WWE Is Talking About A "New Era," And Actually Backing It Up
Pro wrestling loves to tell its own story and always has. That's what WWE's current "new era" talk is about. More importantly: the new era is pretty great so far.
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WWE is dedicated to cataloging its own history, and does it in a characteristically weird and grandiose way. With a bit of help from pro wrestling obsessives, the promotion neatly places different parts of its history into "eras." There was the Hulkamania Era, when Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage ruled pro wrestling in the Northeast. This was followed by the New Generation, a reaction to McMahon's steroid trial and subsequent departure of some central 1980's stars for Ted Turner's WCW. The Attitude Era, when things blew up around Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, featured a lot of dick-talk, but also announced WWE as both victor of pro wrestling's primordial War Between The Territories and the owner of the entire medium's legacy.
This fixation on dividing its vast history into comprehensible chunks permeates pro wrestling, and is shared by both its creators and its fans. It resembles nothing so much as comic book history, and for good reason: WWE is like Marvel and DC in that it must constantly, forcefully rebrand itself without ever breaking with its past. This is endlessly repeatable, but a significant portion of pro wrestling's appeal lies in its inability to escape its history—that the storyline never ends, just as comic books and their characters move through a Golden Age to a Silver and beyond, over and over.
WWE has moved into a new era after Wrestlemania 32, and it very much wants you to know it. The words "New Era" were intoned on the most recent Raw with the seriousness and repetition of a mantra. This is the New Era. I am the king of the New Era. Hey, did you know this is the New Era? What's that era again, I forgot? This is history as branding, a self-conscious, ultimately corporate exercise to let you, the viewer, know that while this is WWE, it's also New and Different.
Wrestlemania 32 was a creative disaster, for the most part. The matches were dull, a record crowd grew restive at witnessing the inevitable coronation of Roman Reigns, and ticket processing problems were bad enough that a real threat to people's health was in the offing. Stranger still, every match's stakes were almost immediately nullified the next night on Raw. Except Roman Reigns, of course. He got to keep his title.
There was nothing about Wrestlemania 32 which gave any cause for hope, other than the (important) de-escalation of looks over wrestling chops in the Women's nee Divas' Division. Overall, the show seemed to reveal a deep desire for complete control, over both the matches and crowd reactions. No one really liked any of this, but none of the people putting on the show seemed to care about that.
Instead, inexplicably, wonderfully, the opposite has happened. The New Era really does seem new and fresh, not just New And Fresh™. Raw has become, if not quite appointment viewing, at least a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Monday evening. The pay-per-view after Wrestlemania, Payback, was both well-booked and well-wrestled. WWE wrestling is suddenly quite fun and rather shockingly good. This happened out of the blue, accompanied by forceful, repeated declarations that things are different now. The strange part is that things actually are.
At the core of this shift is the mass call-up of NXT wrestlers to the main roster. Those men and women aren't the first to be brought up, of course; the ex-members of The Shield are all former WWE developmental mainstays and all dominate the major storylines. What feels different is the emphasis that those call-ups have received. Sami Zayn, a guy who has star babyface written all over him, is at the center of two hot, overlapping feuds: one with his lifelong best friend, Kevin Owens, and the other a four way scramble for the Intercontinental title. Kalisto has been the United States champion for months, working a throwback Rey Mysterio-style undersized, masked face gimmick. Emma is back as her slightly tongue in cheek, slightly legitimately scary Evil Emma guise. Baron Corbin—subject of the most underrated tweet of 2016—is lurking in the midcard like a menacing Renegade villain, and is inexplicably better than he ever was in NXT. The New Day have been given license to do more or less whatever the hell they want, and the results have been amazing. Enzo Amore and Big Cass arrived to immediate, thunderous ovations, and WWE swiftly threw them into the middle of the tag team scene before Enzo's scary looking concussion.
Even Roman Reigns is more palatable due to his main event feud with AJ Styles, which looks set to continue into the summer. He's dropped the goofy food references and nursery rhymes in favor of just looking big and dangerous, and nobody's sure if he's meant to be a face or heel anymore. He and Styles are both working vaguely babyface angles, but it doesn't matter; the two have a chemistry which has so far transcended Reigns' in-ring and on-camera limitations. They click and, even with Reigns still overcoming all the odds like a latter day John Cena, it's been pretty great to watch.
This shift in emphasis has been accompanied by the notable absence of some of the company's mainstays of the past 16 years. Big Show and Kane have been conspicuously invisible of late, perhaps an indication that WWE sees more value in letting the young and the new—and the not quite 39-year-old AJ Styles proves the two are not synonymous—duke it out for supremacy rather than leaning too hard on the veterans for storyline heft.
WWE can still screw this up. The aforementioned Cena is due to return at the end of the month, and with him will come the threat that he returns to main event dominance; the rumors that Wrestlemania's original main event was supposed to be Reigns versus Cena lends some credence to that fear. Randy Orton is still rehabbing his shoulder in a hospital somewhere, and could return to main event emphasis. Chris Jericho's current run could quickly turn from probable farewell tour into something less promising.
As it is, this is currently the best WWE's been since Daniel Bryan was chasing the title ahead of Wrestlemania 30, and the overall show hasn't been this good in even longer. It feels finite, as though all this is so good despite WWE rather than because of them—even though all that repetition of the words "New Age" would seem to suggest the opposite. But, for now, it's something to savor; for next week it's something to anticipate. That will change, but for now we actually are living in a new age of WWE wrestling. Just because they keep saying it doesn't make it any less true, or any less exciting.