ORLANDO—The giant printed faces of Roman Reigns and the Undertaker peered out, in their best attempt at cinema, high on the exterior of the Citrus Bowl. Below, throngs of wrestling humanity crawled toward the entrances. The majority were dressed in officially licensed merchandise or in full-blown costume. They bottle-necked through rigorous security checkpoints, first, over a swathe of Florida earth worn to sand, then one-by-one through electronic ticket scanners. Gradually the people filled the stadium up to the brim of its high terraces.
Almost every WrestleMania has taken place in America. This year it was in Orlando. The old, renovated super building is dropped in the middle of residential poverty. Houses surround the stadium that are basementless and made of concrete, ready for hurricanes. You need not walk far from the grounds' pedantic security perimeter nor deep into the neighborhood before being met by a cast of diverse locals, soliciting a variety of crude goods and services.
Within the stadium block though, all day a black helicopter chopped overhead, probably recording amazing views of the so-called thrill ride.
Before the show can begin, war planes must soar in and rip apart the world with sound as the patriotic song finishes its final throes, and fireworks launch from stadium peaks and waterborne from a vessel on the lake across the street.
As WrestleMania 33 came to a close, a young boy not old enough to remember even the latter stretch of the great WrestleMania winning streak watched this old man, drown in deep blue light, lay down his robe and hat.
"Who is that guy?" the boy asked, not knowing what the big deal was. Some adults scrambled to synopsize the career of the Undertaker.
Disappointment showed on Reigns' face following his supposed triumph over the Undertaker who gave the most monumentally sad performance I've seen in a wrestling ring. Undertaker's performance in the Royal Rumble this year was a hint of what was to come as he staggered around and threw weak clotheslines. Against Reigns, he was more competent for the first several minutes of the match.
The failed Tombstone reversal, though, as Reigns tried to lift up a 50-year-old man who was in no shape to cooperate, was the turning point of the match. It became clear Undertaker entering the ring for a serious match in 2017, much less the main event of WrestleMania, was prone to unravel. Undertaker is as respected a veteran as there's ever been in wrestling and yet there he was physically unable to provide basics like feeding correctly for Reigns' offense late in the match. His ring placement was off, his offense was disheveled. To make matters more preposterous he repeatedly kicked out of Reigns' finisher, the Spear, when he could convince his body to be in the right spot to take it.
This was too much to maintain anymore suspension of disbelief, as if 50-year-old men going into competitive matches against opponents in their 30s in each of the top two matches at WrestleMania wasn't too much already. (Indeed cameras made sure not to catch the elder Bill Goldberg throwing up between suplexes from Brock Lesnar.)
Reigns post-match body language was not that of someone who just ascended to the throne of undisputed owner of the WWE "yard", as the simple and shallow story setup, nor that of the anointed top dog who's now main evented the three biggest live gates in company history. Instead he expressed disappointment, self-doubt, trauma, in response to the abysmal main event of WrestleMania.
Even as WWE is creatively dysfunctional and the repeated victim of its own conceit, the apparent key to its unstoppable business success is being the long-time major league brand of pro wrestling, and having a very efficient machine that knows how to monetize that status. That WWE has been booked neurotically and counterproductively, that its events give off an aura of inhuman plasticity, and yet the company is still very profitable, is a testament to how valuable it is to be unquestionably the most important promotion in the world.
WWE succeeds despite itself. And WWE's often-dissatisfied customers continue to feed the giant, despite themselves. So we continue to share this massive experience every year.
Each year we take contradictory understandings of it. And it's not just our aesthetic and perhaps irreducibly subjective assessments of whether or not we enjoyed the show according to personal taste that contradict; there are real contradictions about just what happened. So-and-so was buried; so-and-so was elevated; they were not. The billion-dollar company tells us one attendance; other sources tell us another; the actual paid attendance is secured -- and only implied -- in inaccessible depths of public but unbearably boring financial documents.
WWE, though, like politics, originally having a sincere function, now serves as our scapegoat to exonerate ourselves against, as well as it is our means of sustenance. We take opportunity to lambaste the powerful, highly-paid and incompetent while we are simultaneously tied to having to know how it all plays out. We were long ago sewn into a fabric we are irreversibly a part.
This was the third year in the ambiguous adventures of Roman Reigns, directed by pro wrestling's first and only billionaire booker who desperately wants his vocal audience to see what he sees in Reigns as he views the "Big Dog" through a distorted moral lens.
And maybe that distorted morality is just what makes WWE both so stable and so frustrating to follow. Vince McMahon's moral corruption is what's allowed him to be so ruthless and dominant with his business. A decent moral compass would only get in the way of that. That errant sense of morality too is what causes his creative works to be unrelatable moral failures. And this is a recipe that produces a wrestling promotion that is both creative nonsense and indefinitely economically sustainable.
Reigns' predecessor John Cena gave an extremely decisive and coherent promo on Talking Smack two weeks ago. It was Cena at his most Cena: well-spoken and strongly determined and as far away as possible from questioning whether his stead is moral.
"I'm an easy target, and I've been taking it on the chin for a decade, and I'm still here moving forward, because that's what I do. The words 'rise above hate' are what you [Miz] would call a 'catchphrase'. That doesn't exist with me. Everything you see me wearing means something to me, and it means something to those who identify with me."
His enviable passion and confidence enable us, and perhaps Cena himself, never to have to think about whether it's good to dedicate oneself so fully to a brand that misclassifies its workers so it can avoid making tax contributions and providing healthcare benefits, and whose patriarch donated millions of dollars to the endeavors of the then-candidate for U.S. president before his wife was appointed to that now-president's cabinet.
But who should dare cast doubt on a company that grants wishes for sick kids, promotes cancer research and "puts smiles on people's faces", by day? Even if it exploits workers' rights, fosters a bullying internal culture and all but buys political appointments, by night.
Indeed in a world where facts can always be repurposed to fuel a delusion, it's better -- or at least easier -- to dismiss moral reflection and accept any hard work as a good in itself.
That is the moral foundation for WWE: the brand, to work for the sustainability and fortification of a corporate-owned and publicly-traded cultural artifact that is already insurmountably stable and cannot even plausibly be competed with. The lesson of John Cena tells us not to question the powerful forces of the world, not to inquire and think critically, but rather to be an incredibly effective and eloquent soldier. For if we are passionate and confident enough, we will be admired and our triumphs will be too great for our moral transgressions to be noticed. In that way John Cena is the embodiment of popular success in American life. Have witty verbal comebacks, be a company man; decency and the truth can come second.