Top-Down Smackdown: Punk’s Not Dead?
I must say, WWE showed excellent ironic timing in releasing the above two resin collectibles last week. I don’t know whether or not one should read anything into the fact that the two superstars selected for zombification are the two characters who – in the storylines, at least – are the most critical of the company’s product.
As I’ve said before, my intent with this column is primarily to take the product as Vince McMahon seems to want audiences to take it – a scripted, episodic TV show – and analyze it as such, trying not to go into too much wild speculation about what happens backstage. But sometimes the behind-the-scenes stuff goes mainstream, as with CM Punk’s reported walkout, which was even discussed on The Arsenio Hall Show, with guest Steve Austin.
Assuming it’s all for real, Punk’s contract apparently ends this summer, but he walked out early, for reasons purely speculated as being to do with his not getting the main event at WrestleMania. If this is all, in fact, a storyline, it’s a well-executed one. If it is a real difference that can be resolved, it will be played off as if it were a well-executed storyline.
Let us assume for the moment, however, that it is real, and that Punk has a legitimate grievance in the company continually choosing to put semi-retired crossover stars like the Rock, Brock Lesnar and Batista in the big main events (Batista is apparently back full-time, at least for two years, or the next Guardians of the Galaxy sequel; Lesnar merely pretends to be, with all sorts of storyline convolutions to explain why he doesn’t wrestle more often). The big question is this: was Punk right to walk out in protest?
If we were to take WWE as just a television program, look at it this way: what if Norman Reedus decided he was tired of Andrew Lincoln being the top-billed lead on The Walking Dead, and walked off the set? He’d have every right to feel that way: Daryl Dixon is a more popular character than Rick Grimes, and he moves more merchandise. But Reedus doesn’t get to make that call – the writers do.
To pick something that actually did happen – take the story of Nichelle Nichols almost leaving Star Trek because her character was overshadowed, until Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her that it was important to see black women in a sci-fi program. Sometimes being top-billed isn’t the only way to be a success. In neither her case nor the hypothetical Reedus one above would the actors be considered professional – they’d be breaking contract and leaving the show in a lurch.
But WWE is not like every other show. For one thing, the actors beat each other up, every week. For another, the storyline is highly subject to change at all times, theoretically based on which performers get the best reactions. Yes, you know going in that Vince McMahon is a tough “showrunner,” and the “star” of the “series” is John Cena. But you are also told that in theory, that could change – do your best, and you could be the new star.
As such, then, it’s no surprise when the lines of fiction and reality merge, often with adverse consequences for the company. When wrestlers start to believe they are their characters, and they cannot follow the script because their character would not do that, you get incidents like the Montreal Screwjob, wherein Bret Hart flat-out expressed that losing to Shawn Michaels in Canada was the equivalent of “murdering” his in-ring persona (it wasn’t, of course – he’s still the Hitman in every fan’s eyes), or Bill Goldberg coming to WWE and refusing to lose matches to certain people (it’s not unlike George Takei still bitching about never having gotten a Captain Sulu TV show). Steve Austin had a point when he walked out on a match with Brock Lesnar because he thought it ought to be saved for a pay-per-view…but was it the right way to handle that? And is it your business as a performer to worry about that, or just do the very best job you can? William Regal occasionally Tweets out advice for aspiring stars, and one part of it is always that you should practice as if you were given the most embarrassing gimmick you can think of, and then nothing can be worse and you’re prepared.
Or, to put it another way: if a 90 year-old pioneer like Mae Young is willing to be the butt of fart jokes and crazed libido sketches, what makes you, CM Punk, so much better than her?
To be clear: I like watching CM Punk. I would prefer him on my screens every week to John Cena 1000%. I don’t care much for Batista, but at least they gave him a storyline reason to be in the main event (winning the Rumble), versus the time Sting left WCW for a whole year and his first match back was a title shot.
But at the time of his leaving, Punk was feuding with the Shield, Kane, and presumably Triple H at the end of it. True, a match with Triple H isn’t a title match, but it’s your egomaniacal boss who wants his match to steal the show – anyone with Punk’s talents would come out of that looking good. Last year, Punk stole the show with the Undertaker – a semi-retired guy he didn’t complain about, incidentally, as far as I know – and at Summerslam, he and Brock stole the show. I get that he wants the belt, but Triple H and Punk is an actual match I’d rather see than Punk versus Randy Orton. Orton-Batista has enough storyline history to be more novel, and Batista-Brock may be years too late, but it’s still a dream match from the end of the Attitude Era.
It seems to me Punk was coming back around to the main event in short enough order. Which is yet another reason why I think his walkout was a mistake, and one I hope he walks back.
As always, RAW talk-back is welcome in the comments below.