The Best versus The Beast: The Drama of Revenge - All the World's a Stage III
‘It was never going to balance...the equation. Sometimes it’s...just chaos. That’s all there is.’ (Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) in ‘Death Sentence’).
There are two feuds which have hypnotized the wrestling world this summer. The first is the ‘Rocky’ drama of Daniel Bryan fighting against all obstacles to become the best. It is heartfelt, uplifting and, above all else, a relatable story for the audience. We see ourselves in this narrative because, for most of us, we have been there at some point in our lives. A point where no-one believes in us or when success is constantly taken from us or, indeed, when we just want to complete that challenge against all expectations. It should be the story of the summer, but then this happened...
For all of the positive attributes of the Daniel Bryan ‘story’, Punk v Lesnar is the dirty, nasty revenge movie that we’ve all seen on screen but have no real emotional experience in. It involves vicious attacks, brutal back-stabbing and a promise. A promise to gain retribution against the ultimate villain – the individual who took something personal from ‘the hero’. For all that the Bryan story shows us what is good in us as human beings, this narrative is all about what is dark in us. Where we cheer for our ‘Rocky’, this story leaves us baying for blood. It is as classic a story as the underdog but connects with us in a very different way.
It was always interesting with CM Punk and Paul Heyman. The latter was never the formers manger. He was his associate. His friend. During Punk’s turn to the dark side from Raw 1000 to Wrestlemania 29, he waged war on all those who were not like him. Whereas before he earned respect, particularly in his personal feud with Jericho which revolved around the straight-edge way of life and alcoholism, now he demanded it. He demanded it from Bret Hart. He demanded it from AJ Lee. He humiliated Jerry Lawler on his return from a life-threatening heart attack. He also did the worst thing he could, he aligned himself with the devil in the shape of ‘Dangerous’ Paul Heyman. In true ‘mob’ style, Heyman, mostly without Punk’s knowledge but also without Punk’s care, took out all challengers with a mix of corrupt referees and those veritable hit-men known as The Shield. Heyman looked after his friend to the point where Punk held the title for over a year. It was at day 434, however, that Punk lost to The Rock and his heroic determination. From there, Punk descended even further into the darkness by taking on the Undertaker. This story was particularly intense as it revolved around, not only the urn but its contents, the late Paul Bearer. Punk and Heyman tried everything but on April 7th 2013 he was tombstoned and pinned. Something clicked in Punk after that, however, and on April 15th, he walked away from wrestling.
Often the best heroes are those that crawl out of the darkness. Physically, we see Bruce Wayne climb out of The Pit and rise. We see Luke fight the urges of the Dark Side to save his fallen father. We even see Rocky Balboa fall to the vices of materialism before climbing back up those steps and defeating Clubber Lang. Our heroes must fall and so, when Punk returned, the cocky, confident delivery had been replaced by something different, something more humane. When he told Heyman he didn’t want him in his corner, it was heartfelt. He still considered their relationship to be a friendship. He was human. He had changed physically with no more lip-rings and the addition of large sideburns but he had also changed emotionally. The problem is Heyman thought, in their months and years together, that he had made Punk. He had moulded him from punked out Indie guy to The Best in the World. In true Victor Frankenstein style, Heyman would now go on a mission to destroy his creation.
It started with an attack. Unprovoked and violent. Our hero was stood in the ring after meeting that other man on the journey back into darkness in Alberto Del Rio. His hand had been raised and he was smiling at the crowd when that music hit. There, on the stage was Lesnar, bouncing from foot to foot. He walked down, circled the ring, stared at Punk and F-5’d him. He then left. It was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘hit’. Punk had been taken down on the orders of someone else. Now, we all knew Heyman was behind it but his friend CM Punk didn’t want to believe it. When Michael orders his brother’s death in The Godfather Part II, you can’t believe that ‘blood’ would do this to ‘blood’. Punk wouldn’t believe it and allowed his thoughts to go back to the dream, the championship. On July 14th he stood on the middle rung of the ladder, alone in the ring, staring up at the Money in the Bank briefcase when Heyman jumped into the ring and attacked his protégé with a ladder. It was now all clear. The chips were down and Punk knew what had happened. All those months. All those conversations. All those positive moments were for aught. He had been taken down, time after time, by his own friend.
This is where the story changed. It became something more. It became about revenge. This narrative, this story, is as universal as any other but in the hands of these men, it is heightened even more. It is not about the act itself, the catalyst, it is about the revenge that comes. It is about the victim finding themselves in a position where the only way out is to extract a hard, bloody revenge on those that have attacked them. It is a central idea in most horror films but also in the more traditional cinema ‘revenge tragedies’ such as ‘Death Wish’, ‘Straw Dogs’ and ‘Gladiator’. It is also clearly found in one film that wasn’t a huge hit but is an excellent example of the genre, ‘Death Sentence’ with Kevin Bacon. Here a mild-mannered man is forced to extract a bloody revenge on a street gang who have killed those close to him. In the process he becomes like those he detests. He is the avenging angel who will ‘strike down with great vengeance’. This is Punk now.
On July 15th, Punk stood in the middle of the ring, Heyman on the ramp, and the two essentially sold the match based on two promos. It was a master-class but it was all about the fight for redemption. Heyman smiled. Heyman laughed. Heyman knew the job was done. Punk, already emotionally unstable after the loss to Undertaker, couldn’t come back from the attacks by his friend and his personal pet beast. When a true man is down though, that is when he will rise again. He let Heyman talk and then he responded with that slow, monotone delivery of a man on a mission.
‘You know when I want something bad enough I am the most relentless man on the planet and I will not stop until I get it. And the truth is, Paul, I’m going to get you. This time, I swear on your children that I am going to get you and I will get everybody that conspired against me, every single one of your associates. Everybody who profited from it, everybody who had knowledge of it, anybody who enjoyed it. Your friends. Your clients. Your family. Anybody in between the time I get my hands on you and now, that steps in between you and I and opens their eyes at me I will get my hands on and I will rip apart and I will hurt. You want the truth? The truth is you don’t have a future because I will burn down everything around you until you’re the last man standing and I’m going to keep you alive just long enough to look you in the eye and hurt you worst of all.’
It was spoken slowly, clearly and with definite emphasis on the key point. Revenge. The problem? Brock Lesnar. To get to the ‘mob boss’ you must first take down his men. Curtis Axel? No too much of a problem as he’s new, he’s green around the gills. Lesnar? This is an altogether different prospect. Punk is fast, he is technical but he’s against a collegiate wrestler, former WWE champion and UFC title holder. He is also 68lbs heavier and is described as the ‘beast incarnate’. He is all about physicality. On his first appearance in the ring with Punk he held a microphone but he didn’t use it. Heyman is about words. Lesnar is about actions. To F-5 someone onto the announcer’s table is only the start. He will rip out someone’s shoulder out if need be. Watch Lesnar versus Heath Herring or the second fight against Frank Mir. He enjoys exacting punishment. Can Punk, the man psychologically dismantled in the ring by the Phenom six months ago really take it to this beast?
Interestingly, last week on Raw, after another attack by Lesnar, Punk suffered an injury to his chin. He was bloodied and bruised there. This is the same injury that Kevin Bacon’s ‘everyman’ character takes in ‘Death Sentence’. Strangely, the two wounds look identical. What is also interesting is that in some narrative theories, the chin is a symbol which represents the ability to come back from adversity. To fight on. Also, the symbol of a fist under the chin represents a violent end. Brock and Punk in two symbols. Yes, the injury was coincidence but it does go onto further the revenge story being told to us by these men. They have experienced the emotions, the talking is done, and all that can be done now is the physicalisation these emotions. To stand in front of each other at Summerslam, one bouncing foot to foot, the other still, unblinking, staring at both the Beast and the Boss. All that is needed is for the obstacle to stand tall or the obstacle to be smashed and pushed aside.
In recent weeks, Lesnar has begun to grow even more confident. He told his boss to ‘say something stupid’ last week. He had his own promo on Smackdown, an excellent three minute speech spoken in the slow, monotone style that Punk employed for most of last year. He is a machine that will not stop and if Punk thinks it will be easy to get to Heyman, he is much mistaken. This man is a wrecking machine. He is a monster who will do all of those things that Punk said in his promo, taking down everyone around him, but he’d do it for no reason. Punk has emotion on his side, Lesnar has none of those feelings. He is an animal that will hurt people simply because he can.
What was interesting on Raw this week was not only Heyman’s continued reference to our ‘hero’ but also the double-trick scenario. Heyman brought out Lesnar for a two on one match. Punk’s music hit and...no Punk. Then he appeared behind and assaulted the Beast with a HD camera. Hit after hit. It was brutal and it reminded us of someone. It reminded us of Brock’s attacks. Direct and violent. Heyman’s talk of ‘Punk’s need to be the hero’ was interesting because to defeat the men who are out to destroy him, he must become them. All ‘heros’ in revenge stories must become the mirror image of what they hate. Hamlet despises his Uncle for murdering his father so he, in turn, murders his Uncle and several others. In ‘Straw Dogs’, the intellectual Dustin Hoffman must use the same physical brutality that has been exacted on his own family. In ‘Death Sentence’ the lead gang member, Billy Darly, say to a bloodied Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) “Look at you. You look like one of us. Look what I made you” promptly before being killed by the avenging force. This is Punk now. To defeat the Beast he must become one himself.
To this end, this brilliant story, told vocally and physically by some of the best in the business, follows the revenge drama structure quite openly. We have our Machiavellian villain in Heyman, we have our long, emotionally-wrought soliloquies, deception, pain and there is also the ‘potential’ madness and crossing to the dark-side for Punk before his reversal back to being our hero again. We also quite clearly have the physical torment that our hero must endure. What we do not know is what sort of hero we will be left with. In the revenge drama the hero is often left either emotionally crushed or, indeed, dead. Obviously, the latter is not our ending but where does Punk go from here, win or lose? If he loses, he is a man walking alone in the wilderness. If he wins, and gets his revenge, where does he go from there whilst keeping our sympathies?
When Cena overcomes adversity, he treats it like a superhero would, ‘all in a day’s work’. Punk isn’t that character though. He carries his past, his present, like a burden. This story is the most interesting. If he defeats the ‘boss and the beast’, what is left for him? He will still be alone in the wilderness but he will have lost the power to trust anyone too. When a revenge drama finishes, we shut the book or switch of the television. For Punk, we’ll expect him at Raw the next night. That is where his story begins or ends.
"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!" (Ezekiel 25:17).
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.