For all of the ups and downs of the WWE's product, one thing that can consistently be said is that the powers that be who run the organization have never shied away from pushing the envelope. This is the blessing and the curse that is ever present in professional wrestling. The spectacle of the thing makes it far different from any other form of sports or entertainment, but it also risks overshadowing what is already a curious pursuit indeed. Just the right amount of oddity is required. While this has always been a tightrope that the WWE has walked, it's become much more of an issue lately. One need only look at other forms of media to understand why. Mainstream entertainment has never been darker, and that has caused the "silliness" aspect of World Wrestling Entertainment to go into a semi-regression. It's a tough sell for an enterprise that has always been marketed largely to children, but this is the current dilemma.
I mention all of this to lead into my complete and utter satisfaction with how Monday Night Raw opened last night. The importance of Bray Wyatt to the WWE cannot be underestimated. Had you any doubt as to the veracity of that statement, it had to head towards erasure a few short hours ago. Wyatt is a critical figure to wrestling's future not just because of what he is, but also because of what he represents. Pro wrestling's past is littered with villains, from the maniacal to the stereotypical to the cartoonish. None of those types of figures would truly work in this day and age, because we as a viewing culture have gotten past it. Sports can create their own heroes and their counterparts due to their athletic performance; wrestling has always had to rely on marketing just as heavily as ability in order to do the same. Therein, as the old saying goes, lies the rub.
As an enterprise, understanding pro wrestling is overrated. In these days of spoilers, everyone has an opinion on absolutely everything. It's certainly a good thing for writers of wrestling columns, but it is counter-intuitive to an industry steeped in misdirection and smoke and mirrors. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth to the contrary, everything that happens inside the ring does not have to be explained. Things can (and should) be left to the imagination. Unfortunately, that has become an excuse at times for lazy creative and storylines to nowhere, but at its core the principle makes sense. In an area teeming with over-the-top theatrics and faux realism, why is complete clarity needed? We as viewers can bring our own thoughts and theories to the fore, allowing us a fleeting chance at the escapism we crave while still holding true to the tenets of what makes wrestling great.
Most often, we see these moments in terms of physicality. One of the things I personally loved about last night's open was that it required absolutely none whatsoever. As shocking as Tombstones on an announce table or scattering "ashes" from an urn can be, reality that looks a lot like reality is far more frightening. To everyone. Involving regular folks in wrestling angles can pay dividends, an idea we saw most recently when the Yes Movement filled the ring in defiance of The Authority. It feels more real when you can see yourself, sometimes quite literally, as having that level of hands-on involvement. The idea that Bray Wyatt's message, however explained it has or hasn't been, has created a cult including children is the sort of odd will-they-or-won't-they storytelling that finds a way to take what could be a laughable situation and turn it into a defining moment of stark horror.
John Cena's intro was effective enough, perhaps as a look at what things might be. Cena has always brought a level of intensity to his interviews, and you can see he's committed to his message, even when you don't agree with it. I don't envy him the permanent super face routine; as good as his matches can be (and often are), there's just about no way for him to effectively separate himself from his own hulking shadow. It makes sense for Bray to attempt to push this superhero to his breaking point. It can only be on the precipice of utter destruction that heroism can breed. I felt that the WWE's approach to Cena in this regard started strong but fizzled a bit over the course of the show. His resilience is equal parts basic attribute and critical flaw, but the 180 in his approach to the WWE Universe was a slight backtrack to me. I don't know that Daniel Bryan's experimentation with the dark side in his own feud with Wyatt helped him, but it at least gave him dimension. That is something Cena lacks in the eyes of many.
Wyatt is important because he serves as an example of a character and a presentation that doesn't need championships to succeed. That can't be overstated in wrestling, because too often comparisons of greatness hinge on how many titles or big matches individuals can boast. While those accolades are clearly inherently vital, they are slightly less so in a forum dominated by the whims of the matchmakers and the heat of the moment. You can go from Money of the Bank winner to Magneto in the blink of an eye, as it were. Wyatt's freaky origin story and the equally compelling tale of his henchmen/followers can take months to play out and still be effective. His ability to cut through the comic book characteristics of some of the other big names in the business is a tool that needs to be utilized properly and often in order to add degrees of grittiness to people that otherwise would have very little. That's a severely underrated ability for any wrestler in this day and age.
The "Whole World In His Hands" bit reminded me (perhaps intentionally) of the very excellent scene in the movie Con Air, which in addition to featuring some of the most heinous vocal abilities ever by the legendary Nicholas Cage had the amazingly gifted Steve Buscemi playing the perfectly suited role of the world's most hilarious serial killer. Buscemi gets some of the best lines in the movie, but it's the moment when he escapes the plane of prisoners and encounters an innocent little girl where your mind truly does cartwheels. Their discussion of Buscemi's "sickness" and eventual duet of said song are memorable and insanely riveting. Watch for yourself:
While Cena is no Buscemi when it comes to acting, the concept is the same: when unadulterated purity encounters pure evil, what happens? The movie has its own answer (as light-hearted as you'd expect), but the wrestling tale can afford to work on some additional levels. If Cena is abandoned by his perceived fanbase even as he questions who will triumph, we get to see him at his psychological nadir and it makes for same damn compelling television. I'm not sure that I ever bought into Cena going to a different place in his WrestleMania match with Bray, because "embracing the hate" has become so cliché. John's development has to include a maturation of the storylines he participates in, particularly in the era of realism, and he needs to emerge a (slightly) different wrestler on the other side. Of anyone, Wyatt has the chance to bring that out in him. For that we should applaud.
The Wyatt Family cannot become The Shield. We can't look at them as heroic figures, even if that heroism is merely the counter to a larger evil. It's too integral to wrestling to continue to invest time and energy into villains that will earn them the seething hatred and box office bucks of the masses. They can't be cool, they can't be accessible, and they can't look like anything we've seen before. Last night went a very long way toward making that happen. Little choir kid in a sheep's mask sitting on Bray's lap as he laughs maniacally? Yeah, that'll work nicely. Even if you're a fan of his work (and count me in on that regard), it gave you pause. And it should. Bray can be part prophet and part psycho as long as he stays full-on heel.
Whatever the future may hold for The Undertaker, his ability to rise to the occasion and create special moments can never be duplicated. From the druids to the light tricks to the empty coffins straight out of magic school, it managed to be intense and entertaining at the same time. We knew not to take it seriously (eventually), but we bought in to not just the effects themselves but also Taker's ability to use them to get into the minds of his opposition. It remains an incredibly difficult but effective high-wire act to navigate. Those remnants of an earlier age are not easily revived, but Wyatt alone of anyone in wrestling has the ability to do just that. The timing of this is extraordinarily important, as the WWE and wrestling in general reaches out and grasps those that will make up the dream roster of tomorrow.
Not everything that is slated to be done involving Bray Wyatt will work. That is part of the lessons learned from the mysterious figures of wrestling's past. But we all need to root for the journey nonetheless. Presenting his character with equal parts attraction and unease is the perfect mix for the new wrestling villain. Half of what he says is ostensibly true; half are riddles and half-truths masquerading as fact. It's a perfect mix for someone that's supposed to keep you on your toes and therefore interested. Wrestling is crying out for a compelling figure that harnesses the reality of living in this day and age with the supernatural suspense of the unknown. That it will be a heel is cause for celebration. He does have the whole world in his hands. And that's excellent news for us all.