Authorial Intent and Wrestlemania XXX

Wrestlemania XXX was either four hours or 46, depending on how you wanted to go. I watched the press conference, the first Wrestlemania Today, the 2014 Hall of Fame, Wrestlemania XXX proper, and Journey to Wrestlemania, a one-hour doc exclusive to the WWE Network, totaling roughly 11.5 hours. That 46 hour total includes a few reruns of previous Wrestlemania’s, but it doesn’t count the other few hundred hours you could spend watching the WWE Network in the week leading up to the big show. “Journey” became available a little while after Wrestlemania, since it includes footage from the event (not even WWE is that good).

With the glut of programming, one might think I watched a lot of wrestling this week. They’d be only right under certain definitions. Of the 11.5 hours I watched, only four of them contained any bell-to-bell time whatsoever. I saw Daniel Bryan in a suit more often than in gear. But that’s the first thing that fans have to learn about WWE: the actual wrestling is only one aspect to the entire show. This is more true than ever.

In fact, the first thing I thought of after Wrestlemania concluded was that I felt I’d seen actually little pro wrestling. Of the shows seven matches, four went over 15 minutes (and of the short ones, only the Battle Royal — featuring 31 men — went over ten). Just 120 of the 240 minutes spent were inside any particular match, leaving the rest to intros, promo videos, interviews, and highlight reels. WWE may have no reruns, but almost half of Wrestlemania was previously-aired footage.

It’s an old argument to say that all the pomp and circumstance takes away from the actual “wrestling” part of the show. I have almost always disagreed with this notion. Videos, interviews, lengthy entrances, and even the odd silly sketch is all there for the purpose of making the audience care about these characters. WWE does all this so that when the performers are working their craft, you care about their wellbeing. WWE bets that you cheer or boo them largely on what they’ve done outside of wrestling matches.

Another criticism often lobbed at WWE is that they tend to forget that wrestlers can make a crowd sway for or against them simply by how they wrestle, and all that other stuff doesn’t really need to be there. But if WWE ever needed an argument for the importance of non-wrestling segments on their shows, it was Wrestlemania XXX. HHH was widely praised for his performance in his match against Bryan. Bray Wyatt was not only cheered, but the crowd finally started to sway like they used to in NXT (not an easy task). Two of the biggest villains on the show fighting two of the biggest heroes, and they were all aided by this design. Of course, that opens up a Pandora’s box of wrestling etiquette. If a bad guy is performing well, do I cheer because I appreciate it, or boo because then I’m playing along?

Wrestlemania XXX was a different kind of wrestling show, and it seems impervious to these sorts of old complaints. Not enough wrestling? Are you kidding? Four matches drew close to thirty minutes each, and only one of them dragged. The two involving Bryan were exhausting in their quality. Stupid skits? There was one, and it promoted toys, and it was two minutes. Too much “entertainment” rather than “sport”? Are you nuts? Except for the six-man tag, no match was easily won. Everyone looked like they were giving it their all, as if this really was the biggest show of their career.

Wrestlemania was an excess of delight for the wrestling fan, and presumably even the crotchety old wrasslin’ fan who cares about snowflakes and workrate and pays for newsletters. They’ll spend the next few weeks writing about why it was a terrible decision for WWE to end the streak or have John Cena beat Bray Wyatt or whatever but ignore them. They loved it. They designed Wrestlemania XXX to please, from the first twenty minutes of nostalgic hoopla to HHH’s tiger suplex to Batista & Orton’s powerbomb/RKO into the Spanish announce table. It was also built to shock, awe, inspire, and ultimately be watched over and over again, as it was the first Wrestlemania in history to be available to re-watch almost the second it was over. It was the first major show since the Network launched. It has set an impossibly high precedent.

A lot of people come out for Wrestlemania. More people watch it than any other WWE special event. More people show up. More people care. There’s absolutely an audience that only shows up for this show. Why watch Wrestlemania and not Raw (or Elimination Chamber)? Maybe they know WWE spends a lot of it’s year building to this, and they’re smart enough not to put themselves through the emotional roller coaster. Maybe they only want to watch wrestling when they know it’ll be good. Obviously, WWE would like to convert these fans into Network subscribers, but if they only care about Wrestlemania, what are the chances? I have to say, probably not high. The customer who only shows up for four hours of wrestling will not be tempted to watch thousands more. That option was always there for them. Sometimes four hours is all you want.

Then again, show them these four hours, and you might just convert some people. And I don’t just mean the once-per-year fans, I mean people who might have completely disregarded the product. Wrestlemania was built like a celebration, echoed in the opening video, and the show felt like half its actual runtime. When it was over, I couldn’t believe it. WWE gave the fans every single thing they wanted. On top of that, they accomplished something few believed they could: they made it seem like they planned it all in advance. But I’ll get to that.

Wrestlemania, like Monday Night Raw and in general all of wrestling, was an ensemble production built to showcase a roster of characters. Yet not since perhaps Wrestlemania X was there such an obvious star of the show. Daniel Bryan, like Bret Hart before him wrestled in the first and last matches. And just like Bret, the first match was better. Hard-hitting, suspenseful, and dynamic, HHH vs Bryan was the type of wrestling match you could use to make fans out of people. Seriously. Show that match to someone who thinks wrestling is a waste of time. Watch them go from making fun of you to biting their fingernails. I used to use Savage and Steamboat when defending pro wrestling. Now I have this.

Bryan’s second match was a completely different kind of performance. If beating HHH made the bad guy pay, the triple threat paid back all the times the bad guy won. For people unfamiliar with pro wrestling, the first match was as close as you can get to a pure, perfect exhibition. The second match was all spectacle: copious interference, double-teaming, cheating, international objects, and a crooked referee. These are the things bad guys use to beat good guys. These are tools of the nefarious, the cheap, and the lazy. Both inside the narrative and without, these things are used to ruin matches. And yet Bryan cut through it all, a superhero by any other name. The bad guys beat Bryan with all these things for the past 8 months. That’s why they were effective. All that was missing was to have Shawn Michaels kick the poor guy in the face again.

The middle of the show held it’s own, even if Bryan outshone everyone. When the lights went out and they introduced a voodoo dancer, I thought that she was for John Cena’s entrance. John has a long history of great entrances, and they often include a local flavour. But he hasn’t had a good one since 2011, so I guess maybe they’ve dropped that aspect of his character. It’s too bad. He deserved a better entrance than he got.

I don’t have much to say about Cena vs Wyatt. It was the most normal match of the evening, but it had fun shades of Hart and Piper from Wrestlemania VIII, with Cena tempted to cheat, his enemy urging him to take the easy way out. Bret-Piper had a strange message: refuse the temptation, and you still might lose. This story made more sense. I believe Cena won because Undertaker lost, though. I think it was a kind of mercy. There’s only so much the kids can take.

Over time, we have come to believe that The Undertaker is in charge of his career. We believe he wrestles when he wants, against only who he wants, and if he wins or loses, it is because he has chosen to. Not since Hulk Hogan in the 90's (with politics) or Andre the Giant (with invincibility) has there been a man more in charge of his own career. We believe this because we have no faith in WWE keeping up the steak in this way. It had to have been a wrestler. HHH has gone on record saying the streak should never be broken, and I take that to mean WWE meant to never break it if they could help it. If we believe that, then we have to believe The Undertaker insisted on losing, or Brock insisted on winning, or a combination of either.

But what if the writers just pitched a great ending? What if Vince thought that this year was going to be the year? What if Undertaker losing was, for lack of a better term, best for business? We have trouble with these ideas. Surely, this wasn’t the story they’d go with? Well, why not? Because you didn’t like it? That’s the risk authors take. Every tweet, blog post, poem, short story, essay, manuscript, screenplay, and yes, pro wrestling storyline ships with the absolute possibility of flopping. All you can do is your best. And I think they did their best.

I think the best guy won. It’s always a surprise when I hear how young Brock Lesnar is. We’ve known him forever, but not really. His second tenure in WWE has now been longer than his first. You know what I saw in Brock Lesnar’s eyes as he defeated the Undertaker? Enjoyment. He was having fun out there. I think Brock Lesnar is finally falling in love with pro wrestling. He mugged for the cameras like a kid on Christmas. He’s finally home.

If you believe they did it on purpose, you have to give them credit. It may not have been a classic, but much like The Rock at Wrestlemania XXIX, one has to grade on a curve. There was an injury. Pro wrestling is a tight-wire, dangerous art form, and injuries are going to happen from time to time. Sometimes they’re going to end careers. Sometimes you wish they’d just stop before it happens. But we’re just not good enough people to make that happen. We demand performers give us their all, until there’s less than nothing left. It’s for this reason I’ve come to loath “one more match” chants. Do they prop up at every Hall of Fame speech? It’s selfish, and it made Jake Roberts Cry. Warrior was right to look out at the crowd, look at all those demanding people and scream “no.” Maybe it would have been better for everyone involved if the Undertaker just went out to pick up a pack of cigarettes, and never came back.

If the crowd wasn’t into Undertaker vs Lesnar, it’s because going in, the match was heavily suffering from predetermined outcome syndrome. Not a single person honestly bet on Brock Lesnar to win. But holy crap, did they wake up.

I’ve seen a lot of great crowd reactions. I was sitting just over a dozen rows back from Hogan and Rock. I’ve studied Hart and Austin like a college class. And my childhood memories get all warm when I think of Savage defeating Flair. But great historical reactions are often of jubilation, ownership, or a reckoning. Wrestling deals in the payment of catharsis. But what is the opposite? What do you call a feeling where the entire platform drops, and the floor opens up underneath you? What happens when a fictional god dies? You’re left with a little less magic, and a world sadly more real. Any written account of this moment ends up equally hyperbolic and not nearly enough. WWE also trades in childlike wonder, but in a single unexpected moment, they made us all grow up. I choose to read the Undertaker’s loss as a decision made by one man, and then crafted by a team. It was on purpose and inevitable, as all great fictional tragedies have to be. It’s sad if you go in with both eyes open, as we all eventually did, and in the end, we’re left with everything we haven’t lost.

There were other matches, but they didn’t really matter. If anything, they only fortified the overall theme of the night: we did this on purpose. The Big Show was the favourite going into the battle royal so he could be bodyslammed, and the only person on the roster who has a precedent for being super strong is Cesaro. (And welcome back to being the butt of Wrestlemania, Big Show. We missed you). AJ Lee got to squash every other woman on the show, and The Shield got a moment to be dominant heroes. It was all there to say, look, these are our new stars. Trust us. We have plans. But how much do we believe that? God knows WWE has done this before. How can we trust that they actually know what they’re doing? How do we move from our current attitudes to actually giving the entire team at WWE credit when they get something like Wrestlemania this right?

Faith in authorial intent is the next thing. We simply don’t believe that WWE planned to do this all along. We have trouble giving them credit. That’s the old criticism, right? Get the writers out of the way and let the wrestlers do what they do best. But the fact is, Wrestlemania can’t happen without the whole team. That little commercial where they talk about all those feet of cable, all the trucks, all the equipment, that’s all really real. The only part of Warrior’s Hall of Fame speech was when he suggested a yearly award for a member of the crew (named after Jimmy Miranda, a late employee who worked the merchandise booth). That should happen. And the writers should qualify.

That brings us to Journey to Wrestlemania, a documentary starring Daniel Bryan. It weaves Bryan’s entire career into the recent story between him and WWE authority, as if they’re somehow responsible for him being smaller than Hulk Hogan. It’s cute, inspiring, and an easy hour to spend. And since the hour features extensive talking-head time with Brie Bella and John Cena, it’s basically the best episode of Total Divas ever.

Watching this doc, its easy to believe that WWE has been consciously telling this story since Bryan arrived, like it is actually all one connected narrative. Even Bryan’s brief derails feel like chapters in this story, because his is a story of a guy who shouldn’t be a star. Of course he struggled. Of course it felt like he was going nowhere. On our podcast last week, Rich dismissed the possibility that they’d been consciously writing this story. He said “It’s easy to go back and make a video making it make sense.” That video is definitely Journey to Wrestlemania. And he’s probably right. This likely wasn’t the plan. The authors of this story didn’t force this to happen. You can make a video with equally inscrutable events with Bryan. You can easily tell the other side of this story.

What the writers did do was allow a story to be communicated in this way. The fact that it can be read as a consistent narrative at all is an impressive feat. You just can’t do that with HHH, or CM Punk (in comparison, huge chunks of their careers are missing from their recent docs). They allowed the text to be read this way. It might have been a coincidence. It may have been unconscious. But the text can read this way. You can interpret the last four years as a singular narrative starring Daniel Bryan. And you can choose to believe it was the authors’ intent to make it so, which is a victory. I’ll take it.

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