The role of the ‘hero’ in wrestling is becoming an increasingly tricky one to master. Long gone are the days of Hulk Hogan leg-dropping all-comers to collective cheers of a nationalistic crowd. Things have become harder to fathom. The black and white colours of seventies and eighties wrestling have a grey palate which undoubtedly began with the Monday Night Wars and has becoming grey by the year with the pipe-bomb era.
The hero was originally a demi-God, born of one immortal parent and one mortal. Hercules is an example of this (and with The Rock playing said character in his next film, the parallel lines are even clearer). This mythology adapted to the hero as one who must overcome insurmountable odds and display courage and self-sacrifice. Without going into too much detail, there must be a ‘quest’ for the hero to be part of which has obstacles at every turn. They depart, they journey through a dangerous land, they complete the journey successfully (and usually marry the princess). The word hero has come to mean many things now where even in film, Hugh Grant can be our ‘hero’. The journey is more complex and has many different variations these days.
Several months ago I wrote about villains in wrestling and the obstacles they present. Now, I’m not saying being a villain is easy by any means, but the bad-guy always gets the best lines, wears the great costumes and invariably, more often than not, beats the hero at every turn. In modern wrestling, we now have the anti-heroes which found their initial outline in Stone Cold Steve Austin and, arguably, the NWO. Add to that the fact that, in recent years, the villain is often cheered more than the hero, it seems the role of the ‘good guy’ is becoming an increasingly thankless task.
To understand the present, let’s look back at perhaps the biggest ‘hero’ the industry has ever seen. Like him or not these days, Hulk Hogan was 'the man' when it came to being the figure-head for all. Even now, the phrase ‘this generations Hulk Hogan’ is bandied about with glee. Ironically, Hogan was initially a heel character in his early days before moving to New Japan Pro Wrestling and then returning to the WWF late in 1983. On his first title win, defeating The Iron Sheik and being the first man to escape from the camel clutch, Hulkamania was born. So, even here, the hero ‘did the impossible’ on his way to the victory.
Like most heroes, Hogan connected with the audience though. He was a role-model for good (‘say your prayers, take your vitamins and you will never go wrong’) and constantly did the impossible. On his way to legendary status, he pinned Andre the Giant with the slam ‘felt around the world’ and took on the Iraqi regime, pinning Sergeant Slaughter one, two, three. To this end, Hogan has traits of the ‘Germanic’ hero, one who is concerned with how others perceive him and to his ‘political’ responsibilities. Hogan, both the fictional and real iterations, can certainly be ‘accused’ of being concerned how others perceive him and his legacy. Also, the WWF certainly looked on him as the one to lead the company in the eighties. Most ‘faces’ who worked with Hogan usually ended up turning to the dark side, most notably Randy Savage and ‘The Mega Powers’ tag-team which ended with Savage’s jealousy and another Wrestlemania title win for Hogan at Wrestlemania V. The heroic sensibilities of Hogan were so strong that no-one could beat him glow and, eventually, this began to wane and cause backstage issues as his ego took control. Add to this the government’s pursuit of Vince McMahon and Hogan’s testimony, the hero was gone from the company.
The problem with the figure-head heroes in wrestling is that they are so all-consuming that no-one else gets a look in. The direction of John Cena’s career to 2013 is a clear indication of this. He is the heart of the show and when he’s not on it, there is a definite gap where he should be. Again, you don’t have to like the hero, and the fifty/fifty audience reaction to Cena is testimony to this, but you can’t deny the influence and importance the ‘hero’ has on the product.
Interestingly, after an initial three month run as a face, it was the early turn to villainous sensibilities which made Cena as he became the Doctor of Thuganomics. His raps and cocky attitude created the Cena we know today as he didn’t back down, by and large, from a fight. The heel run lasted a year before he turned to the good side by accepting a place on Kurt Angle’s Survivor Series team. From there, it was a quick rise to the top via a United States title win at Wrestlemania XX and a WWE Championship win a year later. It was with his move to Raw in the draft lottery that created the tensions though. Fans had seen this sort of domination before and, although we know that Chris Jericho was instrumental in the rise of John Cena, to see the latter eradicate the cocky fan favourite from our television screens was already becoming too much.
Similar to Hogan, Cena quite simply broke through every obstacle and defeated all-comers too regularly. For one to feel an affinity with the hero, you must see them suffer and, although Cena has been on the end of regular beat downs from as many as eight men, the next week Cena is back out showing no signs of injury. This is because Cena is more of a ‘super’ hero than your average ‘good’ wrestler. It’s almost as if, for the sake of the writing, he has super-powers in his pursuit of protecting the public and the fans. He has a strong moral code that seeps into his public persona via the Make a Wish Foundation work he undertakes and he pursuit of good in undefeatable.
The problem now is that that sort of ‘hero’ is of a bygone age, and I’m not just talking about in wrestling. Our heroes in popular media are more than just a one-note stream of positivism. There are various shades which go into the creation of three-dimensional, conflicted human beings. From the vain Tony Stark in the ‘Iron Man’ films to the murderous anti-heroes in ‘Death Sentence’ and ‘Dredd’, it’s not enough to be a purveyor of good, the obstacles have to hit and smash against the hero and break them down. Maybe this is because of the terrorist atrocities the world has had to deal with in the past fifteen years, but we need to relate to a hero that is almost beaten and broken down and simply has to ‘rise’.
The issue with Cena’s hero character therefore is that you never see him at his lowest ebb. This is because the product has to protect him but also because, his role in the company is never to show weakness. Again, even in real life the man is a physical machine and while we can appreciate this, in the ‘story’ we need more. The attack from the Nexus was the most obvious example of this. He was beaten down by a rabid gang of dogs and the next week, out he popped with nary a scratch or a grimace. Again, this is the writer’s and the company dictating this avenue but still, as modern humans we need to see the dark descent into fragility.
Obviously a counter-argument is that wrestling is as much escapism as any other form of entertainment. We don’t want to see the hero in pain, we simply want the bright lights and fireworks and the hero stood aloft. To this argument, the logical conclusion is the fan response to every Cena entrance of the past eight years. High pitched cheers from the children. Low pitched boos from the adults. There is a point where we don’t want protecting from the bad things, we know they’re out there, we simply want to see our hero, after being beaten down by those ‘bad things’ eventually stand tall in the middle of the ring.
These shades of grey are most apparent in a Stone Cole character, or a CM Punk. They are heroes but almost heroes for the everyman. The Everyman who walks the earth. The Everyman who the audience can identify with. The Everyman who is the protagonist but is not to be confused with ‘the hero’. How else can one explain CM Punk’s recent violent outbursts on the microphone being met with huge cheers? Look at Austin releasing a stunner on Vince at Madison Square Garden to one of the loudest pops ever. These are amoral moments which the ‘everyman’ audience respond to positively because their journey is similar to ours, the bully and the backstabbing boss, but our ‘Everyman’ protagonist can set off on a journey which we can’t (physical revenge).
So, just as the hero moved on from Ancient Greek ideas to medieval ideology, so too has wrestling. Would the audience as a whole embrace such a massive, all-consuming hero such as Hogan now? Probably not. It almost feels like, although I will no doubt be proved completely wrong in this, that Cena is the end of an era. However, looking at how Daniel Bryan has emotionally moved on so easily from losing title after title, maybe I am wrong. We need heroes who show us their difficulties, show there foibles and, more than anything, realise that to stand aloft at the end of the story, they have come back from almost losing everything. When CM Punk stood in front of John Cena at the 2011 Money in the Bank PPV, there we had it. Old school versus New School. One man who had it all, and the other who had it all...to lose.
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Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.