You all know how I feel about John Cena. I lay it out there at every possible opportunity.
As a character, I find his placement on the card to be a disrespect to the WWE and World titles, constantly putting him in a spot above both, which I not only find annoying but downright offensive (especially when said matches don't warrant that placement).
I've expressed backlash over the fact that WWE seems hellbent to push him as nigh-unstoppable, even when it doesn't friggin' make any sense to. I've also expressed similar feelings toward the length of time such has been going on.
I've picked at his other flaws as well; how he comes across as hypocritical, and how his decision-making skills regarding his character seem to be rather questionable.
I'm apparently not that alone, either. The WWE Universe has been divided on their top Superstar, with approximately 60% of the viewing audience in dire opposition to this man/character being thrown into ill-fitting situations simply because he's kid-friendly and sells a lot of merch.
It has been fashionable as of late to suggest that the remedy to John Cena's ills is to turn him heel, to take him from being a bland and boring babyface to an rowdy, reckless rudo. "If he's heel," they say, "he'll be fresh and appealing instead of stale and off-putting."
But is it really that simple? Is a rulebreaker turn really going to help fix John Cena?
I'm going to share with you a little revelation that came to me not too long ago. In some ways, it's an old revelation, but it newly fits the current scenario. John Cena is, in a sense, already a heel. People have been booing him for years, even against bigger heels like Triple H and Kurt Angle. But they're mostly not booing him as you'd boo a heel. They're largely booing him because they can't stand to watch this guy, and they legitimately want him to GO. THE FRIG. AWAY.
To that end, I will go out on a limb and declare, in my not-so-humble opinion, that a mere heel turn will not do any good at all.
Before you go breaking out the pitchforks and torches on me or stocking up on tar and feathers, allow me to explain. I believe (and will expand on this at my next convenience under the Tropemaster General banner) that heel and face turns are not to be done lightly.
This is not a matter of "he is a bad guy now because we have declared he is"; turns must be justifiable. Heels turning face need to have some moment where the crowd can get behind them, even if it's something as relatively small as returning from an injury. Faces, however, need to have a reason to go darkside, and one that while maybe not relate-able is still explainable within the general bounds of a character.
In John Cena's case, we have a potential problem on that point: his character is so portrayed as being incredibly squeaky-clean with little room for play. Maybe he's a bit on the violent side and prone to anger on occasion, but that is only a starting point. Things like that are not reasons for turns in and of themselves; they need to be fed upon and nurtured, built into something bigger. The storyline against Kane would have been a good place for a "start of darkness" story for Cena, but that boat was not only missed but was sunk before it sailed.
Other good places to start would be with his apparent ego and sense of entitlement, or perhaps the disconnect between his words and actions. I've considered the latter to have been a better point to play off in the past (in the Kane angle), and I continue to believe it to be a good starting point. There are several good places to begin with if a heel turn is going to work with Cena.
This leads me to my second point: that a Cena heel turn is going to have to take time. As alluded to earlier, turns don't spontaneously happen. People generally don't do bad things out of the blue; they follow some path that leads them to becoming a bad person.
This is why the concept of a slow-burn turn is so powerful. You get to watch a villain move toward redemption or a hero fall from grace over time, and that is compelling story-telling.
For Cena, and for the benefit of the greater storyline, this might and likely should mean time spent in the upper mid-card, below the main event titles in the hierarchy. It might even take a complete deconstruction of his character, but the most important thing is that in order for a Cena heel turn to work best for the entire WWE universe, it should not be the primary focal point of either Raw or pay-per-views for a while.
Remember, his trans-ME status is a part of the problem here, and keeping him there during the turn will make a heel turn completely irrelevant. He wouldn't be a real heel then; he'd just be the same ol' John Cena in new colors; in other words, exactly like Cena has been for the last 5 t-shirt designs.
The last point to remember on a possible turn is that it has to make some kind of an impact. If you're going to do things right, either a turn has to put a smile on people's faces (heel -> face; no pun intended), or it has to feel like a punch to the gut (face -> heel). I know I keep saying this, but this does not mean it has to come out of nowhere; it does mean that even if you saw it coming, it still soothes or hurts.
What does that mean for a possible Cena heel run? It means a breakdown in his character. Maybe not a literal breakdown, but it does mean a moment where he comes to the conscious decision that he no longer cares about the WWE Universe. Either he decides to drop the hypocritical act and deliberately disrespect an ally (or attack them), or he decides to live by a new code: one of violence to anyone who stands in his way. Either way, without swerving anyone, he could still stun everyone.
Of course, that still createss the question: what of his charity work and merchandising power?
The first is easily fixed by simply stating that WWE's charity and live events are often attended by the most dastardly Superstars (even darker characters such as Kane and Randy Orton), and little is made of these "bad people" being involved. There is no reason to believe that Cena would necessarily have to drop the charity work he's done as a part of WWE simply because ZOMG HE'S EBIL NAO. This isn't TNA; there is an understood disconnect between the characters being played and the people behind them. When they're not performing, they're WWE's PR machine, and they often are allowed to (and do) act differently than their characters. (I mean, honestly, do you think Glenn Jacobs goes around chokeslamming kids when he's not on-screen? C'mon, man.)
The second is a bit of a legitimate issue but still not a dealbreaker, because honestly? Heels can still sell merchandise. I mean, how many shirts and accessories did Trips sell when he was still a heel? And likewise the Undertaker? The labels of "heel" and "face" are great story-telling devices, but if you love a character, whether they're a good or bad guy is either one of the reasons they give or a non-factor. Well-played villains are just as lovable as well-played heroes, and if Cena plays a good villain, he will still sell stuff. I mean, look at how popular the nWo was in their heyday and how much merch they sold, even when they were being booed out of buildings!
In summation, a heel turn for John Cena is going to be incredibly tricky, and if done wrong, it can even make things worse. A turn is not a sure-fire fix for Cena's woes as may be commonly accepted. Still, it can be done, but it will have to be done carefully, with regard to where he came from, what he is, and what he could possibly turn into. If Cena as a character and Cena the man are to avoid becoming a post-millennial Hulk Hogan, this heel turn is going to have to involve the Chain Gang Soldier coming to a slow self-realization.
Perhaps...once a thug, always a thug?