Tuesday, December 8, 2015

WWE's "Roman Empire" Is In Trouble

This was originally published in Sept. 2014.  Sadly everything I said back then is still an issue, and Roman Reigns isn't much closer to being mega-over than he was then.  If anything his fan support may be even less enthusiastic.....

As was clearly evident on this week's RAW, the Roman Empire is in trouble.  Roman Reigns, WWE's handpicked heir-apparent to John Cena as the face of the company, is not at all clicking with the audience the way he needs to.

Here is the goal - but can WWE do
what it takes to make it work?

As part of The Shield, Reigns was hugely over (as were his two partners) as the quiet, cool enforcer of the group who would stage a late-match power attack that left opponents lying in a heap.  Reigns was perfectly suited for that role and had clearly defined territory within the faction.  But as a post-Shield singles star, Reigns hasn't evolved at all and his act feels like a late 80s midcard babyface persona, not the next "it guy."

Since the breakup of The Shield, both Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose have been made over, given new music, and now enter the arena via the ramp as opposed to the through-the-crowd entrance.  This has freshened up their characters and helped give them distinct personae that are natural extensions of who they were in the group.  The company went against expectations three months ago by having the high-flying Rollins turn heel instead of the sadistic loose cannon Ambrose.  At the time I had my doubts whether that direction would work, but to the credit of both performers they've been fantastic in their new roles.  Ambrose has been absolutely captivating as the unpredictable, revenge-obsessed babyface, and the fans have universally embraced him as a new anti-hero.  Rollins has done a fantastic job of playing the elitist opportunistic sellout, who took all the credit for The Shield's past successes and has no problem taking shortcuts to greatness.

Reigns however is still just The Muscle Guy From The Shield, without The Shield.  He still uses their music, enters through the crowd (which would really be more fitting for Ambrose), and wears the Shield riot gear.  As a team it looked cool for them to all wear such unconventional ring attire, but as a solo act Reigns just looks like a midcard gimmick wrestler.  Plus, given Reigns' imposing, muscular build (ya know, the main reason WWE wants to push guys like him?) why would you keep that covered up with slimming black ring gear?  He's billed at 265 but I have a hard time believing he's that big.  Then again the company hasn't dressed him to accentuate his physique.

Another major issue is his moveset.  Reigns has two unique, crowd-pleasing moves that consistently get a pop - the apron dropkick and the Superman punch.  Both of these are fine signature moves.  However Reigns desperately needs a new finisher.  The spear is one of the most overused moves in the business and it's not doing him any favors.  Goldberg, Rhino, Edge, Batista, Triple H, Big Show, Bobby Lashley, and Monty Brown (remember him?) have all used some variation of the spear, and in some cases it's been their finishing move or at least a setup move.  The spear has replaced the spinebuster as "generic power maneuver," and if your goal is to make Roman Reigns stand out from the pack, he needs several moves that no one else does.  He's already got two, but his finisher needs to be unique or he'll just continue to look like a nondescript power wrestler.

These gripes are all secondary to the main problem though.  The real issue here is Reigns' onscreen character.  He hasn't grown as an individual.  His promos are essentially the same as before, except he no longer gets to be the soft-spoken-but-intimidating one-liner dude.  Now he's just soft-spoken-and-slightly-awkward, without Ambrose and Rollins to carry the bulk of the promo.  We haven't been given a reason to care about him as a person - Christ, after Rollins betrayed Reigns and Ambrose, Reigns was angry for all of one week and then moved onto the WWE Title hunt.  If Reigns isn't upset about his best friend turning on him, why should we be?  This is probably why Ambrose is so massively over right now - he seemed legitimately hurt and irate at Rollins treachery, so the audience was hurt and irate too.

This has long been a trend in WWE - the babyface who's too cool to show vulnerability.  I generally trace it back to The Rock, who was the prototypical "cool heel" and got so over he became a good guy.  But his character didn't really change and he was usually too sarcastic and aloof to ever let the heel get under his skin.  This dynamic should have been box office poison, but since A) it was the Attitude era and B) it was The fucking Rock, it worked brilliantly.  But over the years that approach was repeated ad nauseum, and other guys like John Cena, Batista, Sheamus, and now Reigns have all adopted it in some form or another.  And overall it really doesn't work.  Cena has typically acted so "above it all" in most of his feuds over the past decade, that there's nothing at stake and no vulnerable hero to root for.  I contend this is much of the reason the adult male fans have booed Cena since 2005.  When the hero doesn't seem bothered by anything the villain does, where's the conflict?  Look at the difference between Cena's usual "Sure ya beat me for the belt but I'll just win it back and we all know it, poopface" promos, and the one he cut with Paul Heyman last week, outlining how impassioned he is about being the face of the company and being the hero to so many kids.  It was night and day.  I love the John Cena character we saw last week.  Can't stand his 2009 counterpart.

Had Hulk Hogan been too cool to ever be bothered, there's no way he would've been so successful.  But when his allies turned on him over the years, Hogan acted legitimately devastated, and therefore so were we. 

Roman Reigns needs some kind of passionate thread added to his character if the company wants us to feel connected to him.  Right now he is a taciturn power broker with a few cool-looking moves who never seems emotionally affected by anything that happens to him.  The "strong silent type" routine will only take a top guy so far before it gets old (Undertaker excepted).  If Randy Orton and Seth Rollins brutally attacking Reigns on RAW hasn't enraged him to the point of a desperate quest for vindication, what could possibly make Reigns expose his humanity?

Look, WWE.  It's not too late for Roman Reigns to fulfill his intended destiny as the next face of the company.  But it's not going to happen in his current form.  The fans are already starting to reject his imminent mega-push (last night during his match with Rollins he was already getting some boos - that's very bad), and the prolonged absences of Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose has left two very large holes in the show.  We should all be galvanized by this new monster babyface climbing the ranks and beginning to position himself as the next top guy.  But if that guy has no clear character traits, outdated ring gear, and a stale-as-hell finishing move, there's not much to be excited about.

Plans B and C for next year's WrestleMania - Brock Lesnar dropping the belt to either Dean Ambrose or Daniel Bryan - would both be fine with me (believe me, I'd much rather see one of those eventualities than the one WWE has planned).  But from a business standpoint Roman Reigns is seemingly the most suitable one to take up Cena's mantle.  Marketing-wise it's perfect - The Rise of the Roman Empire.  It would be the defining phrase of an era.  The Rock n' Wrestling Connection, The New WWF Generation, The Attitude Era, The PG Era......The Roman Empire.  Fits beautifully, doesn't it?  Too bad the guy all this hinges on doesn't seem to be up to it.  Figure it out WWE!

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