On the 15th of December, 1997, Vince McMahon gave his now famous “Cure for the common show” speech during an episode of Raw is War. In it, he claimed that fans were “tired of the same old simplistic theory of good guys vs bad guys.” Fans were ready for something different, something more contemporary. The Attitude Era, as it would come to be known, was officially embraced by the company.
“As the times have changed, so have we,” claimed McMahon. While the WWF had become known for being at least a couple of years behind the zeitgeist, it was true to say that their programming was once again more focused on pop culture trends. A large part of this was a shift from black and white storyline development (those good guys vs bad guys) to shades of grey. Steve Austin was an unprecedentedly popular performer, yet he swore, drank beer and attacked anything that moved. A far cry from saying your prayers, drinking your milk and taking your vitamins.
The WWF pushed so far in this direction that they not only jumped the shark, they put it through a flaming table and stunnered its wife. Seemingly every member of the roster had to have their own character quirks that made it hard to pin down their allegiances. See that fun loving babyface in the nice hat that everyone cheers for? He’s a pimp who advocates recreational drug use. It was a crazy time.
The problem with all this ambiguity, of course, is that it can be harder for fans to invest in wrestlers and storylines without a clear hero to cheer for or villain to boo. There are obvious standout exceptions, including the aforementioned Steve Austin, The Rock and Mick Foley, whose natural charisma broke them through the grey tones to create their own colourful legacies. For the most part, though, if everybody is somewhere in the middle doing their own crazy shtick, how do you break through the noise? If a pornstar wrestles a cult member, how do you know who to root for?
In 2020, it’s fair to say that mainstream wrestling has dialled back considerably from the excessive late nineties. While there are still just as many larger than life characters, the direction of their moral compass is easier to define. There have been, however, some recent high profile examples of wrestlers blurring those lines in compelling ways. None have been more engrossing than Randy Orton.
On last Monday’s episode of Monday Night RAW, Randy Orton gave an RKO to the wife of his former best friend. In the weeks previous, he attempted to end the career of Matt Hardy. Further back than that, he sent the recently returned Edge to the hospital and he hasn’t been seen since. He’s arguably the biggest bad guy currently on WWE television, if not in the entire industry. Yet the portrayal of his character, the mental anguish displayed by Orton at his own actions and the justifications he has provided make him much more than a one dimensional villain.
The things Orton has done over the last two months have been reprehensible. There’s no denying that he is the “bad guy” in this story. The only person who doesn’t feel that way is Randy himself. He doesn’t just feel justified in his actions, he feels vindicated. He hurt Edge because he loves Edge. He finished Edge because he wanted to save Edge. It’s a modern take on those shades of grey from the nineties, with a clear juxtaposition between Randy Orton’s actions and his moral leanings. Orton referencing his own demons again shows us the complexity of this character. By showing his own weaknesses, he invites sympathy, no matter how unwarranted it is.
There’s a very circular feel to this current incarnation of Randy Orton. As a young blue chipper, he made his name as The Legend Killer, taking out the likes of Mick Foley and spitting in the face of Harley Race. He did this, not because of any complex mental anguish, but because he could. He was young, cocky and hungry to succeed. Then, over time, Orton became a legend in his own right, the vanguard of the generations that followed. Now, his own place in the industry is undeniable, Orton comes full circle, intent on finishing the careers of his peers who dared to dream for too long.
WWE didn’t need to add these wrinkles to the storyline, as soon as Orton put his hands on his former best friend Edge, the fans were sold on the idea of a WrestleMania match between the two.
In an era where Fiends point at signs and Big Dogs shout at old men to set up their big WrestleMania programmes, it certainly wouldn’t have felt out of place. So let’s appreciate that WWE and Orton are telling a very simple story in a complex, meaningful way. After last Monday’s RKO to Beth Phoenix, the reappearance of Edge cannot be far away.
When these two men meet again, the atmosphere will be electric. Their encounter has been elevated from dream match curiosity to emotional blood feud in a way not many would have predicted when rumours of the bout first surfaced. WWE didn’t need to add these wrinkles to the storyline, but we’re very glad that they did.
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