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.
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.
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.
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.
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All unsourced photos via WWE.