Long-time readers probably know that I’m a wrestling fan. And every wrestling fan knows yesterday was Wrestlemania; the Super Bowl for the professional wrestling world. And the main event at the ‘Grandest Stage of Them All’ was a championship match between John Cena and The Rock. Both big-name characters, both icons of their business, this was their second meeting and was poised to be the stuff of legend.
But surrounding their meeting were the rumors that John Cena was going to pull what in the wrestling world is known as a ‘heel turn’. This parlance means he was going to go from a good guy (a face) to a bad guy (a heel). Cena has been the goodie-goodie of the WWE for close to a decade now and such a turn would have been industry-shaking (much like Hulk Hogan’s heel turn in the 1990s).
Many fans – John Cena detractors and proponents alike – called for such a turn. They felt his boy scout persona had run its course and it was time for him to take on a darker, edgier, meaner character that would be more in-keeping with a villain. In Cena’s early days, he had been a heel but since he began his first steps towards his ascent to the top of the industry, he’s been an incorruptible good guy. And it is my opinion that shouldn’t change.
Sometime around the 1980s, the dark and edgy characters seemed to come to the forefront. In comic books, it was the arrival of the seminal works ‘the Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘Watchmen’ which vaulted comic books not only out of childish fare and into the adult world (with the gritty realities and very mature themes injected into these fantasy tales) but they would also serve as the harbingers of comics’ mainstream acceptance today.
In video games, it was probably the mid-90s when the Sega Genesis would go on the offensive against the more family-friendly Nintendo/Super Nintendo with more brazen advertising and more mature games at their forefront (the equivalent to letting their PG-13 titles do the talking against Nintendo’s G and PG titles). This would be further exacerbated when Sony’s Playstation would enter the field and would aim their marketing squarely at 20-somethings and largely ignore the kids’ market entirely. And they did this by emphasizing darker, more mature, and more morally ambiguous stories.
Films have likewise embraced this approach. The James Bond franchise, once about world-saving and high adventure, has for the last three movies been based on themes of betrayal and paranoia. The famed Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan, one of the most successful comic book film franchises of all time, worked so hard to embrace it’s gritty crime aesthetic that two of the three films avoided even having the name ‘Batman’ in the title. One of the most successful adventure franchises of the past decade – Pirates of the Caribbean – places pirates as not only the protagonists but as iconic heroes fighting against tyranny.
Even animation has moved in this direction. While other factors were at play, no doubt, the romantic interest in Disney’s most recent fairy tale ‘Tangled’ is a thief and a liar, which is far removed from the tradition of princes and knights.
Please don’t mistake me, I’m not asserting that darker tales are bad. Quite the opposite. They’re wonderful. Watchmen and DKR helped deflate the egos of the pomp and silliness of comics and added some literary credibility. Nirvana broke the rock world with a much-needed dose of reality, and NWA would do the same with the music world as a whole. But not every title and franchise benefits from that grit and edge. Not every movie needs to be realistic and ugly. Not every character needs to have a dark side.
It’s for this reason that I believe John Cena shouldn’t make a heel turn. Because some characters need to remain idealistically – maybe even excessively – good. Every time they’ve tried to darken up Superman, fans have never embraced it. Superman remains an unapologetic boy scout. And Cena serves that same role in the WWE, in professional wrestling.
A heel turn can do wonders for a performer, no doubt, as well as for a story and for an entire company. I am not opposed to well-done heel turns at all. But not every wrestler needs one, and Cena definitely doesn’t. Wrestling is a surreal, escapist fantasy. And if there’s one thing our fantasies should always have room for, it’s a true-and-through white-hatted good guy.