Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Winter of Punk: How WWE Does Not Get Characterization

2011 Summer Punk wouldn't have consorted with two out of the other guys in that picture
Photo Credit: WWE.com
I was listening to the latest clean edition of the Steve Austin Podcast, the one he and Ted Fowler recorded on New Year's Eve, and I was filled with equal tendencies to both nod my head and shake my fist at specifically what Fowler was talking about. He basically claimed that the current WWE was garbage, which is not an idea I subscribe to. He went on to say compare WWE to UFC in an unfavorable light, and how UFC gives him all the action he needs. He and Austin both claimed they don't like that the WWE wants to put smiles on everyone's faces, and would rather they piss the crowd off sometimes.

To me, that rant sounded like Fowler didn't really want what WWE was offering anymore. I can't imagine anyone watching a random episode of RAW in 2013 and thinking WWE was at a lack of wrestling. UFC tickles his fancy, which is okay. No one should ever demand fealty to a company as a measure of fandom, but I wholeheartedly disagree with comparing a legitimate sport to performance art as well as the idea that wrestling just isn't action-packed enough anymore.

However, they both were making points about the story side of wrestling that I was agreeing with. For as much as I have been loving RAW for the last year-plus, WWE still is doing things on the story side that make absolutely no sense. The stop/start stories, feuds built on nothing but having the same matches over and over again, Champions losing ad nauseam when their belt is not on the line, and the stupid distraction interference finish that they've run into the ground are all big examples, but one thing that Austin hit on the head was how characters on the show are too scripted. Sometimes, guys need to be fed lines and guided through the process, but sometimes, guys just need to be themselves. No one in WWE fits the mold of needing to be turned up to 11 than CM Punk.

Two-and-a-half years ago, CM Punk went supernova because he was allowed to be his curmudgeonly, eternally dissatisfied self as a wrestling character. For six glorious weeks, Punk was the best character in wrestling because WWE let him take what fans perceived as real life frustrations (and they very well could have been legit seeing as though Punk said a lot of the same things a year prior on the Art of Wrestling podcast). He wasn't dropping pipe bombs just because he was articulate and charismatic. He had conviction and fire, all of which seemed to die the moment he put on Triple H's jacket during that walkout by the rest of the roster.

At that point, I realized WWE didn't really give a flying shit about cultivating a stable of diverse characters. As much as Vince McMahon claims that he doesn't book babyfaces and heels as much as he wants to have a bunch of "shades of grey" running around, his modus operandi still seems to place hats of white and black on his roster. Alignment itself is not the issue. Edgy shows don't need to have everyone running around with varying degrees of moral authority, but great shows more often than not have well-defined characters.

Since ending his feud with Paul Heyman, Punk has shown 100% regression from a wholly unique, vibrant iconoclast that fit his skillset on the mic to an assembly-line WWE milquetoast babyface. He doesn't stand for anything. Summer of 2011 Punk or the gritty, non-comedic Rodney Dangerfield persona he put on in his third act as WWE Champion would probably spit in this iteration's face for how badly he's forsaken his ideals. This Punk gladhands The Rock and pals around with Triple H's cronies, the New Age Outlaws. Peak Punk would still be clawing at "Dwayne" and maybe found someone else to aid him in his wholly superfluous fight against The Shield last night.

Of course, pure stasis is not advisable for most characters in any show, especially protagonists like Punk, but if change is going to come, then shouldn't it have a reason for occurring? Why did Punk, the Voice of the Voiceless and the man who was raging against the Triple H-Stephanie McMahon machine on the stage in Las Vegas so gladly take that machine's side during the Superstar walkout? Why would he so gladly pal around with known associates of that machine after his beefs were renewed with it just recently? Nothing really changed, so unless Brandon Stroud is right, and Punk's character is that he's a self-serving jerkoff who looks after himself and nothing more, these changes make absolutely no goddamn sense within a narrative perspective.

I would be very willing to accept Punk as the avatar of selfishness, but I've seen so many heels take flight with a unique character to the point where they curry favor with the fans and then change into the WWE ideal of what a babyface is. So far, that regression has happened with Montel Vontavious Porter, Mr. Kennedy, The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, and most disappointingly, Daniel Bryan. The trend is too strong to ignore. For all the arrogant pomp that Vince McMahon allegedly proclaimed to Ted Turner about being in the "entertainment business," after the latter got into the "rasslin' business," WWE writers, or more specifically, the maniac who allegedly has to approve everything before it goes into production, have no idea what makes great entertainment work.

WWE scratches so many itches for me as a fan, ones that make me think critics like Fowler and Austin aren't paying close enough attention or aren't looking at the right things in some of their concerns. However, in other departments, very important ones, their criticisms are spot on. One needs look no further than CM Punk to see the root of why WWE's narratives rarely ever reach satisfying conclusions. Characters matter, and more importantly, characterization is so critically important. Punk, by his own admission, may not have too much time left in wrestling. If they continue to write him as John Cena Clone #29890238 instead of the Voice of the Voiceless, then they will have missed out on one of the most golden opportunities ever.