So last night the annual WWE Royal Rumble happened and it ended up being an absolute disaster because of the Royal Rumble match – the annual modified battle royale that is one of the most popular events the WWE runs every year, and certainly one of the most anticipated. The short short version is that the wrong guy won the Rumble match and fans were furious. But to reduce it to that level suggests that it’s simply fans throwing a temper tantrum when it’s so much more than that.
Bear with me for a second: for the last month or so, the internet has been Ground Zero for jokes about Mortdecai, the ginormous Johnny Depp flop film. Mortdecai is a wrongheaded move on so many levels: as someone pointed out, it’s essentially a children’s film that happens to have an R rating that’s based on a series of cult British crime thrillers. But Mortdecai is also the product of corporate entertainment culture. Mortdecai is just a symptom of the larger problems with corporate culture taking over the production of entertainment. Lionsgate, when they released Mortdecai, said without irony that they intended for the film to become a franchise. Think about that for a second: they weren’t just hoping for the film to be successful. They were, quite literally, planning for it to be so successful that it could become a staple element of popular culture for decades (at a minimum). They thought they could do this about a wacky movie where the premise is that Johnny Depp wears a stupid moustache.
They did this for the same reason that Disney has three Star Wars films lined up alongside a dozen Marvel movies for the next six years. “Franchises” are more or less reliable, stable revenue generators for movie studios/entertainment companies; they’re the reason that people keep trying to re-start Terminator as a franchise, because you can sell new Terminator movies and TV and whatever with a minimum of explanation. People are familiar with the concept. People will predictably spend money on them. Hollywood wants franchises, because franchises are the definition of cover-your-ass so far as studio executives are concerned; any nimrod in a suit can say “but I had this and this and this and they had always been successful before” when he’s about to get fired, because that gives him the excuse he needs for his next job. That the movies become somewhat more soulless is besides the point.
And if you dislike Mortdecai and make fun of it and it flops – well, from Lionsgate’s perspective that’s not their fault. They tried to create a new franchise, it didn’t work out, these things happen. They’ve still got Hunger Games and most of you will go see Hunger Games movies. Hollywood makes terrible things literally all the time that make tons of money and regardless of people’s complaints about them, they still go. There hasn’t been a single decent Transformers live-action movie; in fact, those movies are legendarily agreed upon to be terrible. Transformers: Age of Extinction got a C grade in Cinemascore (the audience rating thing, the one where any piece of crap can get a B+ without trying hard because audiences will cheerfully say “oh I just turned my brain off and enjoyed the ride”) but it still made over a billion dollars worldwide. So, before we go back to wrestling, let’s make one thing clear: just about everybody spends money on things they suspect they might not enjoy out of a sense of inertia, to some extent.
Okay, now back to wrestling.
WWE went public about fifteen years ago and what we’re seeing the ascension of corporate thought in the most important wrestling company in the world. Brand management is a top priority for this company. Their performers aren’t wrestlers, they’re “Superstars” (or, for the women, “Divas,” because god forbid WWE not be rampantly sexist). It’s not wrestling, it’s “sports entertainment.”1 Individual wrestlers are brands themselves, each successful gimmick providing multiple merchandising and branding opportunities. There is, reliably, a new color of John Cena gear approximately every eight months – new John Cena shirts, new John Cena armbands, new John Cena do-rags, the whole kit and kaboodle, because WWE wants to make sure they maximize the Cena brand. And although not every wrestler can be John Cena, they want every wrestler to perform, merchandising-and-branding-wise, as profitably as possible.
WWE wants wrestlers who will be longterm corporate brands that they can put in video games, cartoons, et cetera. They need John Cena to always be Hustle Loyalty Respect John Cena. But that means they need predictability and stability. And predictability and stability is death to pro wrestling, which is an artform that thrives on chaos. So creating that stability, creating those longstanding stable brands that modern corporate entertainment ideology demands, while still providing the fluidity that pro wrestling fans require to enjoy the form – it’s an intense art. And it’s one WWE simply has not mastered.
For all that I’ve pointed out about John Cena being a brand, it’s worth remembering that, although a lot of hardcore wrestling fans might dislike John Cena – because Cena has been the WWE Top Brand for over a decade, and you get tired of anything after a while, let alone a decade – that his rise to the top was remarkably organic. Certainly WWE wanted Cena to become The Guy: he looks like The Guy should look. But he stumbled through a bad gimmick and then successfully was recast as a comic-relief bad guy. People forget that John Cena’s first real step to becoming SEVENTY BILLION TIME CHAMPION JOHN CENA was a sketch where he dressed up as Vanilla Ice for Halloween.2 In 2005, people wanted John Cena to be the guy. The chants of “John Cena sucks” that you hear today are reactions against the stability and predictability and seemingly endlessly length of John Cena’s reign as Top Guy, rather than against John Cena himself – most wrestling fans who chant “Cena sucks” will readily admit that the guy himself is a fine wrestler who can really work a great match and whose work with Make-A-Wish kids is nothing short of remarkable.
But WWE’s problem is simple: John Cena is turning 38 this year. He’s in the final third of his career now, and WWE needs – or, at least, believes that they need – the next Top Guy, the next predictable, stable brand who can carry their company for the next decade. Enter Roman Reigns.
Now, I don’t want anybody to think I don’t like Roman Reigns. He’s a good wrestler. He has the potential to be a great one. He has The Look, he’s a decent power wrestler who is increasing in skill, he’s shown he can connect with the audience when he needs to, and although his promos are somewhat dreadful at present – to say the least – when he’s given material that isn’t wildly outside his wheelhouse he’s good enough at being a speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick total badass. To be frank, if you were going to design a Long Term Wrestling Brand by committee, it would probably look like Roman Reigns: he’s muscular, he’s handsome and sexy, he’s the Rock’s second cousin for god’s sake.
But what WWE did at the Royal Rumble was to pull the wrestling equivalent of releasing Mortdecai.
Because – and this is where we have to go into wrestling arcana for a moment, so bear with me – last year, at the Royal Rumble, everybody who watched wrestling knew it was Daniel Bryan’s year. The WWE had just spent six months writing a great story where Daniel Bryan, the scrappy 5’8″ underdog who just happened to also be the most popular wrestler in the company and also the single best professional wrestler in the world, had been screwed out of the WWE title by the corporate Triple H and Stephanie McMahon for not being, in essence, what they considered a marketable brand. Everybody expected Daniel Bryan to win the Royal Rumble in order to get his title shot at WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year. And instead, what happened is that WWE brought back Batista – who non-wrestling fans might know better as Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy – more or less on the basis that Batista was in movies now so people would love him. Daniel Bryan didn’t even wrestle in the Royal Rumble match.
The fans at last year’s Rumble went apeshit and booed the hell out of the match, out of Batista, and even out of universally beloved babyface Rey Mysterio (on the basis that Rey entered #30, the final slot in the Rumble, and confirmed that Bryan wouldn’t wrestle in the Royal Rumble match.) Ironically, when it came down to Roman Reigns and Batista as the final two in the Rumble match, the fans started cheering intensely for Roman Reigns – who was at the time still a bad guy. Strictly speaking, they weren’t cheering for Reigns. They were condemning the cynical, corporate act of writing a marketable product like Batista to win the Rumble rather than their guy.
Anyway, fans booing the WWE constantly at every arena in the country managed to get them to realize – after only two months! – that MAYBE Daniel Bryan should have been the guy all along, so at the last minute they turned Batista into a corporate heel and inserted Daniel Bryan into the WrestleMania main event, where he won and the crowd went absolutely insane, and WWE managed to turn a massive clusterfuck into what is quite possibly the single best video package the company has ever done.3
Shortly after last year’s WrestleMania, Daniel Bryan got injured and had to spend about eight months in rehab; he came back in time just to announce his entry into the Royal Rumble, and instantly the WWE fanbase knew that they wanted him to win the Rumble again. See, once again there’s a perfect story in place: in the interim since Daniel Bryan got injured and had to vacate the WWE title, Brock Lesnar won it. And nobody can beat Brock Lesnar. So you have the unstoppable monster who’s beat everybody – except the one guy who never lost the title in the first place. On top of that, Brock Lesnar is very likely leaving the WWE after WrestleMania because he’s only in wrestling for the money and he might be able to make more money elsewhere, so you’ve got the storyline that not only can nobody beat Brock, he’s going to take the WWE title with him when he leaves – forcing the evil corporate overlords to have to rely on Daniel Bryan in order to keep the title where it belongs. It practically writes itself.4
But instead of having Daniel Bryan win the Rumble, they eliminated him in a meaningless elimination about halfway through the match. No drama, no build, no story to it. And they did this quite specifically because they had decided that Roman Reigns is a Highly Successful Brand, and they did not want fan anger over Bryan’s elimination to taint the Reigns brand, so they did it as early as possible.
But it didn’t work. Reigns won the Rumble but it didn’t matter because from the time Bryan was eliminated the Philly arena5 absolutely turned on the entire event. They booed everything. They booed Goldust and Stardust turning on each other, they booed Kofi Kingston’s annual stupid elimination spot, and they sure as hell booed Roman Reigns. They booed Roman Reigns so hard that the WWE sent the Rock out to save Roman from a beating and the crowd booed the most popular wrestler in history.
I’m not sure what’s saddest about that GIF – the Rock realizing that the crowd is booing EVEN HIM, or poor Roman Reigns realizing that the plan didn’t work and wrestling fans now hate his guts. Actually, no, it’s Roman, because the Rock has millions and millions of Hollywood dollars, which are better than normal dollars. Roman Reigns, meanwhile, has to deal with the fact that the WWE, after writing an epic storyline where corporate-selected champions were the villains and which trained fans to boo the storyline corporate-selected champions, was so clearly himself a corporate-selected champion that fans had no choice but to boo him.
And that’s why wrestling fans are irate. Wrestling fans, more than any other fan of anything else, prize the idea that they decide who the stars are – which, given the relationship between wrestlers and fans, is not an unreasonable proposition to hold. Last night, in act of pure corporate cynicism, WWE told the fans that their preferences don’t really matter. It’s like if Marvel Studios had released Mortdecai – and then let everybody know that in the next Avengers flick, Mortdecai will join the Avengers and kill Ultron with his moustache. Given that, is it any wonder wrestling fans got pissed?
(A protozoan version of this post originally appeared on Twitter and Storify.)
- Granted, this phrase was initially a dodge by Vince McMahon to avoid having to satisfy state athletic commission requirements, because if Vince McMahon can find a way to spend less money on keeping his employees safe, he will do that. [↩]
- Mostly because in the career retrospective videos WWE makes about John Cena these days, they edit that part out, along with how his finisher used to be called the “F-U.” [↩]
- As an aside: WWE’s video package producers are widely considered to be the gold standard in sports media. They’re ridiculously good at their jobs, especially given the often ludicrous material they have to work with. Take the time to watch that video; it’s amazing work and draws you into the story perfectly. [↩]
- And here’s one more thing I’m stealing from elsewhere: Daniel Bryan is the ONLY credible challenger to Brock Lesnar. Because you can’t out-brawl Brock Lesnar, you can’t out-MMA Brock Lesnar, you can’t out-power Brock Lesnar, you can’t out-size Brock Lesnar. None of those things work. Historically, the only way you can ever beat Brock Lesnar is to out-professional-wrestle him, to use the tricks of the universe where Irish whips and DDTs are things that actually work – and Daniel Bryan is the best professional wrestler in the world. [↩]
- It should be noted: Philly fans are some of the most hardcore wrestling fans in the world. [↩]