John Cena, Bray Wyatt and the problem of 'no more heels and faces' booking

WWE.com

In the debate about whether pro wrestling needs real good guys and bad guys, John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt illustrates the problems with doing away with that kind of storytelling - at least as long as WWE is intent on making sure that their hero wins in the end.

The rumor has been out there for months now. Vince McMahon issued a "Reality Era" edict to WWE Creative that they would be moving on from babyfaces and heels in their storytelling, because there are no truly good or bad people in life.

This has reportedly been met with some push back from those in favor of tradition, not just in pro wrestling, but going back to the myths and morality plays upon which it is built. Most recently, Jim Ross took to Twitter to break down his thoughts on why heels who aren't really bad guys don't make money for anyone.

A program between alignment-free characters where the fans decide who to cheer and who to boo can work. We need look no further into the past than this year's Elimination Chamber event, where The Shield and The Wyatt Family squared off in a hot feud that both teams ostensibly entered and exited as heels.

Is that a replicable story, though? Or were audiences willing to overlook the negative attributes of the characters out of respect for their skills as pro wrestlers? Maybe even, as JR warns us, because they were "too cool"?

A key element to the success of that build and match was that the stakes weren't terribly high. It was a side-story. Bray and company were obviously headed to a higher profile feud, while (at the time) it was another step toward the break-up of Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins.

None of which applies to The Wyatt's current issue with the poster boy for "let the fans cheer and boo who they want", John Cena.

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It has often been said that a key element of John Cena's success is that he's a babyface for some fans and a heel for others - but everyone cares about him. The cheers of the Birmingham crowd last night during his promo on The Wyatts, and the outrage that followed on the internet, proves this.

Bray Wyatt has become the flip side of this coin. Moreso than Dolph Ziggler, Damien Sandow or other performers beloved by smarks that have crossed paths with the Cenation leader, The Eater of Worlds is seen as a future star by both fans and backstage-types.

In both cases, WWE is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Hustle, loyalty and respect has long meant bullying and humiliating your enemies while attending public relations events where Cena is presented as a storybook prince. Following the buzzards involves tales of a painful childhood and kidnapping rivals, with sing-a-longs and cheap pop mentions of the city in which the show takes place.

That's great for fans during the build to a match. Everyone has a rooting interest, and we can banter with each other about why one guy is more entertaining or a better draw. But pro wrestling stories all eventually have to be resolved in an athletic exhibition with a winner and a loser. For the never-ending narrative to work, those outcomes have to effect future parts of the story (and for anyone who says they don't matter, explain to me why Ziggler and Sandow are in their current roles on the card).

Especially when one character has repeatedly set himself up as a gatekeeper to the main event level, wins and losses most definitely matter.

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Even with the buzz about a post-heel/face landscape, WWE still isn't willing to let go of the trope that whoever they deem the good guy has to win in the end. As we've seen with Daniel Bryan and his coronation at WrestleMania 30, there's really no reason why they should. Most fiction follows the hero's journey, and most heroes' journeys have successful outcomes.

But when each player in a conflict is the hero for half of the audience, you're guaranteeing that a lot of people will be disappointed or angry at story's end.

And when you've driven home that point that anyone who wants to reach the highest levels needs to defeat one character, then only characters who are also deemed good guys can ever attain those heights when they cross paths with him.

Bryan could pass through that gate, because despite allowing the fans to decide whether to support him or Cena in their program, the powers-that-be had already decided he was a good guy that they could promote that way in the future. Despite the efforts being made to ensure that some fans have reasons to cheer Bray, they are still treating him as the bad guy in the story.

While they're inviting us to cheer for the heel, they aren't willing to let the good guy lose in the end. And a loss to Cena means that you can't reach the top of the card.

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"No more heels or faces" is an interesting idea, but it requires a very specific set of circumstances to work. Mostly a commitment to long-form storytelling that knows where both combatants are headed, and what the alternative path to the goal will be for the loser of the conflict. Wyatts vs. Shield worked for a lot of reasons, but principle among them was that the Hounds of Justice clearly had other challenges to face in the wake of their defeat.

Creative had better have a plan for Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan when they're done tangling with John Cena. Because to the consternation of the many fans who have accepted WWE's invitation to cheer for The Wyatt Family, the pro wrestling tradition that the McMahon's have chosen to keep says that the hero triumphs.

Whether we agree with it or not, in 99% of the stories he's involved in, John Cena is their hero. They're okay with you not buying into that, but beyond that, you're on your own.

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