There’s not much precedent for this sort of cinematic match, so I’m hesitant to say what should or should not be. But the Firefly Fun House Match that John Cena and Bray Wyatt put on at Wrestlemania 36 establishes some sort of upper limit on what the WWE audience is willing to swallow. It was chaotic (which was the point), but it was also incoherent (which was probably not the point). The multiple cutaways and bizarre interludes did not service the story these two men were attempting to tell.
What made Undertaker and AJ Styles’ Boneyard Match so good is that it told a clear, linear story that took place in a real-world setting. Granted, there was some hocus pocus in it: The Undertaker teleported from one location to another, and he conjured fire on several occasions. But we weren’t given any new information to process; the Undertaker did not unveil previously unseen superpowers. And as bonkers as it was, there was some cursory grounding in reality; they were, after all, fighting in a physical, identifiable location.
Cinematic wrestling segments don’t need to be realistic. But they do need to adhere to their own narrative logic. And the Wyatt vs. Cena match did not do that.
Case in point: it is possible (though not probable) that two men could meet in a graveyard to brawl, and a camera crew could be there to capture it. It is not possible that John Cena would have hallucinations about past moments in his career, and that a camera crew could exist inside his head to record them. You can tell a story about insane happenings in a real place. But it might be impossible, in the context of a wrestling match, to tell a dream logic story that takes place in someone’s mind.
But even if we accept that the hallucinations are somehow projected into the real world, Cena does not react to them consistently. It’s a referendum on control, and Cena’s career-long desire to be everything to everybody. But the entire time, I was thinking about what a good sport Cena was to participate in these sketches, rather than seeing him as a victim in them. And then the multiple Bray Wyatts–one delivering the Mandible Claw, another counting the pin, another trash talking–push things too far into absurdity. The audience starts thinking about the logistics of a bit, rather than the story being told. And at that point, the emotional connection is gone.
Yes, everyone knows it’s scripted. But the appeal of professional wrestling is in watching people commit, wholeheartedly, to making it appear real. A good wrestling match (even a cinematic one) should make us suspend our disbelief. And in this match, there were too many logical leaps to make that happen. To me–and this may be a minority opinion–it wasn’t a good match and it wasn’t good cinema. Even camp needs some rudimentary grounding.
Maybe this feud deserved a longer build in the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania, in which Cena slowly unraveled due to frequent hallucinations. Maybe other people could experience hallucinations too, to establish that these are projected into the real world. Maybe if we saw a variety of reactions out of Cena in the preceding weeks, then this match would have felt more consistent. Certainly the current, global situation did not make narrative development easy or organic. But we can only judge the end result, and this match tried to do too much in too short a time. The Undertaker vs. Styles match, on the other hand, relied on three decades of backstory to give it weight and context.
The good news is that this match suffered from overambition, rather than lack of it. There’s definitely a place and future for cinematic matches in WWE. But in my opinion, this match, at this particular time and place, isn’t it.