The Wyatt Family And Gimmicks In The WWE: "Follow the Buzzards"
Last week's edition of Monday Night Raw got me thinking. I watched as The Wyatt Family, everyone's favourite backwoods-preacher-cult psychos, turned their terrifying attentions towards two of the WWE's top baby faces, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. I watched as Bray Wyatt, along with his disciples Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, brutalized Bryan and Punk, all the while claiming 'the devil made him do it'. I watched all this occur with a sense of escalating excitement and anticipation. I'm a big fan of the Bray Wyatt persona, as I think it's unnerving, frightening and ultimately unique in the modern climate of the WWE. The prospect of the Family getting to mix it up with arguably the WWE's best workers today made me smile.
However, in the very same episode of Raw, I watched with dismay as Kane unmasked himself again, handing his hallowed mask to Stephanie McMahon and basically telling her that he was now her demon to use as she saw fit. Now, I'm not blind to the mechanics of business. I know that Kane has been away the past couple of months filming the sequel to his horror film 'See No Evil'. In the movie, of course, Kane does not wear his wrestling mask and media convergence would seem to demand that when he appears on WWE TV nowadays he should be unmasked, so that people who have seen the movie can watch and say "Hey, that's the guy from the movie!" I am aware that this is how the cross-media world works today but that didn't make me any less disappointed because, for me, masked Kane has always been infinitely better than unmasked Kane. I'm sure that Glenn Jacobs is pleased to be mask-free again, as it must obstruct a large portion of his vision and make wrestling that much more awkward, but still, the mask just has that cool factor that the 12-year-old wrestling fan in me loves.
So, to get to the main thrust of my article, these developments involving The Wyatt Family and Kane got me thinking about the nature of gimmicks in wrestling and whether the modern audience still has the same love for them as fans of a bygone era have.
But what is a gimmick in wrestling? I would say it is when the defining aspect of a wrestler's persona is completely alien to the world of wrestling. For example, the aforementioned Bray Wyatt is a hillbilly preacher, who seems to operate some sort of almost religious cult and has a number of zealots who follow and worship him. Yet he also finds time to wrestle in the WWE. Kane is 'the devil's favourite demon', an almost supernatural being who can control fire with a mere thrust of his arms and initially wore a mask to cover up the horrific scarring on his face, the result of a fire when he was a child. Yet he also finds time to wrestle, presumably between committing acts of unspeakable horror to those unlucky souls that cross his path outside of the WWE.
Already, I'm sure you can see that a wrestling gimmick can be a pretty silly thing. Why would these terrifying men, who should be incarcerated or at least in the nearest Asylum for the Criminally Insane, also be wrestlers who have time to compete on a nightly basis against the less outlandish members of the roster? It's true that, over the years, there have probably been more bad wrestling gimmicks than good ones. For every awesome rampaging Samoan beast like Umaga, there is a lame, tattooed non-Asian samurai like Lord Tensai. For every scary, black arts wielding Ministry Of Darkness, step forth a troop of male cheerleaders like The Spirit Squad.
I believe that even a good wrestling gimmick, when you boil it down and think about it, is pretty stupid. Why would the WWE have these men as contracted members of their roster? Over the years, Kane has even set a number of WWE employees on fire! Human Resources would have a field day with this guy. And yet, if the gimmick is married to a talented performer or group, it can transcend its silliness and become a fantastic part of the variety show that is a WWE event. In fact, sometimes the silliness can be embraced, and the audience can't help warming to the performer (this happened earlier on this year with Fandango, the apparently world renowned ballroom dancer who for some unexplained reason was also a wrestler). Gimmicks, when played just right, are entertaining and just downright cool. They appeal to the child in all of us, but also to the theatrical side of us, the side that loves horror movie villains and watching good be threatened by seemingly unstoppable evil.
One thing that is definitely true about a good gimmick is that it has a shelf life. Wrestlers don't tend to have the same one for their whole careers, as they always run the risk of becoming old hat to the audience. This is why most of the top guys over the years operated with characters that could be seen as massively dialled-up versions of their own personalities. Hulk Hogan and John Cena are the good guys, the men who convince kids to stay in school and eat their vegetables, but are more than willing to stand up for what they believe in. Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage and The Rock are the cocky guys who know just how damn good they are and play it up at every opportunity. Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Randy Orton are the fiercely determined guys who will get what they want, no matter who they have to step on along their way to the top.
There are very, very few performers that have kept largely the same gimmick for their whole careers. The Undertaker is one of these. Indisputably the best gimmick that the wrestling business has ever produced, Undertaker is a remarkable mix of a great look, a spooky backstory and an extremely talented performer who was able to make a potentially goofy persona great. I believe the key to his longevity lies in adaptability, as he has managed to take the character through many different phases over the years (including the ill-advised American Badass stage), but always kept the core things that the WWE Universe loved. Kane is a similar case, although I'd argue that his character has proven even more adaptable. When he was first introduced, the idea of playing Kane for laughs would have been inconceivable and yet the WWE has generated a lot of comedic mileage with The Big Red Monster, not least his hilarious odd couple tag team with Daniel Bryan from last year.
To me, a good gimmick is an important part of any wrestling show. After the heyday of the 1980's and early 1990's, where many ended up being glorified cartoon characters, the WWE noticeably moved away from the concept. Since then they have been pretty few and far between, especially given the amount of performers who have passed through the WWE in that time. It did seem that the audience wanted a bit more realism in their wrestling for many years, and if not realism, at least something edgy.
I feel that there is room today for a good gimmick to recapture the imagination of the fans. It brings a level of pageantry to the product that I've missed. I'm not saying that the WWE should start doling out gimmicks to every youngster on the roster, as that would be too much. But I believe a few more wouldn't hurt. It pleases me that there is a tag-team like The Ascension in NXT, two vampires who just happen to also compete in the squared circle.
The success of The Wyatt Family will be critical in the WWE's embracing of the gimmick in the future. If the current feud with Punk and Bryan goes over well with the crowds, the profile of The Wyatt's should sky-rocket and they can further peel back the onion with regards to Bray and his extended cult, his bizarre obsession with 'Sister Abigail' and the identity of the 'devil' who is commanding him to commit his heinous acts. Equally, the WWE Universe could shrug with indifference, sure in the knowledge that the gimmick is an outdated concept that should've died long ago with the likes of Kamala and Papa Shango. This would mean a one-way ticket back to the drawing board for The Wyatt's, and I feel that would be a sad end for a group with all the potential in the world.
What do you think? Any views and comments welcome, feel free to post below.
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