match at next year's 'Mania.)

DIVAS TAG-TEAM (AJ Lee & Page vs The Bella Twins)
Oy. The Divas (Women's) Division is the other spot where WWE is having problems with fan-management - in this case, with the divided nature of their own evolving fanbase. The Divas have more cultural cache than ever thanks to the TOTAL DIVAS reality show on E!, but that very show and other (admittedly clumsy) attempts to make the division appeal to an actual female audience has engendered backlash from traditional (male) fans more used to the Attitude Era approach to female wrestlers (read: a smaller stable whose kayfabe characters are carefully-fitted into the "cool athetlic chick" sweet-spot on the tomboy-to-pornstar scale of hawtness).

As a result, the only story Creative seems to know how to tell is positioning whichever Diva core fans are most "okay" with (right now it's English goth-rock/bike-chick Page, who to her credit is a hell of a talent) as the lone "cool girl" up against the rest of her division as caricatures of annoying (to men) trends in female-skewing pop-culture. It's a shame, because everyone in this match has good wrestling fundamentals and work hard in the ring (AJ and Page earned their victory), but the division needs an overhaul if they want to stop wasting talent.

RUSEV vs CENA (United States Championship Title Match)
That thing I mentioned in the prologue about Daniel Bryan's sidelining and fandom mutiny blowing up the heel/face dynamic this year? Big bad Russian (he's actually Bulgarian, said to be living in Russia) heel Rusev is the guy whose probably both benefited and been hurt by it most in equal measure. His still young career is a case-study in the unpredictability of living kayfabe. WWE has run a perfect playbook of turning him into a Putin-era revival of the Soviet Super-Athlete heels that reigned in the 80s: He (and his girlfriend/manager Lana) trash talk the U.S., beat down patriotic soldiers who rush the ring, wave the Russian flag, deliver monologues in praise of Vladimir Putin and proudly rub Rusev's ironic ownership of the U.S. Title in the faces of fans...

...but it hasn't really worked. Putin may be a bastard, but he doesn't get the kind of "villain pop" from patriotism-susceptible audiences that, say, an ISIS-aligned figure probably would (no way in HELL is WWE touching that again, though); and the in-on-the-joke Millennial "smark" fans who might be inclined to go along with an obvious throwback storyline like this don't really care about a storyline that's basically a longform ROCKY IV reference. Finally, without a properly "over" (crowd-loved) face to be the hero, the story doesn't work. Ironically, this has actually helped Rusev on the non-narrative side: The crowds increasingly love this guy. He's a tremendous specimen for one thing, sporting a 1920s circus-strongman build with most of his weight is in his barrel-chested torso and propelling himself around on nimble legs with alarming speed for a brute this size; and he's a great in-ring storyteller with expressive pantomime.

In other words, he'll probably be the first popular young heel to emerge from a beatdown from Cena better for the experience in the immediate (a similar loss derailed Bray Wyatt's character for much of last year). There'll be some reinvention, but properly-managed this guy could easily be a Heavyweight contender in a year or two - especially if they can find a decent opportunity to flip him to babyface since he's already over with the fans. For now, it can be said that this was a HELL of a fight from a pure physical standpoint. Whatever else can be said about Cena, he works his ass off in the ring, and Rusev has such a unique physicality to his move-set that they couldn't help but make eachother look good. Finally, much like Bryan becoming IC Champ, Cena having the U.S. belt makes it a major title for the first time in forever and gives WWE a chance to book meaningful title matches more often and with bigger stars (Cena, in particular, will pretty-much fight anyone in any venue The McMahons point him at.)

TRIPLE-H & STEPHANIE vs THE ROCK & RONDA ROUSEY (non-match)
And now comes the part where you (here meaning the people in charge) put on some heavily scripted business guaranteed to go over huge and leave the crowd shell-shocked because the very next match could potentially go super-bad and you need something to overshadow or at least level-off that for Monday.

So out come Triple-H and Stephanie McMahon (currently known as "The Authority" in a double-act version of Vince's Attitude Era "bad boss" routine) to piss all over the nice handshake ending to the Sting match by reminding the fans that they're arrogant bad guys. Then out comes The Rock (presumably this is part of his FURIOUS 7 tour) to "stick up" for the fans. Stephanie slaps him and pulls the "you won't hit a girl" card... so The Rock goes down and retrieves UFC WOMEN'S CHAMP RONDA ROUSEY from the crowd so she can talk some trash before judo-throwing Triple-H out of the ring and snapping an arm-lock on Stephanie. Oh, and she does so while sporting a Dragon Ball Z tank-top, which suggests she "gets" Millennial gym-culture WWE fanboys better than WWE Creative does.

It's a ridiculous spectacle (the Reality Era version of stunt-matches featuring celebrity athletes from other vocations) but it kills. This is the Wrestlemania Moment people will be talking out this year. Even if just for this bit, Rousey is a huge "get" - she's probably the best known Mixed Martial-Arts fighter on the planet of any gender right now - but if this is (as many suspect) a setup for her taking a few event matches (or even a full stint?) in WWE that's a big damn deal for the sport given how much steam the idea of WWE contracts as an acceptable halfway-point for MMA stars who want to go out healthy but not fully retire has gained in the last few years. If Rousey was wrestling in WWE, it'd be the biggest thing to happen in the sport for years in terms of pop-culture visibility and "real" sports-world coverage.

But what do they do with her, if she does take a run at it? A decade ago, it'd be an easy answer: Work the "world's deadliest woman" angle, have her qualify for the men's division, set up some showy victories over impressive-looking male opponents (since she's UFC, crowds will "buy" that she can put big guys out with head-strikes), put a mid-card belt on her, maybe build up a "sexist" heel (oh man, how good would Miz be at this schtick??) for some Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs business for a PPV. But today? If she was willing to sign for a full stint, Rousey could be the legitimizing force the Divas' Division has been hurting for - put the belt on her, and suddenly The Divas' Title is on the cover of every fight/fitness magazine still in print, and any challenger who doesn't embarrass herself against The Champ can quickly shed the "reality stars pretending to wrestle" stigma unfairly slapped on the whole division. As of now, if she jumps in at all it'll likely be for an "official" mixed-tag rematch of this gag, but man do I want to see the Divas Belt on her now.

UNDERTAKER vs BRAY WYATT
Fun meta-booking with the old and new "scary guy" wrestlers going at it, but tension is pretty-much nil here: Taker needs to win at Wrestlemania to erase the Lesnar-launching loss from last year, Wyatt is a well-booked opponent because he's a brawler but not a speed-demon so Taker's age looks like less of an issue than it did against The Beast. The result is a very solid match between two consumate pros, but... let's get real here: I think most men would give up quite a bit to be in the kind of shape Mark William Callaway (Undertaker) is at 50, especially considering the brutal physical endurance that's characterized his career... but it's still increasingly hard to watch him take some of these bumps - or even some of these landings. In-motion it's one thing, but go look at some of the stills of this match and try not to think "Jesus - that man could cripple himself in that ring right now."

But! It played out decently, and the point was proved: He's still got it, and if he can hold his own against a young scrapper like Wyatt he can probably make one more 'Mania. If the dream match comes together and he and Sting do go at it for Double Retirement at Wrestlemania XXXII, what you'll likely see is two 50+ men beat eachother to the brink of mutual oblivion, then stand up together for the biggest sustained cheers/tears wave in WWE history.

BROCK LESNAR vs ROMAN REIGNS (World Heavyweight Championship match)
And here it is: WWE's chance to set right the off-kilterness of the fans' non-engagement with Lesnar as a villain, Reigns as a hero and THE Championship as a meaningful stake. Fair or not, the crowd just isn't on Reigns' side right now. They can't put the belt on him without risking full-scale mutiny. Maybe he can work a "no, fuck YOU!" heel-turn later, but it makes no sense to start here because while Brock is over with the fans in a big way nobody wants to see them try to make a face out of a guy whose appeal is that he looks like he can end your life in one move.

Straight and to the point: While they're definitely being douchey about it, "the crowd" is right - Reigns is just too green and underdeveloped to be a top face and Champion right now. He's obviously got potential to spare, but that he looked better than he's ever looked here is largely owed to the choreography and pretty good ring chemistry with Lesnar (it makes sense, both of these guys are well-balanced strikers leaning on speed/power combos.) It's a bloody (for the post-Attitude age) fight, too, but it has to be: Lesnar's character is "I will kill you with my bare hands," and we have to believe it to care. You might hate Reigns, but you can't say he didn't leave everything in the ring tonight; and by the end of it either guy would've earned the win...

...but since this is Wrestling, neither of them did. Instead, Seth Rollins "surprisingly" rushes out (brief history: Rollins, Reigns and Dean Ambrose used to be a three man tag team called The Shield, Rollins violently betrayed the others and joined The Authority as a hench-heel) while both men are injured and cashes in his Money In The Bank contract, transforming this into a three-way match where he gets to go fresh against two guys who've beaten eachother into near-unconsciousness. Because he's the bad guy, you see. The heel swerve is perfectly played: Rollins tries to take out Lesnar, but get's manhandled easily - so instead, he lets his opponents knock eachother down again, pins the more badly-hurt, less-superhuman Reigns for the win and gets the hell out of dodge with the belt and the Title.

Perfect, perfect, perfect finish... and even better IF they can capitalize on it. Amid everything else, WWE has managed to end Wrestlemania XXXII with the company set up for really strong set of emerging narratives. The Authority now have the Championship under their control for maximum villain heat, Rollins (another workhorse) can defend the title more often than Lesnar could, Lesnar himself gets a boost for his "monster beyond face or heel" persona, Reigns' "too soon" push has been crushed, now he can be rebuilt into a (hopefully) more likable form while they prime a rekindled rivalry with Rollins. That, plus title belts on their most over face (Bryan) and their most sellable face (Cena) means this should be a really interesting spring/summer, booking-wise.

Overall, good event. Not an all-timer like last year, but lot's of memorable moments. Dug the hell out of most of it, wish I'd seen the parts I'd missed, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm sure as hell not missing RAW tonight.


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