In Defense of Cinematic Wrestling - Part 6: The Era of Pandemia

Drastic times call for drastic measures, and as WWE and AEW, the two largest wrestling companies in the United States today, have committed to continuing their respective programming, the way in which this content is delivered to the quarantined fans has changed. For one, the system of “batch tapings” has become not just popular, but necessary. Two weeks’ worth of television tapings over the course of a day or two allows for storylines to progress and the requisite amount of footage to be “in the can,” while limiting contact between wrestlers, ring crew, and production staff. Some shows are done live here and there, but on a case-by-case basis at best.

With this system in place, this allows for some artistic freedom, as well as the power of editing and post-production, something that, for one, WWE hadn’t done with their flagship RAW and SmackDown since both shows went live in the summer of 2016. As such, some bigger matches that, to be frank, would live or die based on crowd reaction and reception, can be taken outside the confines of the squared circle for a special presentation.

Such was the case with this year’s WrestleMania, which was spread out over two nights following the seven and a half hour marathon that last year’s Show of Shows was, including a staggering four(!) matches on the kickoff. Each night’s show saw one cinematic match, with either of the two starring a larger-than-life, some could argue horror movie-esque character. In the main event of night one, the Boneyard Match saw The Undertaker, in what would be his final televised match, battle “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles in a dream match from maybe ten years ago or so. The semi-main event of night two saw the Firefly Fun House match between John Cena and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt, in a rematch of sorts from their WrestleMania encounter six years prior.

Are you a Boneyard person or a Firefly Fun House person? Who fucking cares, I say! The Boneyard Match had the return(ish) of the American Badass persona of The Undertaker, digs at other Superstars and Legends (peep the arm through the window, hey Bill!), and the ending we all thought would be the case: AJ Styles being buried alive. I’d feel worse for him if he didn’t return and win the Intercontinental Championship that summer.

And then, oh boy, then comes the Firefly Fun House. To date, as of this printing, we have yet to see John Cena back on television. “The Fiend” more or less killed John Cena, in terms of the wrestler, with reference after reference to Hulk Hogan, Cena’s failed relationship with Nikki Bella, the nWo, and of course, Johnny Largemeat. Any description I try to provide will not be enough. If you watch any two matches from this installment, those should be the Boneyard and Firefly Fun House Match.

Having the Boneyard Match close out the first night of WrestleMania proved to be a wise choice. After all, how could it be followed? Had both cinematic matches happened in one singular show, neither one would be as fondly remembered as they are. Besides, given the endurance race that the Showcase of the Immortals has turned into in the last five or so years, whichever one went later in the show would suffer from crowd fatigue, and might die on its metaphorical ass as a result. And with night two’s main event being Brock Lesnar vs. Drew McIntyre, it was fitting to go from surrealism to hard-hitting realism to end the whole affair.

Besides, neither of these matches would make it in a live-crowd, pre-pandemic show, especially a WrestleMania. The set pieces, the production, and the cinematography work in such a way that goes beyond the traditional pro wrestling experience. These aren’t matches with crowd reactions (or, god forbid, crowd sweetening), they’re short films with characters we know and love, and therefore those characters are elevated, be they established icons like John Cena and The Undertaker, or the newer (in terms of solely WWE) characters like “The Fiend” or any of The OC.

And if nothing else, we got the Undertaker behind smiling AJ meme, and isn’t that worth it all on its own?

Just days after WrestleMania, NXT had its first foray into cinematic matches with “One Final Beat,” the ultimate one-on-one match between years-long rivals Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. In terms of WWE programming, the rivalry started back at the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic, when the two that would later form #DIY faced off in the first round of the tournament. The two had street fights, unsanctioned matches, last man standing matches, and all-out wars over pride, careers, and the NXT Championship. The empty arena was not only a necessity, but an aesthetic that fit the carnage these two were capable of.

Problem is, it wasn’t nearly as good as either of the Mania matches. And I think that’s OK.

Overproduction is the name of WWE’s game, since all the way back to the Rock n’ Wrestling era of the Eighties. Take that with two larger than life, horror film villain characters like The Undertaker and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt, and the over-the-top style that was required, worked. NXT is a far more realistic, down to earth product, even though it is a WWE production. With “One Final Beat” happening the Wednesday immediately following WrestleMania, there was a precedent set for cinematic-style madness, and given the more outright psychological warfare Ciampa and Gargano had been waging for years, it wasn’t going to live up to those matches, despite suffering from that recency bias.

What happened when AEW took a shot at cinematic wrestling? We got two things: a tag-team street fight on Dynamite in May, followed by the Stadium Stampede at Double or Nothing. What was originally slated to be a WarGames-esque “Blood and Guts” match turned into a five-on-five falls count anywhere showdown in the stadium that usually hosts the Jacksonville Jaguars, owned by AEW president Tony Khan. On the night of Double or Nothing, the semi-main of AEW World Champion Jon Moxley and Mr. Brodie Lee was followed by the Stadium Stampede, which included such memorable moments as “Hangman” Adam Page taking “cowboy shit” to a new level, riding in on a horse, “Broken” Matt Hardy getting locked in an ice chest so long, he changed gimmicks, Ortiz of Proud and Powerful getting his literal bell rung, and Kenny Omega driving Sammy Guevara off a platform with his One Winged Angel finisher to cap off the insanity.

NXT took another shot at cinematic matches with a Parking Lot Brawl for the NXT Championship between titleholder Adam Cole and challenger Velveteen Dream, but again, it missed the mark. Had it not been for the eventual three-way main event for the NXT Women’s Championship, the newly-revived In Your House may have had the corpse of cinematic matches on its doorstep. Considering everything that NXT does well, this rare black mark on their records is forgivable, though as of this printing, they haven’t exactly redeemed themselves, not even with the “so bad it’s good” Haunted House of Terror at Halloween Havoc.

Finally, as far as WWE is concerned, we arrive at the “Greatest Wrestling Match Ever” from Backlash. Edge and Randy Orton previously had a massive letdown of a Last Man Standing Match at WrestleMania, and thus looked to redeem the feud with the total opposite: an excellent wrestling match. Piped-in crowd noise and the disembodied voice of the late announcer Howard Finkel were used as window dressing for an otherwise great match, despite the reshoots for the match leading to a tricep injury for Edge, one which he wouldn’t return from until this year’s Royal Rumble.

While there have been some fun cinematic matches since “The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever,” including the Wyatt Swamp Fight, the Tooth and Nail match, and the aforementioned Haunted House of Terror, the only one in the second half of 2020 that’s worth talking about was the unexpected classic Parking Lot Brawl between Best Friends and Proud and Powerful on a September episode of AEW Dynamite. The match was violent, intensely personal, and cathartic, originating from the destruction and desecration of the minivan driven by Trent’s mother Sue. The match was a barnstormer, earning nearly universal acclaim across the wrestling world, even getting the lauded 5-star rating from Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, a first for Dynamite and for a non-PPV North American show in ages.

So what happens after the pandemic is over? Will cinematic wrestling matches cease to exist? Likely not, though with the recent retirement of The Undertaker and the potential re-working of “The Fiend,” the likelihood of another Firefly Fun House or Boneyard Match is nearly zero. Granted, as we saw with Stadium Stampede and the Parking Lot Brawl, these stranger than fiction personalities aren’t a requisite for a great cinematic match, but they sure do help.

But what does make a great cinematic match?

Does it take a great story? Usually yes, but this isn’t always the case, as we saw with One Final Beat.

Should it be for a championship? Probably not, unless we’re talking about the spastic cousin of the Hardcore Title, the 24/7 Championship, or the OG of batshit, the DDT Pro Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship.

Should it be a one on one match, or a multi-man melee? Could go either way, but sometimes less is more, even with matches that are generally “more is more.”

Should they be in an empty arena? Under the right circumstances, yes, as we saw with Halftime Heat.

But are these only working because of the ongoing pandemic? As we’ve seen in the previous installments, to quote Wayne from Letterkenny, hard no.