Will WWE go broke if Cena plays the heel?
Earlier this week, on Monday-night Raw, CM Punk presented a video from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in which he raised the central storyline leading up to Sunday's SummerSlam pay-per-view event: That the audience isn't a hundred percent sold on recently dethroned and semirestored champion John Cena. Every time Cena hits the ring now, it seems like the crowd erupts into competing chants. The Cena fans, usually tweens with Cena jerseys and headbands, sing out, "Let's go, Cena!" His detractors, the men in the front row holding beers and ironic signs, answer back, "Cena sucks!"
This tension has been percolating for a while. With his wry smile and "freestyle" raps at his opponents' expense, Cena elevated himself from midcard purgatory to main-event status. His shtick was fresh, nominally au courant, and passably dreamboaty. Brash and occasionally impudent, he seemed like a flashback to the Attitude Era. But, of course, this wasn't the Attitude Era. WWE was in the process of trying to nail down a TV-PG rating,1 and so Cena's act was muffled. His "F-U" finishing move was renamed "The Attitude Adjustment," which now seems like a masterstroke of unintentional metaphor, and Cena was positioned as the babyface icon of a new, wholesome WWE.
As Cena ran more or less roughshod over the championship scene in the ensuing years, a large part of the fan base — mostly older fans who had stuck with WWE for years and who suddenly found themselves outside the target demographic — felt left out. They focused their disapproval on Cena, his redundant battle-rap gimmick, and his often unspectacular ringwork. As divisive as Cena's appeal is, he was nevertheless presented as an unimpeachable hero in the mold of Hulk Hogan, which was probably the point since the fans who were now booing Cena had been hooked on wrestling as kids during Hogan's similarly unnuanced run.
When CM Punk emerged as WWE's antihero and standard bearer of a revitalized Attitude Era, the disenfranchised fans found their messiah. Punk has been calling himself the "voice of the voiceless" for his routine of questioning the WWE power structure, but more than anything he's just co-opted their clamoring. Since Punk's emergence, "Cena sucks!" has been functionally synonymous with "Let's go, Punk!"
As Punk and Cena, who have competing claims to the WWE heavyweight title,2 have feuded over the past couple weeks, online speculation that Cena will be repositioned as a bad guy has run rampant — the "corporate champion," perhaps, of new chief operating officer Triple H. This would freshen up his character and formally announce a new era. With WWE returning to more adult territory, and with Punk positioned to replace Cena atop the good-guy hierarchy, an evil Cena finally seems feasible.
The problem, though, isn't storytelling; it's economics. Wrestling's conventional wisdom states that bad guys don't sell merchandise.3 From T-shirts to watches to koozies to plastic coffee mugs, Cena's merchandise earnings bring in millions of dollars a year — money that WWE seems loathe to abandon, especially in the current financial climate. According to WWE's quarterly stockholder report (warning: .pdf), consumer products brought in $56 million in the first half of this year, and Cena gear — calculatedly released in a new primary color every six months or so to maximize the take from (younger) viewers' (parents') wallets — must make up a healthy portion of that figure.
Furthermore, insomuch as Cena has a say in the matter — and one would assume that a star of his wattage would — the financial impact on him would be even more severe. Even though his base salary is certainly significant,4 most of his annual income appears to be tied to percentages from merchandise sales. Even if WWE kept their profits high with, for instance, increased CM Punk numbers, Cena would lose money.
So far, WWE has been playing out the Cena-Punk feud with unusual nuance. The wrestlers have been performing not in the standard hero-villain mold, but as actual humans with motivations. They operate at opposite ends of the spectrum not because they've been assigned those roles, but because they're different people. Triple H, for his part, is playing a similar tweener role, taking issue with both wrestlers on different points and maintaining that his primary objective is pleasing the fans. If they can maintain this tension over the long haul — if they let fans decide whom to support rather than spoon-feeding them archetypes — WWE's coffers could be doubly full.
The Punk-Cena feud has been breathtaking not simply because of the worked-shoot promos or the reality blurring, but because of the way both wrestlers have operated in shades of gray. If they can keep that up, if nuance can replace ham-fistedness as the storytelling status quo, then we all win.
Can they keep us interested without talking?
The main difference between the PPV format and the regular television product is that PPVs are almost entirely wrestling (and video packages that recap the various feuds), in which storylines are advanced through in-ring machination. Monday-night Raw, on the other hand, has been carried of late by promos, verbal spats, and nonphysical confrontations. Fans judged this past Raw as a major improvement over the previous week's product not because of better matches, but because the show-closing Cena-Punk confrontation was more impressive.
WWE's previous PPV, Money in the Bank, was great thanks to its built-in uncertainty. We didn't know if Punk, whose real-life contract was up, would actually leave WWE, with or without the championship belt. Things are more stable now. Cena and Punk are under contract and will presumably continue feuding after SummerSlam. The most entertaining scenes in WWE over the past seven weeks have been promos: Punk's doing snow angels in the ring, Punk's referring to Triple H as Vince McMahon's "doofus" son-in-law, Punk's snarling at Triple H's marriage to Stephanie McMahon. Now we get to find out whether they can be as thrilling in the ring, as wrestlers, as they've been as actors.
Obviously, a surprise ending — and numerous iterations have been suggested by Internet fantasy bookers — would straddle this line. Triple H inserting himself into the Cena-Punk rematch as its special referee multiplies the macro, micro, and metastorytelling possibilities. But how will the crowd react? Cena and Punk wrestled a great match at the last PPV, so there's no reason to doubt that they'll do it again, but there have been numerous times on Raw in the past month when the reaction from the crowd seemed to be, "Oh, they're only wrestling now." This raises an even bigger question: In the "Reality Era," do wrestling fans care about actual, physical (scripted) wrestling?
Will Triple H please the Internet?
This is a rather insidery point, but it's significant: Triple H was known for hogging the spotlight in his wrestling days. He has become heavily involved in the business side, and he supposedly has influenced WWE's positive changes in recent months, but that hasn't been enough to endear him to the message board masses.5 What seems indisputable is that everything we see on TV has at least the implicit approval of (real-life) Triple H. He is (in real life) starting to find his way as a backstage power-player, so everything can be viewed through that lens; the success or failure of a given storyline may impact Triple H's insider stock as well as the direction WWE productions will take in coming years.
Most observers, however, are not wondering about Triple H's business acumen but his ego. His role as WWE's new (on-screen) COO has planted him squarely in the middle of the Cena-Punk storyline, where he has served as a better stationary target for Punk's reality-blurring orations than Cena. But if Triple H is overly involved in the finish of the match, if he steals the spotlight instead of helping it shine more brightly on Punk or Cena, expect an online protest.
Is there anything left to swerve?
Throughout the Cena-Punk saga, WWE has managed to keep us on the edge of our seats with worked-shoot promos and narrative twists. Two Mondays ago they seemed to be running out of steam. John Laurinitis' appearance on Raw, a DOA attempt to strip Cena of his share of the championship, provided the patina of a swerve without much substance. The Cena-Punk dueling-titles routine that closed the show was less than epic and seemed intended more for video packages to promote SummerSlam than to advance the storyline. After months of genuine — as far as wrestling goes — surprises, how will they be able to keep us guessing?
This past Monday was more assuring: In the show-closing "contract signing" segment,6 Cena delivered a borderline worked-shoot of his own. He suggested he could make his doubters happier if he would "increase my work rate,"7 "add to the Five Moves of Doom,"8 and "let my heel persona shine through!" Punk was at the same high level he's been on the past two months, and Triple H held his own, running the proceedings and taking his lumps.
When the tete-a-tete devolved into fisticuffs, as such things are wont to do (and as Punk sagely predicted), the show got even better. Cena and Punk went after each other; Laurinitis tried to get between them but got kicked in the head by Punk; Triple H went after Punk to admonish him; Cena threw a punch and hit Triple H; and Punk rolled out of the ring, looking back in time to see a Cena and Triple H standing in relative peace with one another, leaving Punk to ask aloud if "the fix is in" at SummerSlam.
It was an ending that hinted at the answers to the questions on wrestling fans' minds. If Punk sees Cena as a villain, then so will half the audience, and Cena won't have to relinquish his hero role or alienate his fans. Monday's verbal sparring was top-notch, but the scuffle at the end gave us even more memorable storytelling, so perhaps the in-ring product will be able to keep pace with the talking. Triple H was involved in exactly the right dose, as a mediator and occasional instigator, and if he keeps it up he'll be not just passable but invaluable.
Will anybody care about the undercard?
It might come as surprise, but the Cena-Punk match won't be the only bout at SummerSlam. Besides the Kelly Kelly-Beth Phoenix Divas Championship match, however, no other bout is set. Other wrestlers will, of course, perform, but the last-minute scheduling makes them seem like even more of an afterthought than usual compared to the main event. A potential Miz-Rey Mysterio showdown seemed to be preempted by a (legit) Mysterio knee injury over the weekend. Despite their various rivalries, U.S. champ Dolph Ziggler and Alex Riley, John Morrison and R-Truth, and Alberto Del Rio and Kofi Kingston don't have announced matches for Sunday. Del Rio, however, won the Money in the Bank briefcase at last month's PPV and is therefore allowed to challenge the champion at any time, and many suspect he'll play a role in the main event's outcome.
From the Smackdown side of WWE's universe, champion Christian will defend against Randy Orton in a "No Holds Barred" match. Sheamus and Mark Henry will do battle in a monster-versus-monstrous Irishman contest. But nothing is in ink for stars like Daniel Bryan and Wade Barrett, Ezekiel Jackson, Cody Rhodes, or Sin Cara.
Let's see how they play it on the second-biggest stage of the year, where the fan base is universally enthralled by the incipient "Reality Era". Will other storylines skew toward real life, or will Punk and Cena be left to traverse that realm — and entertain a newly invigorated audience — all by themselves?
They have three hours to fill, and millions will be watching. Everything is in place for a great night, but can they live up to the hype? That's a question I can't answer.
Previously from The Masked Man:
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