WWE Just Gave Us the The Best Film of 2020

In a world gone mad, where nothing is what it seems, where all hope seems to be lost, we sometimes look to the least likely places for a reprieve. For me, this year's Wrestlemania gave me a brief respite and offered up one of the most compelling pieces of long-form narrative I've seen in years.

I know what you're probably thinking; "wrestling? Isn't that fake??" and you'd mostly be correct. But I ask you, is wrestling any different than Star Wars or any given movie from the MCU? At its core, wrestling is about good guys and bad guys. And at Wrestlemania, WWE's yearly mega-event, general consensus is that the good guys vanquish the bad guys and everyone goes home happy.

As you all know, 2020 has been one massive curveball and WWE was forced to adjust. No longer the massive spectacle with 80,000 screaming fans, Wrestlemania was forced to take place in an empty arena. In front of no fans. Instead of fireworks and cheers and boos, we were treated to what initially felt like an awkward display of matches in an eerily quiet arena. You could hear every thud as the performers hit the mat. You could hear the commentators, both through their headsets and echoing in the arena. Wrestling without an audience is an odd juxtaposition and if that's what WWE had decided to go with, we may be talking today about how it was a noble, but misguided failure. 

(The jury is still out on the latter as many people, myself included, think that the performers' safety should've been better accounted for and that maybe this event shouldn't have been held at all during the pandemic. But WWE's awful politics and business practices are a whole other article)

Thank god they didn't just stick to the script.

At the close of Wrestlemania Night One (we were treated to two nights instead of one this year), WWE gave us the first ever Boneyard Match. Pairing up the legendary Undertaker and the uber-talented AJ Styles, the match was shot off-site at a backwoods barn. Forgoing the traditional rules and way of filming, WWE treated this like a mini-film. Through terrific cinematography, editing and scoring, this ended up being something we've never seen before at Wrestlemania. It was a genuinely shocking surprise. 

Taking parts of Halloween, Texas Chainsaw & The Devil's Rejects, WWE presented this as a horror film. The Undertaker stalked his prey and laid waste to him and managed to show that he was still capable of innovation after three decades in the business. If this was how they were going to close Night One, what could possibly be in store for Night Two?

Night Two kicked off with more of our standard, empty arena matches. Some fared better than others but for the most part, none of them could overcome the incredible standard set the night before. Then something wonderful and strange happened. 

John Cena entered the Firefly Funhouse.

Before we go any further, you're going to need some backstory. There's a lot of it so I'll do my best to make it breezy but I hope you'll join me. 

John Cena is probably the most recognizable star of the modern era. He's a crossover superstar, one of the most popular wrestlers of all time and generally well known even if you don't know the business. He's also one of the most divisive wrestlers ever. Many fans see him as overhyped and overprivileged. Vince McMahon is notorious for preferring big, muscular men with square jaws and good morals as his champions and nobody fits that bill better than Cena. 

Debuting in 2002, Cena was initially a cookie cutter muscleman in trunks who came out to accept Kurt Angle's open invitation to a match. Angle would ask him what he had to offer and Cena, with every muscle on his body ready to explode screamed "RUTHLESS! AGGRESSION!" He would lose but put up a good fight which nabbed him a handshake from the Undertaker backstage, a move seen by many as "this guy is the future." 

Cena would flounder as "generic-muscleman in trunks" until a producer heard him free-styling backstage. After tweaking his character, Cena would become "The Dr. of Thug-o-nomics" and rap his way to the ring. It was 2004 and we were all a lot dumber back then, so this got him over (wrestle-speak for popular) in a major way. Eventually, Cena would become the company's biggest star and the company would invest years of storytelling into making him THE guy. He would slowly trade-in the rap gimmick for that of a more colorful, kid-friendly character. Like Hulk Hogan's prayers and vitamins before him, Cena would preach maxims like "Hustle, Loyalty and Respect" while wearing garish t-shirts, hats and jean shorts. While the kids loved this, the adult fans began to turn on Cena. As the internet wrestling community grew, a preference for indie-style wrestlers (generally smaller, more athletically gifted wrestlers) grew as well. Cena was seen as a pastiche of a bygone era, a shovel to bury the fan favorites. They were tired of seeing him win title after title, especially over new and upcoming stars. So Cena was booed endlessly and eventually became a quieter presence as Hollywood beckoned.

As the downside of Cena's career became ever-present, new faces were popping up all over the WWE. One such face was Bray Wyatt. Initially presented as backwoods, Hawaiian shirt wearing cult leader, Wyatt would sit in a rocking chair holding a lantern and babble about fireflies and Sister Abigail. Flanked by two massive men in sheep masks, Wyatt's bizarre character caught on with the fans who loved his unique look and character. In a sea of muscular men with stock characters, Wyatt had an atypical body-type and a gift for speaking that the fans ate up. 

Wyatt found success early on and won a world title but never quite caught on as well as he probably should have. He eventually found his way to clashing with John Cena at Wrestlemania six years ago. Cena made quick work of him and Wyatt's character never really recovered. Fans were extremely critical of this as they perceived this to be yet another instance where WWE had John Cena dispatch of another up-and-comer for seemingly no reason. Wyatt never left the spotlight, really, but his character just didn't have the edge anymore. An injury would force him to take time off which ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Wyatt returned even more bizarre than ever. Appearing on the big screen in arenas across the country, Wyatt was a fantastically creepy children's show host of the Firefly Fun House. He would pop up on screen, laughing, singing and dancing with disturbing puppets and decor surrounding him. A masked face would cut in every so often demanding that we "Let Him In." The masked figure ended up being fun-loving Bray's new alter ego The Fiend. The Fiend was a viscous, malevolent being who would make quick work of his opponents. Wyatt would find success as this character, perhaps more success than ever and seemed to be back on his feet. But one thing was still standing in his way: A returning John Cena.

Wyatt challenged Cena to a match at this year's Wrestlemania with one stipulation. He wanted to do it his way, in his house. Calling back to six years ago, Wyatt claimed that he never got over losing to Cena the way he did and that Cena took everything from him. Cena would counter by telling Wyatt that he only has himself to blame and that if anyone is overhyped and overprivileged, it's him. He's been given chance after chance and he squandered it. With a deep bed of stakes laid, all we had to do was wait and see what exactly the Firefly Funhouse Match was going to be.

Going one step further than the previous night's Boneyard Match, the Firefly Funhouse Match was the most bizarre and introspective thing WWE has ever done. Beginning with Bray Wyatt on the set of his children's show, he giddily looked into the camera and menacingly warned Cena that there were many worlds other than this one. Wyatt disappeared and Cena entered. Looking confused, Cena walked around before going through the next door and found himself in a dark room greeted by a puppet of Vince McMahon. The puppet asked him if he had Ruthless Aggression to which a perplexed Cena responded by again, walking away, not sure what to make of it. As he went through yet another door, he made his way to the ring to finally face off with Bray Wyatt. 

But our Cena didn't come out the other side. Instead, 2002-Era Cena did. 

If it wasn't apparent that this wasn't going to be your typical wrestling match, seeing a time-traveling John Cena would be. What followed was a hallucinatory trip down memory lane as Wyatt tormented Cena with both of their pasts. Cena, seemingly under some sort of mind control, could only act in the way each setting allowed. As he was thrown into his past and sometimes into alternate realities like an 80s-era WWE show called Saturday Night's Main Event and to mid-90's WCW where he was thrust into Hulk Hogan's role as leader of the NWO, Cena was forced to play character after character. 

By puppeteering Cena through these dimensions, Wyatt forced him to reckon with what he'd become. Cena in the 80s or Cena in 90s-era WCW were reminders at how silly and bloated his character's dominance had become. He was no different than the cartoonish muscle-heads of the 80s or the me-first heels of the 90s. In what might have been the match's standout moment, Wyatt thrust Cena back into his rapper character. Cena, forced to play the part, laid down a freestyle about Wyatt that immediately descended into unfunny name calling and jokes about Wyatt's appearance. In front of an empty crowd, with no one there to laugh, Wyatt exposed that maybe Cena had just been a bully all along. Maybe he wasn't the conquering hero that a decade of over-exposure and screaming fans had built him up to be. Maybe he was the fraud.

By the match's end, Cena was mentally broken, on his knees with a look of devastation on his face. He had finally succumbed to the mind games and the stark realization that maybe some of these criticisms were true. This gave way to Wyatt's other side, the Fiend, finally making his appearance and making quick work of John, the same way Cena did to Wyatt six years ago. As Wyatt ended Cena, Cena's words about Wyatt being overhyped were played over the loudspeaker. Then, Cena was gone. Disappearing into nothing leaving the Fiend to laugh alone in the ring.

If you're still here, through all of this ridiculous melodrama, I commend you. I'm not sure any of what I wrote did what transpired last night justice but I wanted to highlight what I think is one of WWE's crowning achievements of storytelling. In less-than-ideal circumstances, they took one their biggest stars of all time and deconstructed him to down his core. And this time, he didn't walk away from it. The villain did. But maybe he wasn't the villain.

In a time of uncertainty, where we question who we're supposed to look to and our desires to challenge the status quo, this match mirrored all of it. Cena, the kid-friendly hero was meant to be the guiding light. The peak that anyone would be proud to attain. But as Bray Wyatt stripped him bare, what was underneath was less than savory. Our hero was presented as the bully, the fraud. And our villain, as distorted and confusing as he may be, offers a better future forward. One where we can call out the behavior of our heroes and leaders and question if they have our well being in mind.

The Firefly Funhouse was a revelation of storytelling. John Cena, the man, criticized by many as being overexposed, allowed Bray Wyatt the character to take a 15 years of Cena's career and expose a lot of it for what it was. He played the part of a man going through hell only to emerge broken on the other side perfectly. A lot can be said about John Cena, not all of it good, but in allowing his entire existence to be questioned, poked at and disintegrated, he showed a tremendous amount of humility and willingness to put ego aside to do what's right. (I'm sure that massive paycheck helps but let's ignore that for now.)

If you're a lifelong fan of wrestling, through all of its ups and downs and moral quandaries (believe me, being a fan of WWE comes with an endless amount those), this match was a masterclass in how to tell a story in and out of the ring. It took decades of mythology and excellent editing, writing and performance and emerged as a richly rewarding experience. WWE could have given us a standard match with two guys throwing each other around in a ring in front of no fans. But we saw that already. Instead, they threw everything at the wall and told the best story they've ever told. One in which the answers aren't the ones you were hoping to get because maybe you weren't even asking the right questions. In ten minutes, WWE, Bray Wyatt and John Cena deconstructed an entire legend while making a new one in its place. And in doing so, they've given us the best film of 2020.

-Brandon Streussnig