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Professional Wrestling Takes a Cinematic Turn Amid the Pandemic

Having to put on shows without crucial audience participation is forcing new evolution within wrestling.

From The Horror Show at Extreme Rules (courtesy WWE)

On July 19, World Wrestling Entertainment put on the awkwardly titled event “The Horror Show at Extreme Rules.” The biggest pro wrestling company in the world is at a historically low point of popularity; television ratings are down, and excitement for the no-fans-allowed matches in the COVID era is nearly nonexistent. The poor taste of leaning into a “horror” theme during a real-life nightmare moment clearly didn’t trump their desire to drum up some morbid curiosity. (The tastelessness is unsurprising, given that WWE has refused to even mention the virus and has done a horrible job of handling it.) The show featured one wrestler “removing” another’s eye — in fact a prop that was ludicrous but legitimately gross to see. The ’80s horror movie vibe carried into the main event, wherein a wrestler seemed to drown his opponent, in what was dubbed a “Swamp Fight.” Things are weird these days.

The show was widely panned, like much of WWE’s current output. But the main event was at turns ridiculous and brilliant, and is worth discussing as the latest entry in the relatively new genre of cinematic wrestling. This is a form of storytelling in which the producers, performers, and editors use multiple takes and “movie-like” effects, such as expressive lighting, staging, and framing. Born from the desire for creative freedom in a usually formulaic art, cinematic wrestling has gained traction during COVID-19, which has hit wrestling particularly hard. The style both provides a road map for the future and highlights pro wrestling’s existential crisis.

This concept is at the heart of what WWE CEO and head creator Vince McMahon has always aspired to do. “We make movies,” he says smugly in the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, and it’s easy to see what he means. Hulk Hogan was a superhero, The Undertaker can teleport and shoot lighting from his hands, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts once betrayed the Ultimate Warrior with a legendarily Z-grade casket of snakes. The WWF-turned-WWE has long defined itself as the place where old-school ‘rasslin (i.e. long, drama-filled contests meant to feel as real as possible) was less a focus than larger-than-life morality plays that emulated McMahon’s (limited) idea of Hollywood. This approach proved very influential; rival company WCW even had RoboCop interfere in a match.

Unintentionally hilarious bits like The Yeti, the WCW mini-movies, or even the Boiler Room Brawl have often been seen as signs that a wrestling promotion was desperate for ideas, and indeed, they usually didn’t work. Pro wrestling is based on a unique relationship between artifice and reality. The ring is a stage for a demanding physical contest that plays out in real time and happens to be scripted. The audience is key to the experience, participating and bearing witness, while inevitable bursts of unscripted drama transform and enliven the fabrication. The predictable structure of the match is integral to the form; repetition and reliance on easily discernible moralities create a kind of flatness that allows latent complexity to shine through.

Cinematic elements like editing are often antithetical to the live-performance-based grappling arts. It’s all overtly theatrical, of course, but the play at sports drama is usually the standard. This new batch of cinematic wrestling emerged during the creative doldrums of the 2010s, with the 2014 TV series Lucha Underground (and its telenovela style and episodic structure) and Matt Hardy’s “Broken Universe” oeuvre of matches for Impact Wrestling, which included one of the ridiculous masterpieces of the genre, 2016’s The Final Deletion. Wrestling has always had pre-taped matches and weirdo segments, but the intentionality behind what Lucha Underground and Hardy created made those events feel different. Hardy’s popular template in particular, with its schlocky manic energy, supernatural flourishes, and backwoods setting, ended up heavily influencing the WWE, which copied it wholesale with the famously awful Bray-Wyatt-starring House of Horrors match in 2017. When Hardy rejoined WWE shortly thereafter, the style he’d perfected went fully mainstream, and he more or less gifted his legacy to his onetime adversary turned tag team partner Wyatt.

Only recently have these matches become a necessity, however. COVID-19 has eviscerated the sport by forcing shows into empty arenas. Pro wrestling is effectively meaningless without its fans, who create an authentic, irreplaceable call-and-response energy. At first the possibilities were intriguing. A Samuel-Beckett-like clip of Bray Wyatt confronting John Cena went viral in March, and it seemed genuinely weird and exciting. But the wrestlers have been having a hard time with it, doing routine crowd taunts with no one to react. It was surreal, and has only gotten sadder as the thousands of fans who would typically animate a show have been replaced by dozens of other wrestlers pretending to respond to the pretend fighting while wearing masks behind plastic shields. It’s lifeless, ratings have crashed to historic lows, and this might go down as the worst era in wrestling history.

When WWE announced that Wrestlemania 36 was being moved from the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to the tiny WWE Performance Center without fans, it seemed like wrestling might just be done. Instead, the forced ingenuity gave us two instant-classic cinematic matches: the Boneyard Match between The Undertaker and AJ Styles and the Firefly Funhouse Match starring John Cena and Bray Wyatt. That these two risky exercises were put on pro wrestling’s biggest stage with some of its biggest stars has made this a pivotal moment for the cinematic style.

The Boneyard Match was The Walking Dead­­­ meets a low-budget Metallica video as directed by John Carpenter’s biggest fan. B-movie effects and stock music never overtook the action and drama, which felt like a legitimate action flick. Veteran performer The Undertaker’s old-cowboy-who-won’t die gimmick infused it with genuine pathos; viewers knew we were watching his last stand, and given the fantastical nature of the character, the cinematic construct felt fitting.

Nothing could prepare us for the postmodern Firefly Funhouse Match, however. In one corner was John Cena, who over his career went from problematic white rapper to McMahon’s alpha male lead. To many erstwhile fans, he represents WWE’s PG-rated creative rut. He was the business incarnate, and business hasn’t been great for a while. Bray Wyatt, on the other hand, was born into the business and possesses a kind of unlearnable charisma that’s made him a great hope for fans, especially considering his atypical body type and rallying cries to burn down the (WWE) system. However, WWE neutered his swampy, Cape Fear­-esque cult leader character, and he failed to adapt. When he reemerged as The Fiend, a Pennywise-like demented children’s show host, the possibilities seemed endless. After an up-and-down start, this rematch with Cena is where it all finally came together. Led by Wyatt, WWE created an ingenious nightmare of self-referential storytelling that played on ideas of Cena’s corporate-endorsed hyper-masculinity, his personal failures, and McMahon’s obsession with a narrow conception of hyper-masculine, hyper-capitalist American heroism, which has long been used to bury performers as willfully idiosyncratic as Wyatt. It was genuinely subversive, wrestling as complex, dreamlike, even Lynchian.

Given a real chance by necessity, cinematic wrestling has found its way into matches such as the John-Sayles-like One Final Beat, the bad slapstick of the Money in the Bank match, and the Warriors-inspired Backlot Brawl. These events have been hit or miss, all attempts to work with awful circumstances rather than advances in the form. Outside of the WWE, Matt Hardy has found a new home with upstart rival promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW), coming into homes from an empty arena and helping to create the thrilling and singular Stadium Stampede, an instant classic.

Cinematic wrestling might herald a new age of creativity in sports entertainment, or it may signal traditional wrestling’s demise. The pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon in the US, so we’re likely to see more from the mind of Wyatt or the House of Hardy. If wrestling’s notoriously fickle fans can accept the subversive postmodernism at play here, it might open up new possibilities for longform storytelling. But bad wrestling is bad wrestling, even when it’s “cinematic,” and it’s just as likely that this era is going to bring a lot of half-baked corporate experiments born of desperation. Either way, pro wrestling is always most interesting when the real-life stakes are high, and they’ve never been higher than they are now.

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