At SummerSlam, Daniel Bryan bested John Cena in an incredible, hard-fought match that saw Bryan — playing the scrappy, scraggly underdog — overcome immeasurable odds to defeat Cena, WWE's most unflappable and dominant hero since the heyday of Hulkamania. Bryan got the lion's share of the crowd's adulation, leaving Cena in the limbo of lukewarm applause that has become his standard. Let's call it "That awkward moment when your biggest hero is also your biggest villain." Cena still gets his cheers, but he also gets a lot of "heat" — the angry response a pro wrestling villain gets from crowds. Despite the abuse Cena suffered at the hands of unappreciative Angelenos in the Staples Center audience, he managed to get through SummerSlam without being the most hated guy on the roster. After Cena left the scene, WWE found a villain so pure at this pay-per-view that even the ironic boos of meta-fans couldn't dilute the audience reaction, and WWE got the best heat that it has seen in ages. More on that later.
Cena-Bryan was probably one of the best two matches that WWE has put on all year. The other came earlier during SummerSlam, when Brock Lesnar beat the holy hell out of CM Punk. Punk was a game opponent, and he used the "no disqualifications" stipulation to his advantage in ways that only a postmodern superstar could pull off, using a steel chair and the ring stairs to even the odds against his gigantic foe. It was only the interference of Lesnar's manager, Paul Heyman, that allowed Lesnar to squash the fan favorite.
Off camera, Heyman is wildly popular among meta-fans because of his innovative chairmanship of ECW and, more broadly, his informal role as the alternative to pro wrestling's status quo (read: Vince McMahon). At a panel discussion during SummerSlam weekend, Heyman got cheers that rivaled those of fellow speakers "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Ric Flair. In (real-life) interviews and as a talking head on WWE-produced documentaries, Heyman is the sage voice of the antiestablishment. But in character, he's exasperatingly effective as a vile guru. He's the mentor who hides behind his protégés, who exploits the rules to get his wrestlers cheap wins, who runs his mouth without any pretense of backing it up physically (perhaps the biggest sin in pro wrestling), and who cheats so wantonly that it's impossible not to boo him. Wrestling fans have been trained over the decades to despise managers — they're second only to anti-Americans in their legacy of unadulterated villainy — and Heyman is one of the best the industry has ever seen. Even though many fans love him, he's too good at his job not to get booed. He's so contemptible that Punk turned into a heel just by associating with Heyman, and then hopped back over to the side of good simply by severing ties with the man. One can (almost) sympathize with the way Punk irrationally turned his attention to hurting Heyman during the SummerSlam match — at the expense of beating Lesnar.
The odd thing is that Punk carries himself like a bad guy from a bygone era. He does so literally, in the sense that he emulates "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and he does so figuratively, with his sneering insouciance. And yet Punk has to associate with Heyman — or desecrate the grave of the recently deceased — to get heat. Lesnar, though, was born to play the foil. He's a monster, he's cruel and violent, and he has a cross-eyed malevolence that you only see in wrestling history's greatest thugs: Killer Kowalski, Ox Baker, Dick the Bruiser. There are even meta reasons to hate him: Lesnar is a part-timer and a turncoat; he tried out for the NFL and had a run in the UFC, and he returned to wrestling only when the other career paths dried up. (And how much of a money-grubbing a-hole do you have to be to put sandwich ads on your shorts?) But Lesnar's just too talented and too physically impressive to engender pure hatred from any fan over the age of 12. Watching Lesnar maul CM Punk was like watching LeBron James take over a playoff game against your favorite team — you know you're supposed to hate the guy, but you have to give him respect.
Against Punk, Lesnar could play the villain, but against Cena last year at Extreme Rules, Lesnar's cruelty mixed awkwardly with the crowd's Cena resentment. Fans cheered Lesnar's brutal beatdown of the era's purported banner-carrier. The man booked to be the company's biggest bad guy was getting cheers over its most pristine hero. Much of that has to do with the way WWE has decided to portray Cena, to keep pushing him as a hero despite loud resistance from the meta-fan masses, making him a hero to the preteen fans and a villain to everyone else.
This has been said before, but it's worth pointing out that WWE is deliberately allowing its fans to split over Cena. In NXT, WWE's developmental league, it realized that the top hero, Bo Dallas, was insufferable, and began positioning him as an insufferable guy who doesn't know how insufferable he is. He's a heel who doesn't know it, and he has become enjoyable to a degree that I never thought possible. With Cena, WWE is trying to pull off something even more subtle — having him play two characters at the same time. When fans at SummerSlam chanted "You can't wrestle," it represented both Cena's failure as a hero and his success as a heel — because he can wrestle, but fans hate him so much they're blind to it.
In the era of Internet and television antiheroes, it's little wonder that so many fans flock to the bad guys. Beating up heroes or acting like a jerk isn't enough to get you blacklisted anymore. Playing the heel is a careful combination of timing, positioning, idiosyncrasy, and dickishness. There are many ways to pull this off. Just look at how the other baddies on the SummerSlam card get their heat.
Dean Ambrose is vile because he relies on his teammates in the Shield to win. Bray Wyatt and (more importantly) the Wyatt Family employ the time-tested trick of being too ugly to root for.1 Damien Sandow's put-on intellectualism is pompous, whiny, and effete — a trifecta of detestability. Alberto Del Rio is an anti-American egotist who sadistically takes out his anger on his beloved ring attendant, Ricardo Rodriguez. The Bellas are mean girls. AJ Lee is a psycho ex-girlfriend, and her pal Big E Langston is a bully whose relatively blank personality qualifies him to channel the wrestling role of the stereotypical Scary Black Man2 (which Mark Henry recently abdicated by turning face). With the exception of Del Rio (you can probably blame the fact that he was recently a good guy, and not a very compelling one) and the Bellas (you can probably blame the fact that they're Divas), all these bad guys are beloved. Sure, they get their heat, but it's in a rote, mechanical way. We boo them because we're supposed to. But they get cheers, too, because, deep down, we love them.
What does it even mean to be a pro wrestling villain in the modern era? When the best bad guys are more beloved than the heroes? You often hear wrestlers say in interviews that it's more fun to play heel because you can work so much more nuance into the character. Fans today recognize that nuance, and they see the joy that performers bring to their roles.
It's been a long time since the glory days of the foul arts, when the Fabulous Kangaroos got chairs thrown at them in Rochester,3 when Ox Baker could enrage a crowd by heart-punching his opponent repeatedly, when Earthquake flattening Hulk Hogan was enough to incense a nation. With the triumph of good guys like Punk and Bryan, WWE has embraced the desires of modern wrestling fans. But when everybody's in on the joke, is it even possible to make today's audiences angry anymore? It's an untenable situation when fans are too smart to hate the villains — when the morality play loses its moral compass.
Which brings us back to the ending of SummerSlam, when Triple H and Randy Orton joined forces to end the minutes-long championship reign of Daniel Bryan. The stated reason is that Bryan isn't "championship material" — that he's a "solid B-plus," as Stephanie McMahon said on Raw the next night — and Orton is the kind of guy you can build a company around. But all that pales in comparison to the subtext. For years, meta-fans have jeered that Vince McMahon is out of touch, that he doesn't know what kind of wrestlers real fans want. They complain that Triple H is an attention hog and that throughout his career he has used his backstage clout — first as a member of the Clique, then as the husband of Stephanie McMahon — to keep himself in the limelight. And they see Orton as a guy who has failed his way to the top, and who owes everything he has to being a third-generation wrestler who looks like a TapouT model.4
Building a character around a wrestler's real — or perceived — personality is nothing new, but it's still unusual to piggyback on his unattractive qualities. But that's just what WWE has done: It turned Orton into an entitled prick who had the WWE title gift-wrapped for him just because he looks the way a champion should look. It has Vince pulling the strings to make that happen. And it has Triple H hogging the spotlight, bragging about his ploy to unseat Bryan at interminable length. Nobody is ironically cheering any of this shtick.5
The WWE powers that be are a perfect foil for Bryan, who has been fighting the invisible monster of Conventional Wisdom throughout his career. In Orton and the McMahons, WWE has created Conventional Wisdom Incarnate. Heyman is amazing at getting heat, but he's a 100-degree sauna — the kind of heat you can relish in. Lesnar at his best gets heat like a scorching day in the parking lot of a South Texas Walmart. Cena's like a 90-degree day when the weather report said it'd be a breezy 75. All those other heels I mentioned are like standing in the sun at WWE SummerSlam Axxess — it's hot, sure, but you're having fun and there's air conditioning 30 feet away. But Orton and Conventional Wisdom Inc. are already approaching record-setting heat — it might not be 134 degrees in Death Valley quite yet, but they're just getting started. We're a long way from the days when wrestlers could legitimately terrorize audiences, but by harnessing the fans' dissatisfaction, WWE might have just found their heart punch.
On Monday's episode of Raw, Triple H stood atop the entrance ramp with the entire roster in cowed silence as Bryan was callously thumped in the ring by the Shield. If any wrestler objected, they would be fired. Some might call this a delicious storytelling device. Some might say Triple H is once again acting out his power-trip fantasies in story lines. The message boards fumed with indignation: Triple H is back to burying the roster. He loves to hear himself talk; he loves to be in the spotlight; he loves to boss everybody around. When Orton strolled to the ring and coolly hit Bryan with the finishing blow, fans said, "Get that guy off my TV screen." And that's exactly what they're supposed to be saying. WWE figured out how to turn the meta-fans into old-school marks.
When I said good-bye to Triple H after our interview, he said everybody always asks him what's next for WWE, now that Vince has transformed it from a territorial wrestling operation to a global enterprise. "One word," he said. "Disney." If his heel turn is any indication, WWE might have found the formula. It's expanded beyond childish things — the simplistic storytelling archetypes of good and evil. And in doing so, it's finally figured out how to make good heroes and villains.