JOHN CENA:BENEATH THE WRIST BANDS
If you are reading these words, you most likely have a strong opinion about John Cena.
Whatever that opinion may be, I encourage you to read this from the perspective of what makes good character work, not from the perspective of a passionate "lover" or "hater". Love Cena, hate Cena, or ignore Cena, this article is about one thing and one thing only: how small, seemingly insignificant creative choices can have powerful thematic implications.
To begin, enjoy an excellent final RAW segment that took place on August 11th, 2014 in preparation for Summer Slam:
This is but one of a few excellent segments involving Heyman, Cena, and Lesnar that defined a large portion of the WWE's A-story in 2014.
This story, despite the criticisms of an often-absent Lesnar and an relentlessly babyface John Cena, is a well-crafted tale when it occupies any spot on the show. In its most basic form this is the story of good vs evil. Delving a little deeper, the story becomes the conflict between harsh reality and hopeful fantasy. Delving even deeper, the story becomes the conflict between legitimate sport and "sports entertainment".
See past your personal feelings about Cena, and simply listen to every Paul Heyman promo in the second half of 2014, and even every Cena promo, and the nuances and the excellence of the story will emerge.
(Above is the most important of all the John Cena and Paul Heyman interactions, and it is the basis of the imagined scenario I will propose.)
We are witnessing the destruction of John Cena. The destruction of the gimmick wrestling of the WWE at the hands of a legitimate fighter (at least that's what the story has been up until this point - the inclusion of Seth Rollins in the Rumble main event might change things).
One of the side effects of this story, a beneficial outcome to Cena's war with Lesnar, is the humanization of Cena's character.
Fans bemoan Cena's relentless babyface nature, and the fact that he's portrayed as an underdog. Such inspires understandable frustration, but Cena's story with Lesnar is not necessarily about an underdog overcoming obstacles. It's about what happens when evil defeats good, when the best comes up against the better. In seeing John Cena decimated at Summer Slam, the character was knocked down off the mountain not unlike any other super hero who loses their super powers at the end of the second act in a comic book movie or the first act of a comic book movie sequel.
The humanization of that character, regardless of the frustration he's inspired, is interesting from a narrative point of view.
We've seen Superman, after years of being hated for simply being himself, humbled at the hands of a villain we cheered. And regardless of the Night of Champions match, which many regard as back-peddling on Cena's humanization, Lesnar still has Cena's number. Lesnar still destroys Cena like it's going out of style as evidenced on one of the final RAWs of 2014.
Over the past several months the Lesnar/Cena rivalry has taken many detours, all delaying the inevitable fight at a more significant pay-per-view.
While the inclusion of Rollins could potentially derail some of the momentum Heyman, Lesnar, and Cena built in the latter half of 2014, small steps can be taken to reignite the crux of the feud and the humanity of the Cena character. I will not suggest broad-stroke ways for this to be achieved - such is in the capable hands of Heyman and his ability to tell this story on the mic. I enjoy simply watching this narrative unfold more than questioning every particular twist and turn and creative decision.
I do have one incredibly specific note to give on something John Cena can do before he enters the ring at The Royal Rumble, however. I give this note not because I think Cena should listen to what I have to say - I'm just a humble analyst! Performers should have complete control over their performances, and I think Cena should do whatever he wants to do. What I will describe next is simply a scenario I've enjoyed imagining, and one I think could be emotionally rewarding within the pro-wrestling fiction if it actually happened.
Notice how, in the first video, John Cena removes his arm bands and his wrist bands before telling Lesnar to "Bring it!"
This is an intelligent creative choice that could make for a great moment leading into The Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
Cena is synonymous with his merchandise. He's decked out in arm bands, wrist bands, hats, towels, tee-shirts-of-the-month and the like. I doubt this will ever change, and I don't necessarily feel this needs to change permanently. It's his gimmick, and, inevitably, it's effective. But there is an opportunity to use this association to help tell the conclusion of Cena vs Lesnar.
Somewhere between brawls with Lesnar, on random RAWs at the end of the year, John Cena started handing out his "Never Give Up" towel to children in the audience. This can be pushed even further.
Children are John Cena's only reliable fanbase. They are the innocent. John Cena is the fantasy to which they all aspire. Witnessing his destruction could be a powerful moment in a child's life. That innocence could be destroyed in a couple ways: Cena could be defeated by Lesnar or Cena could "go to that place" where he forsakes his unshakably benevolent nature for one match and becomes The Beast who defeats The Beast Incarnate. He would have to briefly become what he hated in order to win, in order to save himself and the innocence of his fans. This was one of Heyman's key arguments in the above promo, only Heyman was suggesting it an attempt to lure John Cena to the dark side, into the role of social pariah. Heyman would destroy the myth of Cena, the legend that inspired the love of children, while Lesnar would destroy the gimmick that inspired the hatred of men.
Going into The Royal Rumble (and especially if it was just Cena vs Lesnar), John would have to find a way to win. Within the fiction, John Cena must inevitably tap into his inner villain in the way Heyman suggests while still finding a way to preserve his moral righteousness and his spot as the role-model of children. This conflict is on par with any good drama, and it's better than superficially turning John heel because the stakes are higher, the situation more complex.
To sell this momentary transformation, I imagine a somber Cena emerging from the back at The Royal Rumble, his expression almost lifeless. I see him do his usual salute, but he does not look into or say anything to the camera.
Next, the WWE's Superman holds up his "Never Give Up" towel and then slowly, moving from one side of the aisle to the next, removes his wrist bands, his tee-shirt, his hat, and his dog tags. He hands each individual item to an individual child in the audience, slowly shedding his neon skin. In this way, the character is momentarily handing over his gimmick. He is disrobing the fantasy of himself, and then offering it to the only people who would be willing to preserve it. He gives thanks in this offering, and lets the children know that everything will eventually be okay.
By the time he gets to the ring he is no longer a "sports entertainer". He's not John Cena "who doesn't mind being the guy who inspires a kid to get his homework done early".
He is a fighter. Ready to fight.
He is not evil. But he's not all-good either. He's just a man. Fighting for his life.
He stands in the center of the ring, glaring up at the Titantron, awaiting the WWE Heavyweight Champion of the World, Brock Lesnar.
His face, a grim reflection of Lesnar's lengthy, powerful stare we saw at Summer Slam.
I don't necessarily see this happening exactly in this way, of course. Again, this is simply something this feud has inspired me to imagine as a potentially moving, near-cinematic pro-wrestling moment. We've already seen hints of this, but if it was emphasized in the right way at the right time, it could be the perfect culmination of six-months-worth of storytelling.
For all the criticisms of John Cena, valid or invalid, he is an archetypal character. Such a character has the ability to inspire imaginations, both innocent and experienced, because such a character connects with a shared consciousness. In the right hands, such a character can inspire exciting, enlightening stories.
It is my hope that we shall see even more of them soon.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, or hated this, you're probably going to want to read The Myth of John Cena: Shedding The Neon Skin. Help preserve the art of professional wrestling by sharing this article with a friend via all the usual social media gimmicks!
Photos via WWE.com