“Greatness is never given: it is earned. So you work harder, dream bigger… chase, capture, and conquer history.” – John Cena, Wrestlemania 29
Legacy and redemption: these were the themes that emerged as catalyst and conflict for Wrestlemania 29, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson faced – and lost – to John Cena in the Pay-Per-View event I watched at a friend’s house (along with over 80,000 people in the New Jersey arena and millions more online). This would be my first Wrestlemania, and a reminder that while I occasionally criticize the medium – “it’s fake, etc.” – it truthfully shares much in common with mediums I enjoy, more than it does the various sports with which it seems, at first glance, to share more of a kinship.
“A year of my existence… destroyed. I get a chance to rewrite history. This is more than just a match for me… this is a shot at redemption.” – John Cena promo
Who knew wrestling even HAD themes? I knew it had garish, even costumed characters, fraught with bravado and grandstanding, and questionable matches that seem more staged than sporting (the E is for entertainment, after all). This year, watching the various promos with themed music and a mixture of real life hardships and seemingly scripted conflicts, the depth of interwoven storylines and contrasted narrative themes surprised me. While it may never be my primary entertainment of choice, I think critics may need to look again at potential snobbery and realize how similar it is to the other forms we give more honor. This link to John Cena’s Promo clearly reveals the man’s (or his character’s) story arc, and the YouTube video below intermixes the contrasted themes between Cena and The Rock.
As The Wrestler Turns: it’s evident these are soap operas for men, detailing not only conflicts in the ring but also their relationships and jobs. The stakes of the Lesnar/Triple H match were that the latter wrestler would have to retire if he lost, and there were rumblings that “the winner would get Triple H’s wife” Stephanie McMahon (this turned into a mere insult, as then Triple H was told the loser should get his wife). Some previous events have included plot points where wives or friends of a good wrestler were “taken hostage” by the heel. At this year’s Wrestlemania, long-time wrestler The Undertaker faced CM Punk, who had stolen the precious urn of his popular manager’s ashes. Seriously… a dead WWE manager’s cremated remains became part of the plot line for these two wrestlers, approved by the deceased man’s family.
At one point the urn even became a weapon in the ring.
Any fan of comic books can probably confess the overlap of these absurd elements. After all, Spider-man took his costumed cue from wrestling, and his stories have always been compared to soap operas… as his love life, student life, and home life are always overlapping or overturned by his costumed escapades. Girlfriends are held hostage by his foes. And Peter Parker’s high school life is really just Archie… with a unique, spandex-wearing night life. Kevin Smith compared Spidey to Charlie Brown (with spider-powers) – always trying to kick the metaphorical football and having it pulled out from under him. From Spider-man to Peanuts to football, we should see the corollaries come full circle with wrestling. We can argue that “it’s fake” all we want, but the superhero crusades and soapy television dramas we enjoy aren’t any more “real”.
“That match set my life into a tailspin… both professionally, and personally, because I could not get over my obsession with the fact that I failed.” – Cena
Reality TV? We also don’t believe that shows like The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, or Survivor are anything close to “reality”, yet many who scoff at wrestling enjoy one or more of these “reality” offerings. We know they’re scripted, or at least semi-choreographed, with people on screen either fully in the loop or manipulated, put in orchestrated circumstances to provoke calculated responses. Wrestling is simply an original form of “reality” programming. The inclusion of a real person’s death (or as the video of Cena shows, his divorce) injected into a half-true, half-baked “reality” storyline is a bit disturbing to me, but no more than the access to substances and enabling of people like Snooki.
Also, the actual wrestling may be staged, but as a culture increasingly aware of what stunt men endure-behind the-scenes of the movies and television shows we enjoy, what these wrestlers do in the ring – and outside the ring, with chairs and tables and even Paul Bearer’s urn – is nothing to sneeze at. It’s an art form. Their agility, their balance on ropes, their moves that flip, smash, and bend without doing major damage, and the showmanship to make it look as intense as it does… take as much or more talent than two boxers simply smashing each other until one collapses from damages that will last a lifetime. In fact, when I consider which might better honor the God who made our bodies, who made us his image-bearers, it’s hard to argue for the “real”. A staged fight amuses and doesn’t intend harm; a real fight between boxers and other forms of ringed combat promote intentional battering of another’s body for our entertainment, gladiator style. Maybe “it’s fake” should be something spoken in celebration instead of criticism.
After all, nobody in a Bruce Willis movie actually died hard.
Athletic Opera? Last, as we consider how WWE shares much in common with our favorite stories, reality television, stunt shows and soap operas, watching the Pay-Per-View event evoked for me comparisons with a “higher” art form. It might be a stretch to equate what happens in a WWE cage match with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but what wrestlers lack in vibrato they make up for in over-the-top soliloquies and elongated interchanges, quite common in Opera. When someone is mortally wounded and proceeds to sing for 45 minutes at the theatre, it isn’t any less contrived than a 30-minute match where a wounded wrestler suddenly turns the tables on his opponent (and then hits him with a chair.) A Don Giovanni and a Dwayne Johnson actually demonstrate similar melodramatic stage bluster. The histrionics share as much as they differ, and some of the outfits are interchangeable.
Still, while some need to balance their preferences with potential snobbery in regard to WWE as a form of cultural engagement, there is the question of what we’re celebrating when it comes to these storylines and showmanship on Wrestlemania. Millions of viewers are living out something vicariously through these characters, or caricatures. While it’s true the medium explores a variety of themes, including this year’s contrast of legacy and redemption, most of it is still aimed at a very king-of-the-hill, self-focused ascent. As Cena says in the quotes above, it’s about earning, capturing, and conquering one’s own greatness. It’s about self-achieved, self-merited domination. As fans pour themselves into the persona of their favorite wrestler, some perspective might be needed.
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” – Daniel 2
Contrary to this year’s Wrestlemania, the Christian message is the humbling reality that greatness is given, not earned. Whether it’s a victory in the ring, on the battlefield, or at the ballot box, scripture proclaims that all wins and losses, princes and presidents, are ultimately set up and removed by God. The prophet Daniel explained this to a humbled king:
“…the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar… greatness and glory and majesty. And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. But… he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him… until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.” – Daniel 5
This doesn’t (or shouldn’t) stop a Christian from striving for excellence, for faithfulness, for the strength and position to bless others and do well with everything God has given, but they don’t see the victory as self-attained, self-merited, or self-conquered. It proceeds from the basic standpoint of our most important future – our eternal future – as given and not earned. As mentioned in our review of Oz the Great and Powerful, this leads to a focus on striving for goodness instead of greatness, and using any greatness we’re given to expand that influence of goodness.
“And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9
A humble wrestler might not sell as many tickets, or market well to the majority of WWE’s fans, but it would be interesting to see a break in the bluster and bravado and have a consistent face character – even a title winner – who seems less self-focused. In an post-Wrestlemania interview, wrestler The Big Show told a reporter that “There’s only one thing in the world that’s important to The Big Show, and that’s The Big Show.” This may simply be part of his storyline since he turned heel in 2012, but it would be a curious challenge to see a face written with a consistent, competitive-yet-humble spirit, one that acknowledges success doesn’t rest on their beefy shoulders.
“…it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God…” – Romans 9
All that to say, while I’m not a converted fan of WWE, my appreciation for the art form has been tempered with humility for my own tastes and the inherent similarities I can’t deny. It’s just as troubling sometimes to find a godly parallel in the heroes of full-fledged fiction or legitimate sports, so this not-so-odd hybrid is sure to feature distorted reflections. Still, even tossing out the ideas of “legacy” and “redemption” could lead to post-game conversation about our own failures, divorces, our obsessions, and how our own history might get rewritten… or redeemed. In the words of The Rock: