Deja vu: it was around this time last year that many of us speculated (or even hoped) that John Cena was about to turn heel. Then, the stop-start Nexus storyline provided a perfect opportunity for the superhero to turn supervillain. This year, his conflict with Miz and R-Truth – and his tension with inexplicable tag team partner The Rock – provided another opportunity, again missed.
There’s only so many times the WWE creative ship can sail into such unchartered yet intriguing waters, then turn back. The ship’s sinking. No, not like the Titanic, but slowly, with holes in the hull, crew members stuffing it with social media references in hopes the boat can keep going for a good while longer. WWE will likely be fine, but it would be much more effective to actually settle on a safe shore than to keep sailing the same seas of Cena, watching ratings drain away, and hoping their attempts to be “interactive” through the flawed marketing device of Twitter will save them.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again, yet expecting different results. The tired old John Cena character isn’t connecting like Hulk Hogan did. Sure, it’s important to persist with a star to an extent, but they gave up on Lex Luger quicker than this, and that was after they pitted him against babyface Bret Hart. Cena’s getting booed even against heels. That means something is very wrong. Pro wrestling moves far faster now than it did in Hogan’s heyday. They can’t afford to keep pushing SuperCena in this way while missing ample and potentially effective opportunities to turn him heel.
When Hogan and Andre the Giant stood tall at the top of the WWF in 1987, Vince McMahon knew that WrestleMania III would be a box office smash if they turned Andre heel for a great good-versus-evil battle. Almost ten years later, WCW turned Hogan himself heel after his entry into the company to much merchandise and fanfare. WCW took a smart risk, and rather than fans tuning out or turning off as a result of the despicable shocking incident, they immediately subjected Hogan to a barrage of heat: trash thrown at him in the arena, absolute outrage, and – more importantly – high ratings and revenue from an audience aching to see “Hollywood” Hogan get is comeuppance after forming a “New World Order” and telling the fans to “stick it.” What else? NWO t-shirts sold like hotcakes, seen in crowds of fans only marginally less than the D-Generation X and “Austin 3:16” tees. That’s right: the heels shifted merchandise too. People loved to hate them. It wasn’t “go away” heat; these were cool villains. Cena’s getting heat, and he’s not a heel.
Evan Bourne was recently suspended due to a Wellness Policy violation, just weeks before he and partner Kofi Kingston were rumoured to drop the Tag Team Titles to Awesome Truth. The title change became doubly unlikely when Miz’s partner R-Truth himself violated the policy and suffered suspension, hours after being fall guy to the massively muscled Rock (presumably exempt from testing due to his part-time performer status, despite also supposedly being an “independent contractor”). Cena had already single-handedly dominated and humiliated Truth and Miz, and The Rock showed up to help him after the fact, allegedly at request of his Twitter followers, furthering WWE’s miscalculated social media obsession. So, The Rock wasn’t used in any way that necessarily benefited WWE long-term. Cena, a full-timer, is being similarly misused.
While TNA still shows the stamp of Vince Russo all over its product with swerves for the sake of it, pushing babyface Robert Roode as challenger to Kurt Angle, only to have him pinned and instead later capture the belt from ex-partner James Storm, WWE is suffering from similar syndrome by entering heel turn territory with certain Cena angles the last twelve months (with Nexus and Rock, for example), then being stubborn and sticking to the status quo.
Here’s the thing: sometimes fans don’t want swerves. When consumers buy a CD, they expect the tracks on it to be just like the ones they already heard on the radio or saw on TV – they want to get what they expected. Sticking to long-term status quo via short-term swerves is exactly what’s deterring consumers of the big-time pro wrestling product today. For the sake of the company’s long-term revenue and for the sake of Cena, they need to do what is expected, when it’s expected. They need to turn Cena heel, sooner rather than later – and next spring, give us all a WrestleMania with a great story of good versus evil.