On Monday’s WWE Raw, Triple H tore into pro wrestling fans with the kind of venom he normally saves for in-ring opponents. At the crux of his dissatisfaction with them was their ongoing support for Daniel Bryan, the company’s beleaguered underdog superstar. When Triple H’s wife, Stephanie McMahon, told fans that this Sunday’s WrestleMania — where Triple H and Bryan will go head-to-head — would be the end of Bryan’s Yes movement, Triple H butted in:
“I don’t know how much they’re going to care because the reality of it is, in this generation there is no loyalty. They really don’t care … They don’t want to do anything — that might require some work and some effort. They just want to feel like they’re a part of something. So they have a flavor of the day, something that they can latch on to. But then they just move on to something else once that’s done.”
He’s needling the increasingly noisy contingent of “smart” fans who love wrestlers like Bryan for their technical mastery and indie experience and blame the WWE for not giving those guys opportunities to succeed. More than that, Triple H is needling the Internet generation of fans whose interest in wrestling has metastasized into a form of ongoing revolt. The traditional construct of wrestling is that the fans cheer the heroes and boo the villains; occasionally, they are driven by passion to do the inverse, which the promoter takes as a signal to turn the hero into a villain or vice versa, and the usual pattern resumes.
Modern fans found their voice in the late-1990s Attitude Era. They were inspired by the aggressiveness of ECW crowds to realize the power of their influence. One could argue about the exact moment of this shift, but for my money it happened during the Edge–Matt Hardy feud of 2005. Hardy’s real-life girlfriend, the lady wrestler Lita, cheated on him with Edge, and when it was clear it could become a backstage issue, the WWE chose to fire Hardy because he was the more expendable talent at the time. Fans read about the rumors online, and every time Edge and Lita came to the ring, they chanted for Matt. (They did this even though they didn’t like Hardy nearly as much as Edge. The fans were driven by righteousness and their love of all things reality-based.) Soon, the WWE got the message, rehired Matt, and cast him in a reality-based feud with Edge. After that, Hardy’s career more or less fizzled out again, but the point had been made. If fans chant loudly enough for something, WWE will make it happen.
Now Triple H, WWE’s evil, onscreen COO, is denying the fans’ potency. “Daniel Bryan and this Yes movement are just a myth,” he said during Raw. “They are a fallacy. No matter how many times you come out here and chant ‘Yes,’ it doesn’t make it true” that Bryan is a top talent. Then he showed a video highlight package of himself beating up beloved contenders over the years — Booker T, Scott Steiner,1 RVD, Jeff Hardy, Goldberg, Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle — as Steph narrated her husband’s glory to the music of a soaring guitar accompaniment: “One man who has taken all of your false idols and turned them into rubble.” The clip was as deliciously earnest as a high school athlete’s recruiting video.
OK, not all so beloved.
This kind of provocation would have been unheard of a decade ago, when the Internet was full of fans accusing Triple H of “burying” guys while the larger wrestling audience remained blissfully unaware, busy booing Triple H’s forerunner and father-in-law, Vince McMahon, who blazed the trail of the real-life shot caller as scoundrel. But, as I’ve said before, we’re all Internet fans now. When Triple H gets in the ring, he plays the most effective villain WWE has seen in ages not just by maligning the hero of the day, but by directly addressing and antagonizing Internet fans. He doesn’t just dismiss Bryan. He says that Bryan isn’t “face of the WWE” material, which plays into fans’ long-held assumptions. Triple H laughs at fans’ claims that he married his way into power. He says he’s going to bury Bryan at WrestleMania. He puts a little extra sneer on the word “bury.”
But this isn’t a worked shoot. Triple H delivers these lines in character. It’s almost like the start of a new era.
Over the years, readers have taken me to task for endlessly harping on the Reality Era. I’ve been told that I ignored backstage rumors and the perceived ineptitude of WWE’s creative team in favor of watching wrestling with the best (or most interesting) possible reading. What can I say? I have a soft spot for mythmaking. But it’s not just me being an apologist; it’s an actual tradition in literary theory.
A half-century ago, the French philosopher Roland Barthes made a name for himself deconstructing modern mythologies, including an essay on pro wrestling. He says wrestlers aren’t just phony athletes — they’re modern gods, because in acting out the tropes that define our lives, they’re the “keys that open nature.”
A decade later, in 1968, he wrote his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” which argued in favor of turning away from the trend of evaluating art based on the biography and biases of the artist. To focus on the background is to “impose a limit” on the work. “A text’s unity,” he wrote, “lies not in its origins, but in its destination.” The theory is deliberately arch, more of an argument for its own sake than the start of any functional movement. But it’s a sentiment that wrestling fans should keep in mind: to enjoy what we watch on its own terms rather than to rage against the things that didn’t make it on the screen or the assumably nefarious motivations of the people putting on the show — to watch with that wonder we had as kids when we fell in love with it.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that we can’t know what the booker is actually thinking, even if Internet news sites pretend to know. This is especially true in modern wrestling, where even legitimate news is peppered with “works” from WWE — fake leaks to steer coverage or perception. But functionally, there will never be a death of the booker. We need the booker — and the knowledge that he or she is there, behind the scenes — to understand wrestling narratives. The crowd interaction that made Bryan a megastar makes the product better, and the story line that undergirds the onscreen developments is based in offscreen knowledge that makes the product so much more deep and complex. Two years ago in Miami, I sat next to a 6-year-old boy who was rattling off dirt sheet rumors but who still actually worried the Rock might kill John Cena. Despite groans from wrestling old-timers, the booker will never be off-limits — it’s an integral part of how we watch.
If the booker is dead today, it’s not because his art exists in a vacuum. It’s because his audience is impervious to his charms. He wasn’t struck dead. He faded away, the victim of natural selection. It’s little wonder why WWE has made an effort to stop using wrestling’s traditional carnie terms in its job titles. There are writers and producers and executive vice-presidents of creative. The “booker” of yore has been replaced by “real” titles, just like booking has been subsumed by reality.
If Triple H isn’t the booker per se, he’s unquestionably the onscreen representative. His influence in WWE’s front office is the chief source of his villainy. (His corporate umbrella covers the creative side now.) He has charted the direction of the story line not just by antagonizing WWE’s meta fans, but by co-opting them. Two weeks ago at Raw in Brooklyn, he announced he was initiating a new era in the WWE: the Reality Era. Your Humble Correspondent has admittedly written that phrase into the ground (as have others), but it was coined by CM Punk. Since Punk exited WWE, Triple H has taken a series of veiled shots at his absence, culminating, subtly, in this Monday’s rant against the fans’ shifting loyalties. And by claiming Punk’s era — along with the rise in online wrestling fans’ postmodern outlook — Triple H is both antagonizing those fans and admitting (tacitly) that they were right all along.
Just as WWE seeks to trademark Daniel Bryan’s “Yes!” and mass-produce swag blazoned with it, it will co-opt anything that works for it. Maybe the company is just toying with us, or maybe it’s courting the superfans to buoy the launch of the Network, but the Reality Era worked.
Sunday is WrestleMania 30, the biggest show of the year. If anniversary hype is to be believed, it’s the biggest of the whole decade, and the star is going to be Daniel Bryan. Whether he’s standing tall at the end of the night will say a lot about how much the Reality Era means to WWE. But that’s not the only match with reality-based implications. Let’s run down the whole card and take a look at what might happen — not what the bookers have in store for us, but at the deeper readings. Here are the real questions for Sunday — what the matches really mean.
Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H
The winner gets inserted into the main-event match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, so in theory the outcome should tell us who WWE values more as a top-tier player. But that’s insignificant — the very existence of the stipulation in this match is evidence that both Bryan and Triple H are more interesting than the other main-eventers. The interesting part of this match will be trying to forecast what it means for the main event — whether a long match (or injury angle) will make a second performance for the victor less potent, or whether it’ll be a short setup for the later bout. Or what Triple H will do if he loses, or whether a Triple H win predicts Bryan somehow winning down the line. Because no matter who wins and who loses, it’s a safe bet that both men will be involved in the ending of the main event.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match: Randy Orton vs. Batista vs. ????
This was the main event WWE thought it wanted, but neither of these supposed megastars has looked very good over the past two months. Batista was shoehorned into a good-guy role that didn’t fit him, and much of the progress Orton had made over the preceding months was negated by Batista’s presence. Orton was a potent douche bag, but he paled in comparison to Batista, who was trying against his nature to avoid being douchey. WWE called an audible by turning Batista heel and subjugating them both to the Triple H–Bryan story line, but there’s still a chance that one of these two will end Sunday as the champion. Some have theorized that Batista was promised the belt as a condition of his return, or that WWE wants to run with Bryan’s glass ceiling angle indefinitely. It’s also possible that fans’ worst fears about Triple H are true — he’s not playing a character and he’s really going to take the title for himself because he thinks he deserves it. I could see this match going in any direction, or more than one. No matter what happens, we’ll see how highly WWE really thinks of the four principals, or at least what it thinks of the three who aren’t married to the owner’s daughter — I think we know where he stands.
The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar
This has all the trappings of a great WrestleMania match. It’s two legendary leviathans squaring off in an old-school feud for supremacy. But reality isn’t lagging far behind. Will the Undertaker’s WrestleMania undefeated streak — now 21-0 — end? Unlikely, unless Taker is retiring and he’s determined to “go out on his back,” as wrestlers are taught to do. Otherwise, the streak is worth more in future DVD sales than whatever minor boost it would give Lesnar. But there’s another question: Can Brock keep losing in big matches and maintain his mystique? I think the answer there can be surmised by the total absence of mentions of his record in the run-up to this match: Yes, he can lose forever and he’s still Brock. Perhaps the most intriguing real-life question of the match — the one that I’ll be watching for — is whether Taker can literally survive. Even a fake beating from a monster like Brock would be against doctor’s orders for any man as old as the Undertaker.
John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt
Can Cena really serve as a platform to elevate new stars — as he promised to do in his promo before his last Raw match against Randy Orton? As I’ve noted before, the best thing about Cena is the way he’s helped launch wrestlers like Bryan and Punk by being their foils, but if you think Cena’s presence opposite a fellow WWE superstar automatically makes that promising youngster look good, well, Wade Barrett and Justin Gabriel would like to have a conversation with you. Everybody agrees that Wyatt is a future star, and it’s impressive that he feels like a throwback gimmick and the most dynamic performer on the roster at the same time. This is basically a ’90s Undertaker story line transposed into the Reality Era, where Bray is a dark cult leader calling Cena a “monster” and trying to do … a more demonic version of what Punk tried to do two years ago. Yet somehow this is just as interesting as Punk’s feud was. Bray’s monstrous supernatural threat makes him in some ways the quintessential Cena foe — like Umaga or Khali — but unlike those who came before him, Bray isn’t disposable. Does Cena realize it? That’s the question.
The Shield vs. Kane and the New Age Outlaws
On Raw this Monday, commentator JBL called this six-man bout “the Attitude Era versus the new Reality Era,” which is actually an interesting clash. Despite the seeming inevitability of the past versus the present, WWE has happily leaned on the Attitude Era in recent years, from the branding of last year’s video game to throwback merchandise sales to the appearances — in the ring and the media — of guys like the Rock, Steve Austin, and the Outlaws, who reunited last year as a special attraction and then made themselves relevant by providing reliable throwback thrills. Now WWE is putting those cheers up against three of the biggest up-and-comers on the roster — but really, this match is no contest. The Shield seem to have put their ever-impending breakup on hold to make a united babyface turn, if not fully than just enough to let them relish in the cheers they’ll get when they win Sunday. Don’t worry, though — the Attitude Era won’t be vanquished. Both sides of this fight are too valuable.
The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
This is an archetypal Mania spectacle — a big match with a highfalutin name and the potential for a bunch of cool “moments.” Which is to say, it’s degrees bigger than the sum of its parts. But with no real story lines heading into the match, and no real stakes except a trophy that will inevitably be broken over someone’s head, will anybody care about old-fashioned WrestleMania spectacle in the Reality Era?2
The Tag Title Match: The Usos (Jimmy and Jey Uso) vs. Los Matadores (Diego and Fernando) vs. The Real Americans (Cesaro and Jack Swagger) vs. Ryback and Curtis Axel
The only question here is how serious WWE is about Cesaro, the amazing, Italian-steeped Swiss. He has been one of WWE’s emergent stars over the last few months, buoyed by his scene-stealing moves and some of the same indie cred that bolstered Bryan’s rise. Likely this will be a popcorn match, a feel-good title defense for the Usos, but if WWE decides to give Cesaro a WrestleMania moment, then we should expect big things from him in the near future.
The Vickie Guerrero Divas Championship Invitational
Reigning Divas champion AJ Lee, who’s done her level best to hold up the division over much of the last year, is heading into long odds at WrestleMania. She’s competing against the entire Divas roster in the Vickie Guerrero Invitational, a 14-woman, single-fall match that Lee was placed in after she earned the ire of Smackdown GM Guerrero. The bigger question, though, is whether there’s a place in the Divas spotlight for anyone — AJ included — who’s not a star on Total Divas, WWE’s mainstream reality show. All the show’s stars are getting TV time on Raw, and they’re actually being given opportunities to shine in the ring, so it seems likely that WWE would prefer to have Brie Bella or one of the show’s other stars hold the Divas belt.3 If a Total Diva ends up victorious, the ascent of reality TV as a driving force in WWE storytelling will be complete.
There’s a parallel question, which is whether Lee has retained the belt because it’s untenable to have a Total Diva star as champ. The show tapes months before it airs, and WWE makes a halfhearted attempt to parallel the two timelines — relationships and injuries suffered months ago in real time are rehashed in the now for continuity’s sake. Unless a Total Diva held the strap for a whole year, this might be a bridge too precarious to cross. Or maybe I’m overthinking this.
OK, there’s one more meta question that I’d be remiss not to mention. It’s whether AJ will be punished for the transgressions of her beau, CM Punk. After Punk walked out, AJ’s screen time noticeably diminished. She also took some time off to hang out with him in Chicago instead of traveling with the WWE roster. On Monday, as she was being beat down by a cadre of other Divas, the camera seemed to linger on the new engagement ring on her finger. It was conspicuous, almost devilishly so. If AJ loses, many will take it as a slight to her perhaps-fiancé, and WWE has never been shy about engaging in humiliation by proxy. But true humiliation is a quick loss on a meaningless show, not a villain losing on the biggest night of the year for happy endings.
Whatever happens to Ms. Lee, it’s telling that her man is still mentioned in backstage rumors and online fantasy booking. Because despite his public transformation into Phil Brooks and despite the lack of evidence that he’ll be anywhere near New Orleans this weekend, the restless mind of the modern fan remains convinced, on some level, that Punk could return. This alone means that Punk will be a victor this Sunday — even if he never shows his face.
It’s undeniable that WWE trudged halfheartedly through CM Punk’s ascendance, unsure of how to react to the new normal he introduced to its previously cloistered world. You hear echoes of it in old-timers’ aversion to fans using insider wrestling lingo. You haven’t done it, the thinking goes, so you haven’t earned the right. The same goes for the flash-mob booking ultimatums. But WWE knows that spoon-feeding the audience prefab morality tales no longer works. To see Triple H owning the Reality Era — and more than anything, to see Daniel Bryan going to WrestleMania 30 as WWE’s biggest star — it’s impossible to deny that the company has finally gotten the message.
As Paul Heyman said at the start of Monday’s show: “That’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler.”