In recent years, the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view has become accepted as the mathematically inexact midway point between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. The event comes at the heart of the biggest season in the WWE calendar, and it’s the last big chance to set up feuds that will be on the big ‘Mania stage.
Of course, between Internet speculation and what WWE has already revealed during its broadcasts, most viewers have a pretty good idea of what might happen at WrestleMania. But that’s where Elimination Chamber comes in — to inject some uncertainty into the proceedings. Inside the Chamber, the champion of each show (there is one Chamber match for Monday-night Raw and one for Friday’s Smackdown) puts his title on the line against five other premier wrestlers, all locked inside a fearsome, circular cage. Two men start the match, while the other four are sealed in individual pods within the eponymous Elimination Chamber, from which they’re released at five-minute intervals. The winner is the last man standing after all the others have been pinned or submitted. A few things separate this from similar gimmick matches: A spacious area outside the ring (but still within the cage) creates a larger area for brawling; the pods themselves, which can be used as launching pads or just something to smash your enemy against; and the drama-cum-unintentional-hilarity of seeing the wrestlers’ expressions as they wait to be released. With the title on the line, six different men who might walk out the winner, and WWE’s propensity for veering away from what its audience expects, the chances for intrigue are real, if not necessarily high.
Despite the cream-of-the-crop gloss they assign to the Chamber’s participants, however, there are three notable absentees in this year’s matches. First, Sheamus, who won the Royal Rumble, and with it a title match at WrestleMania. He’s waiting until after the Elimination Chamber to announce which champion he’ll pursue.1 The next absentee2 is Randy Orton, who was (in storyline terms) concussed Monday when champ Daniel Bryan hit him over the head with the title belt (and who, in real life, seems to have aggravated the back injury that kept him out for much of the past few months). Many WWE observers expected Orton to either win the title at Elimination Chamber or otherwise initiate a feud with Bryan; the fact that WWE wrote him out of this PPV may actually reinforce the likelihood that Orton will square off with Bryan at ‘Mania.3 And the last star missing from the Elimination Chamber is John Cena, who has been, well, occupied of late with other things.
The past two months in Cena’s WWE life have been either traumatic or ridiculous, depending on your point of view. Since last summer, when his feud with CM Punk solidified the pro- and anti-Cena positions of most of the WWE fan base, Cena has been a Superman adrift. He has the posture of a fan favorite but only a fraction of the appeal. The preteen demographic remains loyal to him, as does a healthy portion of the women, although the adult female professional wrestling fan is something of a rare breed. But Cena’s detractors — the young and not-so-young men who make up the majority of WWE’s audience, and who know full well that they are supposed to be cheering Cena — have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the script so that even Cena’s most triumphant moments are tainted with a sort of ironic detachment: “CE-NA sucks! CE-NA sucks!”
For those who dislike Cena, the problem is his inevitability, the way that he seldom loses. Even when the odds seem stacked against him, Cena is so entrenched (and protected) as the company’s top star that we know nothing can truly go wrong for him. This is also why WWE hasn’t tried to turn Cena heel — as the anti-Cena masses have long pleaded — as a sort of salve for their annoyance with him. As the company’s top star, he’s too essential to the corporation as a spokesman, a champion, and a merchandise mover to risk positioning him as a bad guy.
Or so went the theory when Cena was losing out on cheers to Punk. But after that feud wound down, Cena started pursuing a beef with the zombie-ish madman Kane. And this storyline has taken Cena not just out of the championship-title scene but out of the WWE mainstream — and out of the current WWE reality. It’s like WWE as a whole is trucking along but Cena has been sucked into an alternate universe where it never stops being 2002.
I’ve avoided writing about the Cena-Kane storyline — which, in the interest of comprehensiveness, I should probably call the Cena-Kane-Ryder-Eve storyline — because there was not a moment during the feud, until Monday night, in which I was happy to be watching it. So allow me to recap the saga just so uninitiated readers can understand what we’ve been suffering through.
Starting in November, vignettes started airing that foreshadowed the return of Kane, who had been out of action for several months. Kane came back on December 12’s Monday-night Raw,4 and attacked Cena for no discernable reason. The following Sunday, at the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs PPV, Cena didn’t have a match; he had cut a deal that entailed forfeiting his title shot so that Zack Ryder — Cena’s buddy in backstage segments5 — could get a U.S. Championship match. Over the next few weeks, Cena and Ryder continued their bromance in locker-room segments that were more awkward than chummy. If these guys were friends, they sure were bad at showing it. And Ryder simultaneously began wooing Eve Torres, a semisignificant WWE “Diva.” Eve seemed even more awkward around Ryder than Cena did, although I think her disinterest was part of the story.
Cena and Kane kept fighting with increasing violence, and frequently in “dangerous” backstage areas. Kane finally spelled out his beef: Cena’s motto, “Rise above hate,” was leading the fans astray, since the world is a dark, angry place. So Kane would set things right by getting Cena to embrace his inner hate. To twist the knife, he suggested that since Cena represented the audience’s aspirations — everything they dream of achieving but can’t — when fans chant “Cena sucks”6 they’re really saying that they suck. Pretty heady stuff for a preternatural freak.
On the January 2 Raw, Kane tore through the floor of the ring and tried to drag Ryder into his hole — which the wrestlers and the announcers all sold like the literal entrance to hell — but Cena saved Ryder. Apparently, Kane was terrorizing Ryder — as he soon would Eve — to bring out Cena’s anger. (Not all of Kane’s attention to Ryder was violent, though — he stalked him, comically, through the better part of an episode, once leaning out from a janitor’s closet — just after Ryder finally asked Eve out — like Lurch guest-starring on Benny Hinn.) Kane severely injured Ryder on three separate occasions: by choke-slamming him onto a pile of pallets in the loading dock, by choke-slamming him through the entrance-ramp stage, and by pushing his wheelchair at full speed off the entrance-ramp platform — usually with Eve screaming bloody murder in the background.
Ryder responded to his various maimings not with particular grit or despair, but instead with slapstick insouciance. He would show up after each attack, wheelchair-bound, wearing increasingly formidable-looking neck and back braces, determined to thank Cena for trying to save him and to keep pursuing Eve. It’s difficult to convey how corny every interaction in this storyline has been, but Ryder’s absurd injured act may be the best concrete example. WWE knows how to do gritty and how to do grave, but in this case they’ve gone in the opposite direction. Perhaps it’s the best they can do, considering the players at hand: Cena is basically a freestyle-rapping automaton; Ryder is a farcical take on either Long Island club culture, 1990s pro wrestling, or both; Kane is a creation of the ’90s WWF with a backstory so ridiculous that I can’t do it justice except to say that “living embodiment of the universe’s hatred” is probably a step in the right direction for him; and Eve is apparently just a lousy actress. Or maybe she’s a brilliant actress just playing dumb. Maybe her inauthenticity is the point.
This past Monday, affairs reached a ridiculous apex that made me wonder if Kane’s murderous rampage has been premeditated. The function of this storyline is to transform Cena’s character before his WrestleMania showdown with The Rock — whether it leads to him embracing more of a “tweener” character or finding a new level of badassery that will hopefully reenergize his flagging support. And as Kane and Cena’s slugfests have continued, Cena has indeed shown evidence of a new, near-pathological impulse; if he’s not exactly embracing his hate, he’s channeling it effectively into awkward grimaces. But the grimaces never seem to last longer than a segment, and the broader story seems to be signaling Cena’s resistance to character change.
On Monday, Kane attacked Eve, and when Cena ran in to save her, the staging was so bad — Eve was walking to hide in an ambulance7 while Kane stood by, apparently waiting for someone to yell “action” — that the scenario seemed aggressively fake, even for wrestling. Not just the literal reality of what we were watching, because of course that was fake, but the reality within the context of wrestling. After Cena saved Eve, she kissed him, and then the camera panned to a forlorn Zack Ryder, sitting nearby in his wheelchair and neck brace with a bouquet of roses in his lap. It was the funniest image on WWE television in recent memory, and yet its humor felt poignant. Many fans have pointed out that it was the perfect moment for Ryder to say his catchphrase: “Are you serious, bro?” But somehow, the choice not to do that seemed appropriate. The line would have worked too well in a scene that otherwise felt like an oddly premeditated disaster. It would have sponged all the absurdity out of the air. In the absence of the catchphrase, the sublime preposterousness of the whole affair was brought into sharp focus. And for a moment, I was conflicted: Is this bad, so-bad-it’s-good, or just plain subversive?
Maybe it’s because the whole storyline had sucked the will to live from me, but for a moment I couldn’t help but think that WWE might be working on a higher level than we’re giving it credit for. Certainly, there’s some turn in store for us at Elimination Chamber, and probably it’ll just be Eve turning on Ryder and Cena to align herself with Kane.8 But part of me wants nothing more than for all four of these players to just stop mid-match during Sunday’s PPV, yell “Scene!,” turn to the audience, and take a bow. Or for Kane to choke-slam Cena, only for Cena to stand up, unaffected, and say, “Wrestling isn’t real, you idiot,” while Kane dissolves magically into the ether.
WWE won’t go that far. I should acknowledge that this story has all the markings of a Vince McMahon passion project — the sort of thing that makes sense in a few sentences but that’s beat into the audience’s face with incessant, repetitive main-event airspace. But even so, isn’t the Kane-Cena saga a little bit rebellious just for its inanity? Or its insanity? It’s the sort of story that could have existed at any point in the last 20 years of wrestling history, but the tenor of WWE has changed so much now that it makes this storyline even more audacious and ill-fitting.
Two weeks ago, I looked at these scenes and groaned as if I were being forced to watch community theater. Now, rewatching them, I squint my eyes and see the vague outlines of a deliberate deconstruction of Reality Era storytelling. WWE couldn’t have cast a better foursome for such a project: Each of them over-the-top, pulled whole cloth from a pre-Reality WWE time stream, and completely reliant on gimmick over character. The presentation lacks self-awareness, the acting is brazenly hammy, and not one of the characters is at all relatable — this is The Room on steroids, and John Cena is its Tommy Wiseau.
Here’s the problem: If the purpose of this storyline is to bring out a more complex, antiheroic John Cena, then this Kane feud is the worst possible vehicle for it. When Cena dueled with Punk, he not only seemed more human but also actually beatable. Punk forced Cena to engage on reality-based terms, and Cena had to embrace a not-so-good-guy, tweener role. But when Cena feuds with Kane, an undead behemoth who can throw magical fireballs, Cena is literally playing the role of a superhero. Is there any question as to who’s going to win at the end of this Hollywood blockbuster? WWE might as well call it 12 More Rounds. There are no antiheroes and no character development in Crayola morality plays; there are no shades of gray in superhero Technicolor.
So far, much of this storyline has happened backstage, in scripted conversation or in overdirected brawls. This is to say, it’s the opposite of the Reality Era, which can only exist in the ring and in front of the watchful audience. Working live in front of the fans is wrestling’s version of the magician’s “Nothing up my sleeve!” But the Cena-Kane feud has been overwrought stage magic. And the fact that WWE has pushed this narrative in the midst of the Reality Era is telling. Whether this is the passive-aggressive retort of a few dissatisfied writers or the beginning of a larger effort to revert to the old norms of wrestling storytelling, I’m not sure. They’re either trying to deconstruct the modern wrestling world or they’re accidentally undermining it. Maybe the hope is that if they get the cat back in the bag by WrestleMania, Cena will be the superstar he used to be.
On Sunday, Cena and Kane will meet in an ambulance match, presumably with Ryder and Eve somehow involved. To win, one wrestler has to put the other on a gurney, roll the gurney into the ambulance, and drive it out of the arena. This means that the climax of the match will — like the rest of the Kane-Cena feud — happen backstage, away from the crowd, and away from reality. Which is appropriate — that’s the only place where this storyline could make any sense.