Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE MYTH OF JOHN CENA: SHEDDING THE NEON SKIN


John Cena has been the "top guy" in the WWE for over a decade.

This is an unprecedented run that has inspired legions of fans as much as it has inspired legions of detractors. The character, and the performer, will consistently elicit a strong reaction one way or the other, but his existence also leaves room for more complex reactions.

For example, my feelings about the character have evolved from 2005 (when I first became aware of Cena) to the time of this writing.

I've loved Cena, I've "hated" Cena, I've liked Cena but simply been frustrated with the creative surrounding Cena, I've rolled my eyes at the sound of his entrance music, I've smiled and leaned forward at the sound of his entrance music, I've groaned at his bad jokes and his babyface shtick, and I've been moved to tears by his best promo and the way he interacts with the children in the WWE.

My feelings about a particular performer in the WWE have never evolved in such a radical way. I usually either love a character or loath a character, or my childhood disdain for a heel evolves into a form of respect for that heel's excellent performance. But, as an adult, I've never gone from fan, to "hater", and, ultimately, back to fan.


Even when I was dissatisfied with the Cena character and bemoaned his ever-presence at the top of the card, it was more a dissatisfaction with the way the character was used and had less to do with the actual man beneath the neon tee-shirt.

What brought me back from the land of negativity (and, to a certain extent, immaturity) was a handful of timely revelations.


Firstly, after listening to Stone Cold Steve Austin's podcast for several months, it became clear that Austin loved and respected Cena. This brought me out of my immature world, and helped me take a larger view of the character and the WWE. Surely, I thought, if Austin spoke well of Cena and explained, convincingly, why Cena was an impressive force in pro-wrestling then there was reason to reevaluate whatever negative feelings I might have. Austin, being the "global icon and national treasure" that he is, knows what it takes to be the top guy in the WWE. He understands the business of pro-wrestling and how hard it is to get over and how hard it is to stay at the top. So while "smart" pro-wrestling fans looked at John Cena and saw only a fabricated corporate toy-maker, one of the greatest talents in the history of pro-wrestling saw a man who knew how to entertain a crowd and knew how to maintain, regardless of the company's favor, a significant, meaningful place in pro-wrestling history. Austin's admiration was infectious, but also revealing.

Secondly, I listened to John Cena on Stone Cold's podcast and what I heard humanized the WWE's standup guy. I heard a shrewd businessman eager to learn and eager to grow and absolutely dedicated to the medium he loved.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I fell in love with the Brock Lesnar/John Cena rivalry. This feud, since the build into SummerSlam and all the way into The Royal Rumble, is the WWE's best feud in a very long time.


I'd like to believe that my evolving stance on the John Cena character represents a maturation process - that I went from a childlike appreciation for the character to a closed-minded adolescent disdain for the character, and then, ultimately, to a more enlightened understanding of the character's objective worth.

I realized that Cena, when placed in a well-crafted narrative that permits him to explore his character, is an essential, powerful performer. I realized that his abilities are as stifled by the creatively restrictive environment in today's WWE as anyone else's.

His promos with Paul Heyman leading into Night of Champions were some of the best I've ever heard, and convinced me not only of John Cena's importance, but of John Cena's talent. Ever since, I've looked at John in a new light. I pay close attention to the way he enters the arena and the way he talks on the mic and the way he performs in the ring. There is a comfort in performance, a confidence in everything he does that others simply do not possess. When he wants to, and when he's allowed to, he elevates any show he's on. He can convincingly "hang" with the best of them, and the only reason a large portion of the audience may be blind to this fact is because the company hasn't done John any favors by not providing him good heels to work with.

CM Punk was Cena's last great rival, a remarkable, tension-filled feud that was like watching a real-life Batman do battle with a real-life Superman. This was the era-defining feud fans (and pro-wrestling  itself) deserved to see headline WrestleMania between 2011 and 2013, only the company itself disagreed and we only received brief glimpses into the potential of Cena vs Punk.

via ilovewrestlinggifs.tumblr.com

It's understandable that fans would grow tired of "the same old thing", but it's also shortsighted to ignore Cena's ability to entertain, to consistently draw, and to perform head and shoulders above the rest when the time calls for it. It's also shortsighted to consider this feud with Lesnar the "same old thing". It is not. It is fresh and deep with allegorical significance.


Because older fans have been indoctrinated into "The Cult of Cena Hate", they've occasionally lost sight of where their criticisms should actually be directed. Cena's not without his faults (no performer is perfect), but his status as lone top-guy is, as Austin puts it, "not his fault". There is a laundry list of corporate reasons why Cena has been at the top for so long, one of them being he has necessarily held that position because the company hasn't created an environment where performers feel encouraged to try and knock Cena down from the mountaintop.

Many fans have called for Cena to turn heel, thinking this could solve some problem inherent in the character. But, if Cena did turn heel, he would then become the top heel and there would be no top babyface for him to work against, and so you have the same problem, only an environment that's completely negative all the time.

The problem is not John. The answer is not a heel-John. That would be a disastrous, awkward run that would serve no purpose but to appease a vocal, but perpetually dissatisfied sect of the WWE Universe (and the people calling for a heel John don't seem to consider that such a turn could extend the life of his character for another decade, and that seems like the last thing his detractors want). The answer is a good heel for John, and we finally have that in Brock Lesnar and the younger Seth Rollins.


The brilliance of this feud with Lesnar is that Lesnar represents Superman's Kryptonite.

Lesnar is the one man that Cena cannot defeat. Lesnar is the death of John Cena.

That is a powerful story - for haters and lovers alike, but, more objectively, it's just a powerful story about good and evil.

We are witnessing an epic tragedy.

John Cena is the epitome of a hero, the purest good, the most unshakably benevolent and moral human being possible. He is upbeat, colorful, happy, eager to please, and a good role model. It makes perfect sense that innocent children would love him and that jaded adults would hate him.

But, as members of the human race, regardless of how we personally feel about the Cena character, we should be thankful that children still cheer for moral righteousness. Children, who experience pro-wrestling in the pure way it should be experienced, are not jaded and they understand John Cena and they're inspired by Cena. This should give all of us hope, for innocence and goodness have not yet died in this increasingly cynical world.

John Cena is the tenacious, unyielding will of The Good to keep fighting and to keep fighting and to keep fighting to the very last breath.

Our world needs that kind of example.


But in representing pure goodness, Cena exists as a fantasy (not unlike Santa Claus who, at some point, we all learn is a fiction). This is a necessary fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless, because no man is perfectly good.

Brock Lesnar exists as reality, the opposite of innocence, come to kill the ultimate gimmick of the WWE.

John Cena is a sports entertainer.

Brock Lesnar is an athlete. A fighter.

So what we're actually seeing is real-sport invading the sport-performance of the WWE and completely destroying it. We're seeing reality steal the gimmick title of the WWE and hold it hostage.

Lesnar's decisive victory at SummerSlam was like watching a real fighter come into the WWE and not play along with the work of pro-wrestling.


Lesnar, Heyman, and Cena sell this story to perfection (though commentary and vignette-makers could do a lot more to accentuate this quality of the narrative - the idea that Brock Lesnar is a legitimate athlete come to show what happens when a legitimate fist smashes into the face of a sports entertainer). Even the way Heyman says, "WWE Heavyweight Champion of the World" instead of "WWE World Heavyweight Champion" is a subtle way of accentuating the legitimacy of Lesnar, as this phraseology is the way boxing ring announcers speak that particular phrase.

And so the worth and depth of the Cena character is finally, fully realized when he has this truly powerful villain to go up against.


Cena has often been compared to Superman, even referred to by smarks as "Super Cena".

This is an accurate comparison, but it's even more accurate than most fans realize. And it's accurate in a narratively rich, positive way. Not a negative way.

Consider who Superman is, what Superman is supposed to represent, and how fans have reacted to Superman over the years.

For decades, the traditional vision of Superman as a representative of "Truth, Justice, and The American way", someone who never lies and someone who protects the innocent from villainy, was beloved and appreciated. He existed as a role-model, something we all wanted to be.


Then, slowly but surely, as the culture evolved like a child into a rebellious adolescence, the boyscout gimmick of Superman turned people off.

Being such a "goody two-shoes" became passé, so passé that a film that pays homage to the traditional (and still superb) Christopher Reeve portrayal, Superman Returns, was maligned by audiences and has since vanished from public consciousness.

via justicebulletin.com

Fans no longer felt like they could connect with a character who was so morally good. They didn't see themselves in Superman and so they began to hate Superman. Where Batman represents everything we are and could conceivably become if we worked hard enough, Superman represents everything we'll never be no matter how hard we try. We cannot fly, we do not have super strength, we can't get the girl, we can't save that runaway train, and we don't always have it within us to do the right thing.

And so the hopeful nature of Superman, the truly worthwhile depiction of everything human beings should aspire to become gets twisted into something destructive.

Hence the neck-snapping, brutal, grim, and downright depressing Superman portrayed in Man of Steel - essentially turning that character heel in an effort to make him more human, but, in so doing, compromising everything worthwhile that the character originally stood for.

We wanted a Superman we could relate to. So we turned him into a murderous bastard, someone who doesn't inspire anyone and someone no one should aspire to become.

And, all the while, we go on ignoring the undeniable reality that there actually are morally righteous people in the world, that most people want things to go well in their life and in the lives of others. We've bought into a misguided notion that anti-heroic behavior is someone more real than heroic behavior, and the result is the pollution of culturally beneficial examples of benevolence.

via comicvince.com

The story of Superman, and how the real-world popular culture has reacted to Superman throughout the years, is the same story of John Cena. This is actually the story of the WWE itself, maturing from childhood in the 80s and early 90s into adolescence in The Attitude Era, and now, hopefully, into a deeper, more well-rounded adulthood.

Forget how you might feel about the character of John Cena and the man who plays him for a moment, and consider the undeniable excellence of this story. Consider the tragedy of a good man being hated in the modern world. Consider the tragedy of a good man, a purely good human being, being reviled by the people. Consider how horrifying it is that society not only calls for the destruction of that good man, but takes pleasure in watching his gruesome dissection at the hands of a pure, unadulterated evil.

We called for the death of Superman. And we got Doomsday.


The trouble is that Doomsday doesn't want to destroy Superman and Superman alone.

We did not realize that when we called for the death of Cena, we would also call for the death of everything else that we once loved. We called for the death of innocence, we called for the destruction of our children's hopes and dreams. The repercussions of hiring an ultimate evil to destroy the good man we've simply grown tired and jealous of is revealed in Lesnar stealing that championship and remaining off television.

Our title is gone. Our Champion is a man who does not care about us, who does not fight for us, who has no interest in us, who only wants to destroy everything we love and who wants to keep destroying everything until there's nothing left.

And only after we've lost everything will we realize what we've done, how we are responsible for the death of our hero, that we are the naive villains who took Superman's benevolence for granted. Because we felt inadequate, because we felt that we could not live up to God's example, we handed our souls over to Satan.


And, at The Royal Rumble, we're going to pay for it.

Thank you for reading. So what do you think? If you're a Cena hater, does this at least help you appreciate this rivalry? Yes or no, comment below.

And help The Good Worker get over by following and subscribing on the social media gimmicks:

Facebook

Twitter

Tumblr

YouTube

All unsourced photos via WWE.

9 comments:

  1. Something I feel like you didn't touch on or just ignored completely.

    The reason I hate John Cena is the same reason I hate Roman Reigns. They just aren't that good in the ring.

    Even the WWE admits Cena has "5 moves of doom." He's been doing the exact same match for the past 8 years. The pacing is entirely too slow (half of his matches are spent with the two superstars lying around catching their breath. see: Rock vs Cena), the movesets are extremely limited (endless headlocks and tests of strength. Shoulder tackle, shoulder tackle, duck the punch, slam, 5 knuckle shuffle where he obviously never hits the guy, and the worst submission move in the WWE, the STF).

    Also, why is Cena the top guy in the WWE when he has ZERO concept of selling anything? He habitually gets his ass kicked, then he can pop up, drop an AA, win the match, and celebrate like nothing ever happened. Half the time, he hasn't even broken a sweat. Maybe that's the key to longevity in the business?

    Cena's matches are just boring. They're limited. The only time Cena has a good match is when the other person is carrying him.

    Austin and The Rock were not the best in the ring by far. Both, for the most part, strikers. But they could pace a match. They could sell moves. Cena can't do any of that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was a fantastic read. You hit on several points regarding the Cena/Superman paradigm that I have been thinking for years. However, what struck me most was your break down of what the Brock Lesnar feud really means. Your point of the "real fighter" destroying the sport we love by destroying it's biggest hero was marvelous. I never looked beyond the surface of "F Brock for not being around more". I'm conditioned to see my champion. I want to see my champion. More importantly I want that championship to mean something to the man holding it. Pointing out that Brock not being around says the ultimate "F U" to us, the fans, simply blew my mind. I, like you wish the WWE would do more to sell that point, though I do worry they woukd beat us over the head with it. I thank you sir for you thoughts on this and for expanding how I view this feud inparticular and the rest of the product as well. You're definitely getting a follow and a retweet/facebook post of this!!.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Slinger. Your comment/reaction is vindicating and makes this worthwhile. I definitely understand why people think and feel the way they do about Cena & Lesnar, I've even been there myself - but it's cool to hear someone else have a similar experience to mine and look at it differently and maybe see it in a little more positive light.

      It's interesting because I think Cena, Heyman, and Lesnar (Heyman in particular) genuinely understand the true nature of the feud - that it's the destruction of the gimmick, that it's reality vs fantasy, good vs evil etc. But the booking might not always reflect that. I don't know that the writers and higherups are fully aware of the great story they have on their hands. But, as you state, maybe that's for the best because if they did they might bludgeon it over our heads and take the subtle goodness of it out of Heyman's hands (and he's really been the one framing it this way in his promos, especially a couple great ones with Cena before Night of Champions.)

      The Royal Rumble will be very important in the overall success of this feud and this particular story. I'm hopeful they'll have a shocking match with a definitive conclusion that really rubs Cena's destruction in our faces to make Lesnar look even worse. Lesnar needs to maintain his strength going into 'Mania so that whatever face they pick will look that much better when/if they go over.

      Anyway, thanks a lot for reading! Really glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  3. John Cena isn't even a "true good" character. A huge misconception about Cena is that he's Superman in the sense that he's always about doing the right thing, but look at the Survivor Series build this year---the man only cares about himself. He's often very selfish, petty, hypocritical, a bully, and incredibly fucking arrogant. He's selling things to us all the time (He's a walking billboard), he comes off as something inhuman and completely fucking fake.
    The author is dead wrong about fans not liking him because of him being a "goody two shoes". If that were the case, characters like Sami Zayn, who IS a classic good guy (He gets comparisons with Ricky Steamboat) wouldn't have gotten so crazy over. Zayn is the perfect example of a pure babyface --- a dude who always does the right thing (even if it's not in his best interest to do so), friendly, likable, etc...But people fucking LOVE HIM.
    Cena's character is just "guy who wins". Let's stop pretending he's anything more than that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, anonymous.

      -The Author

      Delete
  4. To the Good Worker, I've watching WWE since early 90's til now and I agree with most of the stuff you said in your paragraph, it wouldn't make a difference with making Cena face or heel, We should see more words from Lesnar instead of just Paul Hey man, All Paul is doing is saying how good he is without having the champion next to him agreeing what Heyman is saying, or telling the WWE fans himself how good he is

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for commenting! Please be courteous to your fellow human and wrestling fan.