Here’s something that’s piqued my interest on a slow news day...
On last week’s edition of Corey Graves’ After the Bell podcast, the subject of Undertaker: The Last Ride unsurprisingly came up. In talking about the WWE Network series, Graves’ guest Seth Rollins said:
“The smart thing about this with Taker is, he did it at the right time in his career... 12-year-old you, if you had seen The Last Ride, it would have ruined everything. But we didn’t have that.
“His character doesn’t work today. There are some weird exceptions, Bray Wyatt comes to mind from an ultra-character perspective who sort of slides by a little bit or gets a pass.
“The Undertaker character is so supernatural, so now that he’s at this point in his life where he is comfortable transitioning out of the character and into Mark Calaway, it makes it okay for me to watch it and see him being a human being.”
It’s the first sentence at the start of the second paragraph that folks are focusing on, so let’s discuss.
To me, Seth’s right... an undead old west mortician probably flops in 2020 pro wrestling, and almost certainly if played completely straight the way the Undertaker gimmick was in the early and mid-1990s.
Kayfabe is now a fictional world based on what the audience knows about real one*, which is one of the reasons why Bray Wyatt’s latest evolution is so brilliant. Not only does the Firefly Fun House host/The Fiend play to modern horror sensibilities the way Taker (and his brother Kane) played to the ones which dominated the end of the last century, it also provides the audience (and the other characters in WWE’s fictional world) with multiple ways to engage with the act.
Do you want to believe Bray’s actually supernaturally manifested a fantasy world and an indestructible avatar for himself? That’s great, especially if you’re a kid or a chickenshit heel.
Or do you just want to treat him like a crazy person who’s hired some puppeteers? That works for jaded adults and badass babyfaces.
How about somewhere in between? That’s where most of us probably fall, with our investment in suspending disbelief varying on how compelling we find Wyatt’s current program (e.g. I ate the Cena feud up with a spoon, but nothing could make me care about the one that preceded it).
I’d argue that all of the currently successful “weird” gimmicks that are over in today’s wrestling business do something similar. The same story logic works for acts ranging from Broken Matt Hardy, to Rosemary, to Orange Cassidy.
And it also works for the hybrid Taker character Calaway’s been perfecting for about the last decade. Sometimes he’s a brawling badass, sometimes he’s got connections in the afterlife, sometimes he’s a married Texan. The Boneyard Match and (likely ongoing) AJ Styles feud merged all three, and created the most positively received performance of the third act of the Dead Man’s career.
So, Rollins is correct that The Undertaker who walked out at Hartford Civic Center at Survivor Series 1990 wouldn’t work today. But as he points out, that doesn’t mean a supernaturally-tinged character can’t. It just needs to be planned and executed in a 2020 context.
But that’s just a bunch of words from a guy who probably thinks about this stuff too much. Let us know what you think about Seth’s take on the Undertaker gimmick in the comments below.
* Or what the audience thinks they know is real, or that WWE has convinced them is real... but those are different rabbit holes for a different day.