This Week In Spandex: The Mysteries of WrestleMania
Here at ComicsAlliance we’ve noticed a huge overlap between superhero comics fans and wrestling fans; wrestling is basically superhero theater. This Week in Spandex is a new weekly feature in which a longtime fan and a newcomer to the world of wrestling look back on the latest developments in the world of WWE.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. But this week is obviously pretty special... because it's WrestleMania weekend, and our wrestling expert Chris Sims has one last chance to convince completely disinterested wrestling skeptic Andrew Wheeler to spend three-plus hours watching the WWE’s biggest show of the year. To start, he'll have to explain what Wrestlemania is.
Chris: Okay, Wheeler. This is it. On Sunday, WWE is putting on WrestleMania, their most important show of the year. It’s the Showcase of the Immortals, the Grandest Stage of All, the Biggest Night in Sports Entertainment. What do I have to do to get you to watch this thing?
Andrew: Well, none of those words mean anything to me in this context, and I'm pretty sure the grandest stage of all is La Scala opera house in Milan, so maybe we should start with; what is this thing?
Chris: This event in particular, or WrestleMania in general? Because those are, surprisingly enough, two very different questions.
Andrew: Uh-oh. OK, let me start with what I do know. WWE is a wrestling entertainment company that hates pandas so much that it tried to bogart the trademark of the World Wildlife Fund. WrestleMania is a word I've seen on Panini sticker books. I'm assuming it's an annual event like the Super Bowl, but it could be a lengthy tournament like the Super Bowl. (I also don't know much about the Super Bowl.)
Chris: You are mostly correct, which I think is a best-case scenario here. WrestleMania was originally created by Vince McMahon back in 1985, at the dawn of this new thing called “Pay-Per-View.” At the time, the wrestling business was driven by live shows --- non-televised events where you’d have to drive to an arena if you wanted to see the biggest names battle it out for the titles. The televised events were meant to drive up the audience to the live shows, where the real money was made through ticket sales.
With WrestleMania, though, Vince figured out that he could charge people to watch it from home --- or in the case of the two early shows, on closed-circuit television that was broadcast to movie theaters, something that sounds completely bonkers but that I kind of wish was still a thing. It was the first step in changing the model to something more like what we have today, where all of the storylines are advanced on television and meant to lead up to the big PPV events. Which, incidentally, are still called “PPVs,” even though you can watch them on a monthly subscription service now.
That’s the official WWE answer to the question, anyway, but like I said: “Mostly correct” is about all we can hope for here.
WrestleMania in particular is the biggest show of the year, to the point where they’ve slowly turned it into an entire weekend (or even week-long) event. It’s kind of like the San Diego Comic-Con of wrestling, to the point where there are cosplayers in the crowd, and smaller promotions setting up shows in the same area in the week leading up to it. It’s a pretty big deal, and --- in theory at least --- it’s where all of the storylines from the previous year culminate and set the stage for the next year.
Andrew: "It’s kind of like the San Diego Comic-Con of wrestling" is not winning me over. OK, so you said 'storylines', so let's talk about that. This is scripted entertainment, right? I remember there was a time when people would insist that it was all real, and other people would smugly tell them it wasn't, and we've moved past that now? Everyone accepts that these are actors going through loosely pre-planned narratives, like a Real Housewives show?
Chris: Okay, so here’s the thing about pro wrestling, and I think this might be something I talked about with Elle Collins --- hey, she should do a wrestling column, right? The magic of wrestling is that the wrestlers are all pretending that it’s completely 100% real, but the audience is also pretending that it’s 100% real. That’s the fun of it, and I honestly don’t know why people have such a hard time with it. Like, who’s sitting at home smugly watching Game of Thrones or whatever and going “Uh, dragons are fake.”
Andrew: Though, do the wrestlers ever break character? Because I think Peter Dinklage does. (But maybe Lena Headey doesn’t.)
Chris: They do, sometimes. Generally, if you see them “breaking character,” though, it’s part of a storyline, playing on the idea that since we all know it’s fake, if it suddenly seems like, say, Sami Zayn is actualy really mad at his real-life best friend and in-story arch-enemy Kevin Owens, it adds intrigue. They used to do this all the time --- in the late ‘90s, WWE’s rival company would even go as far as having the announcers declare they were “off script” so often that it became meaningless --- but today, less so. You’re much more likely to see wrestlers breaking character by getting emotional that they’ve accomplished something they wanted when they were kids, like when Sasha Banks hugged Bayley after their match at NXT Takeover.
Incidentally, the fake stuff is called a “work,” and anything that’s actually real is called a “shoot.” But if it seems real and is actually fake, it’s a “worked shoot.” Just in case that ever comes up.
Andrew: They break character in character? OK, that's intriguing. So the appeal of wrestling is that it's a fictional narrative drama with circus-style stunt work. Is that fair? Or would people be mad at me for saying that?
Chris: I think of it as being more like a Jackie Chan movie. The storytelling is done through staged combat, and even though it’s staged, it’s still pretty impressive. And since they’re doing it on live TV, they only get one take to get it right (or screw it up).
Andrew: There's nothing wrong with staged combat, that's a pretty solid theatrical tradition. I think that's one of the disconnects for me with wrestling though; it's a form of theater, and a pretty old school form, but I never hear people talk about it like that, and I feel like the worlds of wrestling and theater are expected to regard each other with disdain. But thinking about it as theater makes me a lot more interested.
Chris: I’ve found that’s a good way to explain it. So really, WrestleMania is --- again, in theory --- the big season finale of American pro wrestling.
Andrew: That makes sense to me. But as appealing as that sounds, and as much as I'm into the idea of buff guys in superhero swimsuits getting booed and cheered as they smack each other around, I can't get past the feeling that this is not meant for me. There's plenty of homoeroticism, which is great, but framed in the same "no homo" cultural context that plagues sports and superheroes. In other words, if they put actual gay people or gay plotlines in there, it loses that veil of deniability that allows a straight man to enjoy watching buff half-naked guys pinning each other. So... how gay is wrestling?
Chris: In my estimation as a straight man? Pretty, pretty gay. But also, like you said, there’s an undercurrent of homophobia --- and misogyny, and racism, and transphobia --- left over from its carny past and the “push-the-envelope” South Park ‘90s that runs through it and crops up sometimes when you least expect it. It occasionally gets so bad that I switch it over to the Spanish announce team, because at least then I don’t understand the language.
I don’t begrudge anyone for that being a pretty major obstacle to getting into pro wrestling in general and the WWE in particular --- because there are companies out there that are trying to do things differently --- but wrestling is changing, albeit incrementally.
Andrew: That's good to hear. You and I have talked a little bit in the past about Cody Rhodes, and you know I'm a fan of his, despite never having seen him in anything that isn't a still photograph. (Although I know nothing about wrestling, individual wrestlers have occasionally crossed over into my areas of interest.)
What I find appealing about Rhodes is that, though I know he's married to a woman, he seems to have no hesitation about embracing glam at a time when you can no longer pretend to disentangle glam from gay culture. In a RuPaul's Drag Race age, Rhodes seems very happy to wear full make-up and glitter, and I am into that. You don’t see that very often in our culture. Plus he is goofball handsome, and he doesn't have terrible sleeve tattoos. Is Cody Rhodes going to win WrestleMania if I watch it, Chris?
He’s… in a match?
Andrew: Uh oh. Is he better at being a glammed up sexpot in a Mister Sinister costume than he is at wrestling? Wait, you don't need to be good at wrestling to win, do you? Is he a bad actor? Is his gay aesthetic holding him back?
Chris: You actually do not need to be good at wrestling to win, but that’s a whole other conversation. And no, I don’t think the Stardust character is holding him back --- if anything, it gave him one of his most high-profile pushes in the past few years, when he wrestled a (surprisingly good) match against TV’s Green Arrow last year at SummerSlam.
I do wish they’d do more with his character --- at least mentioning that he’s the son of this legendary wrestling family who snapped and started thinking he was a cosmic supervillain --- but I think “I wish they were doing more with Cody Rhodes” has been a recurring theme for his entire career. As it stands, though, he’s still Stardust, so you are pretty likely to see him in his amazing Mister Sinister cosplay if you tune in.
Andrew: OK, that's tempting. Here's what else I know about wrestlers. There's a fella who looks like Jason Momoa, who is part of whatever the wrestling version of a menage-a-trois is. There's Randy Orton and his bad tattoos. Wrestling pays enough money that The Rock came back. Hulk Hogan is gross. And if you're British and a wrestler, your gimmick is being British, because the rules of wrestling and burlesque are not so different, and as Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra so wisely told us, you gotta have a gimmick.
So are any of those people going to win WrestleMania?
Chris: Here’s the thing about this year’s WrestleMania: There has been a bizarre plague of injuries that has put out a lot of the top guys this year --- of the folks you’ve probably heard of, Randy Orton is out, as is John Cena, meaning that unless he makes a surprise reappearance, this is the first Cena-free ‘Mania in years. The upside to that is that a lot of the newer people who usually wrestle on the undercard are getting a shot that they might not otherwise get.
The downside is… well, Roman Reigns, if you want to get right down to it.
Andrew: He's the one that looks like Jason Momoa, right? I like him, he looks like Jason Momoa! What’s wrong with Roman Reigns?
Chris: It’s a long story, but here are the basics: WWE decided a few years back that come Hell or high water, Roman Reigns was going to be The Guy. It makes sense that they would --- he’s got a great look, he’s big, he’s not bad in the ring, and he’s literally the Rock’s cousin, so he’s basically the character you would make if you were a teenager writing WWE self-insertion fan-fiction. He even had a swell of popularity thanks to his involvement with a group called the Shield, three newer guys who came up as villains and won the crowd over with a series of amazing three-on-three matches against other factions.
The problem is that after the Shield broke up --- and partially because of all the injuries to other people on the roster --- Roman was fast-tracked to superstardom, and the crowd turned on him instantly. He won the Royal Rumble and got booed even when the Rock came out to raise his hand, which might be the first time the Rock’s been booed since 1998.
WWE has tried literally everything to get him over with the fans. They’ve had him attacked by multiple bad guys, they’ve had him conquer impossible odds only to have his victory snatched away at the end (although they did that in the worst way possible, by having him sit out most of the Royal Rumble only to return at the end), and, for WrestleMania, they’ve put him in a match against the easiest guy on the roster to hate; Triple H, the real-life Executive Vice President of the Company, who has been using his corporate power (in the storyline) to keep Roman from winning the title.
But still, Roman is constantly getting booed by the fans. It’s overwhelming, to the point where I feel legitimately sorry for the guy, because he’s not really doing anything wrong. You just kind of want to let WWE have this one, even if it hasn’t been done well.
Andrew: So is Reigns in contention to win WrestleMania? Does someone win WrestleMania?
Chris: Reigns and Triple H are wrestling for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the Main Event --- the last match on the card, the biggest and most important one. If anyone can be said to “win WrestleMania,” it’s the winner of that match.
Andrew: Is there anyone else I should care about? There are women wrestling in this thing as well, right? Or is that a parallel event?
Chris: There are! There’s a Triple Threat match for the Divas Championship, and depending on how much time they give them, there’s a chance it could be the best match on the card. There’s the champion, Charlotte, who’s the daughter of Ric Flair (again, another discussion, but he’s arguably the greatest pro wrestler of all time), Becky Lynch, an Irish steampunk lady who should definitely come to the ring in a zeppelin and who has the unfortunate catchphrase “Lass Kicker,” and “The Boss” Sasha Banks, who is literally the best thing about WWE right now.
Andrew: I like that there's a generational aspect. Do they ever reboot wrestling?
Chris: It feels like it sometimes, but not in the way that happens in comics. Wrestlers will occasionally get new characters --- one guy on the roster right now used to be a sinister hunter of men before he became a fun-loving party animal, for instance. They did once try to pass off a different guy wearing the same costume as the Undertaker --- commonly referred to as the Underfaker --- though. I wish they would’ve gone all out and had him “die” and then come back as four different people, one of whom was a cyborg and one of whom was Teen ‘Taker.
Andrew: Faker was one of my favorite He-Man toys, so I’m actually totally on board for that. OK, take me through the… menu? Who is fighting whom on this thing, and when? And which of them is handsome?
Chris: Okay, so here’s the card. On the pre-show, we’re getting three matches, starting with Ryback vs. Kalisto for the United States Championship, one of the lower-tier titles. Basically, Kalisto is a small masked luchador known for quick flips, and Ryback is a gigantic muscle man who occasionally talks about how he reads The Secret and tries to put positive energy out into the world. That’s basically pro wrestling in a nutshell.
Andrew: This is the most exciting thing you've told me!
Chris: We’ve also got a five-on-five women’s match between the Total Divas (the stars of the E! reality show of the same name) against B.A.D. & Blonde, who are women who are not on Total Divas. The main idea here is that it will be the first time we see Lana, previously a manager who was the wrestling equivalent of Brigitte Nielsen’s character in Rocky IV, actually wrestling. And also it will have Emma, one of my favorite characters. Her character is extremely arrogant but also extremely incompetent, which made her a fan favorite until she decided to go bad, complete with darker lipstick, aviator shades and these weird little gloves that only cover half of her hand and look like something Gambit would wear.
Third, we have a tag-team match between the Usos (two twin brothers who are also members of the Rock’s extended family) against the Dudley Boyz, who were popular and violent wrestlers in the ‘90s best known for putting people through folding tables. That’s the pre-show.
Andrew: The Dudley Boyz sound ghastly. Emma sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m baffled by all these lady wrestlers having ordinary lady names and not being called Poundcakes or Letha.
Chris: Listen, if Mark Gruenwald was in charge of WWE, we’d all be a lot happier
Andrew: Are there any serpent-themed wrestlers?
Chris: Well, there was Jake “The Snake” Roberts, of course. And Randy Orton is occasionally called “The Viper,” which has somehow never led to anyone asking if he’s there to vipe the vindows.
Once the actual show starts, we have the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, a new tradition that was introduced a couple of years ago, and is more-or-less designed to get everyone who doesn’t have a match onto the card for WrestleMania. It’s a 20-man over-the-top-rope Battle Royal (meaning that wrestlers are eliminated by being thrown over the top rope, rather than being pinned or submitting), and it’s basically stocked with The Rest Of The Guys. Including one of my favorites who I suspect you would also get a kick out of, Tyler Breeze.
Andrew: Oh, I’ve seen that guy! Chad Michael Murray with duckface!
Chris: That’s him! His gimmick is that he’s a wrestling male model, but shockingly --- and I’ll admit that it’s kind of sad that this was surprising --- they never saddled him with the kind of Gay Panic gimmick that you normally see with that sort of character. He’s always been presented as extremely strong in the ring, and the joke (or theory, really) among fans is that he’s so narcissistic that he could never be attracted to another human being. He’s TylerBreezesexual.
Andrew: I mean, of course we get that before we get an actual gay guy who isn’t played for a joke, but I’ve got room in my heart for a guy in a fake fur hooded fleece. What’s next?
Chris: Next would be AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho --- a guy who’s new to the WWE but has been a wrestler in other companies for 20 years against a guy who’s been with WWE for almost 20 after a long career wrestling elsewhere.
Very similar guys in terms of style and career path. Mostly notable for our purposes because a) they were briefly a tag team called “Y2AJ” (Jericho’s nickname being Y2J for reasons that have to do with him coming to the WWE in 1999) that ended when Jericho literally burned their t-shirt in an oil barrel in the middle of the ring, and b) because AJ is well known for, about ten years ago, responding to a fan asking about his popularity among the gay community with a shocked, extremely southern accented “the gay community?!” Like it was the first time he had ever heard those words.
Chris: Yeah, I imagine he won’t be your favorite guy. But we do have your favorite coming later in the card! Our next match is a seven-man ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship --- the belt is hung above the ring and the wrestlers have to use a ladder to get up to it and claim it to win --- that features best friends/blood-feud enemies Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, a bunch of other guys, and Stardust.
Andrew: Yesssss. Lovely Cody Rhodes. I've never heard of a seven-man ladder before, but I’m googling as we go, and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn both look like they’d be perfectly at home at leather night at the Black Eagle. Is Stardust going to kick all their asses? Is that how this works?
Chris: That’s… I mean, there is a universe where that is a likely outcome, but I don’t think it’s the one in which we currently live. Anyone but Owens or Zayn winning would be a pretty huge shock.
Andrew: So at this point we’re about four beers in and there’s only baby carrots left on the party platter?
Chris: Yeah, but WrestleMania parties are usually measured by pizza slice rather than any sort of vegetable. So aside from the ones we’ve already talked about, we’ve got three more to go, and they are weird ones.
First up, we have a match where a team of three people (the New Day) go up against a team of four people (the League of Nations). This was originally scheduled to be for the Tag Team Championships, which, as you may know, are traditionally held by a team of two.
Andrew: I hate to be mister rules-lawyer, but three against four seems wrong to me.
Chris: It’s definitely unusual, which is probably why they scrapped the championship aspect. There’s a longstanding rule in pro wrestling about a team of three wrestlers being allowed to choose any two of them to defend the Tag Team titles if they win them, but I don’t think it’s ever resulted in a match with seven people before --- especially given that it’s a handicap match where one team outnumbers the other. But either way, the New Day is pretty endlessly delightful.
Andrew: That’s good, because that name sounds like a cult, and not a fun one.
Chris: They compare themselves to unicorns and had a funeral for Francesca, the trombone they used to play at ringside to distract their opponents during matches, when it was broken by an opponent.
Andrew: OK, maybe that is a fun cult.
Chris: There is a very cult-like faction called the Wyatt Family, but they don’t seem to be on the card.
Our next match is Dean Ambrose going against Brock Lesnar. Ambrose was one of the other guys in the Shield with Roman Reigns, and his current character is that he’s the “Lunatic Fringe” of the WWE, meaning that he will occasionally leave the arena, go steal a hot dog cart from Coney Island, and spray down his enemies with mustard. Brock Lesnar is a very large, very scary man who loves only two things: Violence and Jimmy Johns sandwiches.
Andrew: I have heard of Brock Lesnar. Brock “I don’t like gays” Lesnar. Brock “Write that down in your little notebook. I don’t like gays” Lesnar. I do not care for him.
Chris: That is, again, a pretty understandable position to take.
That brings us to the last match we haven't covered, which might be one of the weirdest matches in WrestleMania history --- and considering that the main event of WrestleMania XI was a football player beating a pro wrestler after being accompanied to the ring by Salt n Pepa, that’s saying something: Shane McMahon, the son of Vince McMahon who is not actually a wrestler and recently returned to the company after spending about a decade on unrelated foreign business ventures, taking on the Undertaker, a zombie cowboy, in a “Hell in the Cell” match that will involve a giant cage that covers the ring. If Shane wins, he gets control of Monday Night Raw, and the Undertaker can never wrestle at WrestleMania again.
Andrew: Uh… OK. I don’t know how you get to there from anywhere, but, sure. And what do the rules of good narrative tell us is going to happen here? Having not seen a lick of WWE, I’m assuming Shane McMahon wins because he’s meant to take control of Monday Night Raw, and Undertaker has to stage some sort of comeback story, but also isn’t he an old dude? So maybe this is just how he retires?
Chris: It would be completely bananas for the Undertaker --- for whom “Winning At WrestleMania” was the thing that he did for 21 years until his once-a-year big-deal winning streak was finally broken a while back --- to not only lose to a non-wrestler, but to lose to the owner of the company’s son who is not a wrestler. But that’s kind of what’s amazing about it. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it feels like the kind of match that happens in a video game when you let the computer decide what matches and feuds to have, but it’s happening in real life, and the results of this are going to set the tone of the TV shows for the foreseeable future.
See, the current authority figures --- called, of course, “The Authority” (no relation to the Wildstorm comic of the same name) --- are a bad guy faction led by Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. Shane’s the good guy, but the Undertaker is also kind of a good guy? And while he certainly might be retiring, a rumor that’s been going around for at least four years at this point, the situation makes that possibility way weirder than it’s ever been before.
Andrew: Oh! They’re both good guys? So surely these Authority people have to attempt a coup and Shane and the Undertaker have to team up to take them down, no?
Chris: You would think, but I’ve been waiting for some kind of weird shenanigans to show up ever since this match was announced, and it never quite arrives. Then, on Monday, Shane jumped off the top rope of the ring to land on the Undertaker, who was laying on the announcers’ table. It’s the traditional buildup to the big match, but the entire situation surrounding it is super weird. And I kind of love that?
Andrew: And that’s the end? No Coldplay performance? No monologues? No dance break?
Chris: There will probably be a performance by Flo Rida. For some reason, WWE friggin’ loves Flo Rida. He’s beaten up actual wrestlers on the show before. I will never understand it.
Andrew: Here’s the million dollar question; If I did want to watch WrestleMania, will it cost me a million dollars?
Chris: I’m pretty sure you can watch it for free.
Andrew: On teevee?
Chris: If you’ve got a game console or a Roku or a smart TV, yes. See, rather than just sticking with the Pay-Per-View model, WWE launched an online streaming service called the WWE Network a few years ago. It’s actually pretty great, even if they seem to have no idea how to market it --- you get all of the big PPVs as they happen, and there’s an archive of every PPV they’ve ever done --- not just WWE, but all of these other companies that they’ve bought and absorbed along the way, like WCW and ECW. Plus they have those companies’ tape libraries, so if you want to watch some random AWA show from 1987, you can.
Andrew: So I need a subscription?
Chris: Yeah, but unless you’re one of the dopes who signed up the first day it was available (ie: me), I’m pretty sure you can get your first month free, which would include WrestleMania (and NXT, the show you should actually be watching). If not, it’s $10 a month, which, considering that the PPV cost through the cable company was $70 to watch just WrestleMania in HD, is a legitimately good deal.
Andrew: I see. I now feel fully equipped to make an informed decision about my wrestling entertainment options. Now explain Lucha Underground.
Chris: It’s literally the best thing that has ever happened...