John Cena and the “Heroes Journey” (or lack thereof)

In 1949 a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Joseph Campbell, published a book entitled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” It presented the idea that all works of mythology instinctively follow the same basic template; that any good story follows an arc that takes the hero from one point to the next. Why is this relevant in a pro wrestling article?

Because John Cena sucks that’s why.

In any good work of fiction, the hero of the story goes on a journey. It begins with his introduction, where some circumstances compel him forward onto the path that will culminate in his eventual victory. Along the way, that path takes the hero to some dangerous places, bringing him at times to the brink of defeat (that’s why we call it “drama”), before ultimately pulling him out of the fire and either continuing on, or concluding the story with the hero standing tall.

You’d be hard pressed to find a work of fiction where the main character does not go through some form of the so-called “heroes journey.” There is always an obstacle, a challenge, a major setback; there’s always something that makes the audience think victory is in peril.

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When Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father, the hero had suddenly lost more than a hand and a Han, he lost his entire moral compass. He had been told by his first mentor that Vader had killed his father. He had been pressured by his second mentor not to face Vader. Now in hindsight, it seemed that they were the liars and the manipulators and Vader was the honest one. Torn between two impossible scenarios Luke chooses suicide. He leaps from the scaffolding to what he thinks will be his death. Fate, however, intervenes. He lands on an antenna and reconnects with the one person he has left that has not betrayed him. Leia rescues him, pulls him from what could have been a dark-side precipice and restores the light within him.

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On the other hand, his father Anakin was not so fortunate. He too found himself torn between the old life that seemingly had betrayed him and the prospect of a new life he had been taught was evil. When Palpatine was revealed to be the Sith Lord, Anakin’s first instinct was to draw his lightsaber. That he did not strike illustrates the confusion felt by the young Jedi Knight. Haunted by dreams showing his wife’s demise, Anakin had become a man desperate to save his only love left. The Jedi, however, were not only unhelpful, they were opposed to assistance, having forbidden the relationship from existing in the first place. With every thought of Padme’s danger, the bitterness against the Jedi Order grew within Anakin. Palpatine on the other hand was a Sith Lord, and Anakin had been taught from youth that such ones were evil incarnate. Torn and conflicted, though slipping further and further toward the side of evil, Anakin turned to the one person he had left that had not betrayed him. When he saw her, however, he found Padme had–seemingly in his mind–been in league with Obi Wan (the Jedi Master of Anakin who embodied the stiffness and faulted uncompromising nature of all Jedi). In a flash of anger he lashed out at his beloved wife and severed the last hope in the galaxy to cool the rage within him. Anakin fell entirely to the darkside and would not be restored until his son managed to save him.

Powerful stories, right? Even if you aren’t a fan of Star Wars you can at least appreciate the drama on display: A man who feels his life slipping away chooses suicide only to be redeemed by a sister. Another story is of a man who feels his life slipping away and he chooses to embrace the darkness growing within him until he is ultimately redeemed by a son. Both stories follow–in part–the template illustrated by Campbell. Both “heroes journeys”  also bring the hero to the depths of despair before pulling them out (either soon after, or years later).

So again, what does this have to do with WWE?

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Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire is not a sport. It is a work of fantasy, told against the backdrop of a sport. In that sense it is no more a sport than E.R. was a medical documentary. The “sport” of wrestling is merely the outlet used to tell the stories of heroes and villains, betrayal and alliance, authority and rebellion. Like any good story, the WWF/E has had its share of heroes over the years. Pro wrestling, however, doesn’t tell its stories over the course of a couple seasons or a couple hours, it follows a soap-opera like narrative that never ends; it just keeps coming up with new twists and turns and introduces new characters to liven things up. Still, anyone who watches wrestling long enough can pick up on various storylines (called angles) that have a beginning and an ending point.

For example, who doesn’t remember the incredible story of the Macho Man Randy Savage, who won his first world championship at WrestleMania IV and spent most of his year-long reign standing side by side with Hulk Hogan (the previous and long-time champion). Jealousy, bitterness and insecurity drove the champion mad, however. He accused Hogan of having eyes for his beloved (and mistreated) Elizabeth. Savage attacked Hogan and–though the champion–challenged Hulk to a match at WrestleMania V, to prove he was the better man. Hogan vanquished him and reclaimed the belt. Savage and Elizabeth split and Macho Man became the deranged Macho King. For two years he shrugged off the boos of the crowd until he faced Ultimate Warrior in a retirement match. Savage lost the match and his career, but after being attacked by his valet, Sherri, he was saved by an unlikely person: Elizabeth. Savage and his estranged beloved reunited and were married that August. She had brought him back from the dark side and given him a happy ending.

It’s a great story, told against the back drop of the “sport” of pro wrestling. But it’s not a sport; it’s fantasy. It’s fondly remembered because the central character went on a journey; the audience went on it with him. When Savage peaked at WrestleMania IV we peaked with him. When he went villainous between WrestleMania V and VII we felt the dramatic pull of his character’s journey. When he was redeemed, we celebrated. It works because it follows an arc.

That’s just one example, but there are so many more to choose from. Hulk Hogan, the undisputed “hero” of the mid-80’s to early 90’s, went on the journey constantly. Though he always stood tall in the end, Hogan was made to look vulnerable in the days and weeks preceding his big showdowns.  Look at how many times Steve Austin–a different kind of hero, but a hero nonetheless–was thwarted by the evil Mr. McMahon. He lost the title to Kane a few months into his first title run; he lost the belt to Undertaker and Kane that fall and watched it be handed to The Rock on a silver platter. His journey took him to the lowest point when he came this close to winning the 1999 Royal Rumble, only to have it snatched away by Mr. McMahon. Fans went on that journey with him, with more lows than highs, and that made his victory at WrestleMania XV that much more enjoyable.

John Cena, on the other hand, has rarely ever taken such a journey.

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What is most frustrating is how many opportunities there have been to let us go on such a journey with him only for the writers of his story to abandon drama and jump straight to the victory. Most egregiously was the year 2012. After losing to the Rock at WrestleMania 28, John Cena “went on a journey” to get his mojo back, face Rock once more and this time defeat him. That’s the story they told us they were telling in the run up to WrestleMania 29, but that’s not at all what happened. That’s what they teased happening, but never followed through with it.

In reality, Cena conquered the returning Brock Lesnar, routinely embarrassed John Laurinaitis, won every feud he was engaged in (or lost on technicality) and entered the 2013 Royal Rumble as the odds-on favorite. He won, skipped right along the road to WrestleMania and defeated the Rock in a pedestrian match, the outcome of which was never in doubt. No drama, no suspense. No engagement by the fans and no desire to see the hero triumph. Contrast that with the journey of Daniel Bryan to the main event of WrestleMania 30 and tell me the problem lies with John Cena. It doesn’t; the problem lies with the stories he’s the center of.

It has been argued that the reason Cena is made to look so invincible is because his primary audience is children. They need a hero that always wins. And that’s fine. In fact the hero should always win. This isn’t about the victory, it’s about the journey to the victory. Don’t tell me kids can’t handle seeing a hero get knocked down. That’s ridiculous.  Even Superman himself shows more vulnerability than Cena. Think of the journey Superman takes over the course of Superman II: losing his powers, being humiliated, until finally he outsmarts (when he was unable to out-muscle) Zod and co. and regains his powers and strips them of theirs. That’s a great story. Kids love following such stories in comic books or on film. Why not let it play out with Cena?  Has John Cena ever taken a journey akin to Superman II? Austin has. Hogan has. Bret Hart has. Rock has. Cena has not. His setbacks are short and quickly forgotten. His enemies never deal any long term damage. His stature never diminishes.

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There’s no reason why John Cena has to be booed by 60% of the WWE audience. The only reason he is so, is because fans are tired of his stale character. Let him hit rock bottom, let him stay down, and fans will become invested in his climb back up. This feud with Bray Wyatt is a perfect illustration of what not to do with Cena. Had Cena lost at WrestleMania, and then again at Extreme Rules, fans would be looking to Payback as just that: The chance for Cena to get revenge on a legitimate threat and vanquish his powerful enemy.

Instead we approach the upcoming PPV with Cena 1-0 over Bray in the pinfall department. Bray won the cage match only after a child gave Cena the willies long enough to be sneak-attacked, and that occurred after Cena had the match won on about a half-dozen separate occasions only to have shenanigans stop him from technically claiming the victory. In other words, he’s shown no vulnerability and no one expects him to lose at Payback, and if he does no one expects him to lose in a legitimate way. And frankly, he shouldn’t lose. This is the natural conclusion to the story; there’s little left to do with this feud, therefore the hero should win. But because Cena is never allowed to take the hero’s journey, no one is anticipating the conclusion. We’re just hoping Bray Wyatt comes out of it with some legitimacy still in tact so he can move on to a better feud.

Cena meanwhile will move on to another feud, and the staleness will continue. And it will continue until he eventually retires. His legacy will forever be diminished compared to guys like Austin or Hogan and his place among the fans will forever be divisive. And that’s a shame, because Cena is a very good character and a very good in-ring storyteller. The stories he’s allowed to tell, however, are doing him a tremendous disservice.

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  • Manoj

    Nice article on clearly explaining why there is so much hate from fans for Cena

  • Johhny

    Having recently attended a Smackdown event, I can tell you Cena is still very popular. The place erupted whenever he was in the building and in eye shot. I agree with you that he needs more engaging storylines, but he is a real life superhero to kids and WWE is just lazily milking it.

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