One of the more annoying traits of being a wrestling fan, myself included, is focusing on what isn’t happening or isn’t there. It’s germane to all fandoms, of course — this guy isn’t being used correctly, this storyline should go this way instead of that, we need that right winger, this guy should bat here or not at all, and so on. Do that enough, and suddenly it becomes very difficult to even see what is on in front of you.
Wrestlemania this year was a prime example. There certainly won’t be another one like it, and no one would want there to be. For most fans, the debate hinged on whether the comfort of having something new to watch outweighed the risk to those involved. If you fell too far to one side of the argument, it became harder to see that both could absolutely be true at the same time.
Yes, the event was weird and awkward. Yes, it would have been better with a live audience. But a live audience wasn’t a possibility, and if you kept that in mind and accepted the limitations and changes that caused, what you got was two nights of pretty good entertainment. It also didn’t hurt that the never-to-be-repeated circumstances allowed for some innovations we wouldn’t have gotten normally and probably won’t see again.
Headlining the show were the two “cinematic” matches, one of which was barely even a match at all. WWE has attempted these kinds of things in the past with varying levels of success, but nothing quite as ambitious or full-throated as these.
The first came on Saturday night, which was the “Boneyard” match between The Undertaker and A.J. Styles. These things work when you don’t shy away from how corny and silly they are, and for once WWE didn’t get in its own way by taking itself too seriously. So, flames, lasers, druids, and cornball effects aplenty, which made for heaping helpings of mindless fun. It’s what you’d envision a Megadeth concert in ’86 to look like if they’d had the budget, and very well might have looked anyway.
The experimental style also allowed producers to cover up what has made Undertaker matches so hard to watch the past few years. Here, he can move methodically to simply look menacing, instead of moving slowly because he might puke, keel over, die, and repeat from the exertion. It was something of a return to Undertaker’s “American Badass” character from around the turn of the century (which is sometimes reduced to “ABA Undertaker” and now I can’t stop thinking about an “ABBA Undertaker,” though his window to star alongside Meryl Streep in a “Mamma Mia!” has certainly passed and we’re all very much worse for it), mixed in with his comic book-y caught between the living world and dead one. Never do you get to be part of some proper Texas trash-talking during a normal Undertaker match which we got plenty of here (usually because he needs every bit of oxygen he can get), which added even more to it.
It was incredibly dorky, over-the-top, and if you thought about it for more than seven seconds you’d start to have a lot of questions you can’t answer well so you just don’t think about it, which is exactly what wrestling is supposed to be.
If we thought that sort of thing would prepare us for what would follow on Sunday night however, we were wrong in just about the scale of getting a full keg thrown into our face by a dragon (the confusion of that juxtaposition is very much intended given what we’re about to talk about).
“The Firefly Funhouse”...well, I don’t even know what to call it. It wasn’t really a match. It may have been the most elaborate snuff film ever constructed. It was a This-Is-Your-Life-John-Cena mixed with Alice In Wonderland mixed with rejected ideas for a Rob Zombie movie. I doubt I can go into the layers and layers of brilliance better than Brandon Stroud does here, so I won’t even really try. What this...thing...did better than just about anything is carry out a decade or more of storytelling on just one character of John Cena, and essentially makes him wrestle himself inside Max Headroom’s...well, head room. They might be studying this at film schools for years. David Lynch would watch this and chuck all of his belongings out the window, as his style has completely been hijacked and improved by a former bayou shaman.
The real miracle is how this came about, or had to have. There’s no way Vince McMahon would have authored this, or even understood it. It’s possible he didn’t even watch it, which makes the digs at him within it more understandable in how they got into the piece in the first place. Or maybe Vince honestly thought this was the time to try anything. The oral history of this one day is going to make the final Game Of Thrones look like a suburban book club.
It certainly didn’t hurt that John Cena was involved, which gave more license to Bray Wyatt and whoever else to stretch as far as they could given Cena’s influence and starpower. It also wouldn’t have worked without Cena completely buying into it, though as we know from the seemingly hundreds of commercials he’s on per night no matter what you’re watching, Cena will buy into just about anything. And given his natural charisma and charm, he can usually make it work. When WWE has tried anything like this before, it was hurt by the likes of Randy Orton clearly not being fully into it and thinking it was beneath them. Cena was the complete opposite, even as the whole thing acted as treatise and judgment on his entire career, possibly life, and decreed him to be empty and alone (aren’t we all?)
That doesn’t mean the more conventional matches didn’t have their charms as well. The ladder match between John Morrison, Kofi Kingston, and Jimmy Uso would have turned a live crowd into a ravenous horde seeking vengeance upon the world for denying them such joy in the past, but still was highly entertaining without one. Again, you could lament going without the huge pops from a live crowd a ladder match is designed to create (especially this one), or just focus on what was there.
Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins used the ability to actually hear what they say in a ring to forward their story even more, while Owens still got to stick in an utterly ridiculous spot he’s been known for. The women’s tag match finally allowed Asuka and Kairi Sane to do some actual work before they’re shuffled off into a closet for months as the company forgets about the division again. Charlotte Flair actually tried for the first time in forever, and while it got her over it also made the company’s fastest rising star Rhea Ripey look like a future world-beater as well.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t misses as well. Both men’s championship matches were hilariously short, either because one competitor simply can’t work more than four minutes (glorified Mandelbaum Goldberg) or refuses to (Brock Lesnar). However, Braun Stroman and Drew McIntyre are certainly more crowd-pleasing champs to move those divisions along whenever normal service resumes.
The Last Man Standing match between Edge and Randy Orton meandered for nearly 40 minutes (!!) without really taking off or going anywhere original with it other than some back rooms at the performance center. It definitely felt like an opportunity missed, but few will care when Edge gets back into a customary ring months down the line. The five-way women’s championship match couldn’t rise above the lower talents involved, especially when Lacey Evans eliminated Sasha Banks, something that probably should be tried at The Hague. Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan weren’t allowed to show what they can really do.
Somewhere in the middle was Becky Lynch and Shayna Bazler, which was given an ending that will allow the feud to keep going somewhere down the line without making it seem vital that it pick up in the next few weeks. Because like everything else with the company, it can’t.
Still, when trying something this different and this weird, you’re going to miss with some of it. It’s better to do so long than short. Some of the individual matches missed short, but the overall show missed long when it missed at all. And when it hit, well...