False Underdog

Light Another Candle for the Neon Ranger

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Today is John Cena’s 37th birthday. Let’s celebrate with a belabored Power Rangers analogy.

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You probably hate John Cena, right? For the sake of argument, I’m just going to assume you have generally antagonistic, or at least deeply ambivalent, feelings about Cena. More specifically, you have a grudging respect for his absurd work ethic and selfless charity appearances, but you’re tired of him beating everyone and dumbly flashing the “OK” hand signal in the face of anything resembling a threat. This is a cool and popular and accurate opinion to have, but it doesn’t really convey the true breadth of Cena’s awfulness. As a recurring character on a wrestling show, John Cena isn’t just bad; he’s fundamentally broken. He has no reason to be here, nothing new to contribute. He has exactly one story to tell, and only one way to tell it.

Cena has long been regarded as explicitly kid-friendly or disproportionately popular among children. This is a gross understatement. John Cena, viewed purely in terms of booking and character arcs, is palatable solely to unsophisticated brains. Only children could love this guy, because every Cena story arc is perfectly identical to the one that preceded it. Kids love repetition, adults loathe it. When you subject yourself to a Cena storyline, you become the reluctant parent dragged to an obnoxious animated film by your doting daughter or son. Every so often the writers throw you a bone (in this case, Cena’s forays into self-aware meta-humor), but for the most part you’re given nothing but loud jokes and louder colors. There’s a shadow of a plot, but there’s never any real sense of danger for the jive-talking gorilla or whatever. He just pounds his chest and crushes everything.

Older wrestling fans might counter with the argument that wrestling has always been this way, minus the total absence of conflict. This is probably true; old-school pro wrestling featured predominantly linear plot lines, wherein the valiant hero would be dealt a single grievous injustice and a series of smaller injustices until he exacted his revenge. Thing is, WWE doesn’t play that way anymore.

Through a combination of outsized ambition and latent condescension toward its own fans, the WWE creative team has made a habit of leaving behind more dangling plot threads than you’d find on a Wal-Mart afghan. Midcard feuds cease and resume without explanation; heels commit heinous acts and cruise obliviously onward to new opponents before they’ve met their comeuppance; Alberto Del Rio and Big E keep wrestling each other for no identifiable reason. Traditional wrestling storylines face obsolescence in an increasingly convoluted web of half-hearted backstabbings and sudden fits of amnesia. Things just happen, suddenly and without warning. For years I viewed Creative’s capriciousness as a mark of ineptitude or at least indecision, but now I’m starting to see it as a deliberate storytelling choice. Old-school wrestling worked in the territorial days because the characters were in flux even when the storylines weren’t. You only ever saw one story, but you saw it with different faces and voices. In WWE, the characters rarely change or evolve, so a different variable has to be tweaked instead.

By contrast, John Cena is the most old-school wrestler in the world. Every Cena storyline hits exactly three beats: 1) Cena does something awesome; 2) Cena is (mildly) assaulted by one to eight individuals; and 3) Cena stuffs these individuals into a metaphorical OVW crate so he can resume being awesome. No variation, no surprise. It’s the same thing every season, doused in a different shade of garish neon paint. Which brings me to the strained analogy I promised at the top of the page.

John Cena is the Power Rangers of wrestling. There’s no other way to put it. The story never deviates, the villains show up just to get their asses kicked, and any season-to-season changes are strictly superficial. Every six months or so, Cena replaces his Dino Thunder shirt with a Ninja Storm shirt, or his Time Patrol jorts with some snazzy Ultraforce camo shorts, but all the group-thunk slogans and color swaps are a smokescreen to distract us from the awful truth: John Cena is a children’s character, by the children, of the children, and for the children. This would be perfectly fine if WWE wrestling was clearly and unambiguously marketed as children’s entertainment. It’s not.

What we end up with is an intermittently smart, unexpectedly subversive pro wrestling product with a renewed emphasis on appealing to intelligent sports and/or entertainment fans… and then in a flash there’s this unflappable smirking asshole lit up like a Heineken sign, showing off Fark-grade Photoshops of bearded men’s heads on other people’s bodies. It just doesn’t mesh. Give John Cena his own show, turn him heel, or at least make him a babyface who bleeds. (Seriously, can you imagine Cena getting eviscerated as regularly as Daniel Bryan? Enough of that and maybe he could get away with winning all the time.)

John Cena is the PG era in a microcosm. He doesn’t suck because he’s bloodless and tame, although those things certainly don’t help. He sucks because he has risen above storytelling itself. John Cena in 2014 is not a character or even an abstraction. He’s an inspirational poster clandestinely mounted on the wall of every rational wrestling fan, serving no purpose save to remind us that failure and surrender are unacceptable. But we’re too old for that shit now.

Still, that doesn’t mean we won’t think of John Cena as the coolest thing ever in twenty years. Nostalgia works in mysterious ways. Just look at all these grown-ass Power Rangers fans.