Thursday, January 26, 2012

Smarkass Comments: Randy Orton: Evolution of a Predator

In December, I got Randy Orton: Evolution of a Predator and I'm amazed at how little mention I've seen of it online. It was one of the more DVD releases from the WWE in a while. Obviously, a Randy Orton DVD set isn't surprising: he's basically the #2 face in the company behind John Cena. You could maybe argue that CM Punk is #2 now, but I don't think so. Orton is at the point where's just over in a big way no matter what. That he hasn't had a DVD set yet is a surprise, honestly -- not as surprising as the set itself. It features a documentary on the first disc and two discs of matches, which is the WWE's most common way to structure these sets. The surprising thing is the content.

The main documentary feature presents two stories basically: the first is Orton's journey from Elimination Chamber 2011 to WrestleMania XXVII, while the second is the usual biography. The first part is interesting, walking the lines between the reality of working as a wrestler for the WWE and limiting the exposure to the scripted element of the company's product. We see Orton backstage before events, but never see any discussions of match construction, who's going over, or run-throughs (as I've heard are had for group matches like the Elimination Chambers). They keep that stuff off screen, instead presenting Orton like a 'real' competitor. They also show some of the media stuff he does and charity work, a few bits at home, stuff like that. One of my favourite moments in this portion of the documentary (it skips back and forth between this and the bio) is Orton discussing how difficult he finds media appearances and how much he's worked at it. Wrestling is stage performance, working for the live audience, and that means being over-the-top. Orton is fairly restrained usually, but still.

The bio feature is where I was surprised. The story is basically 'Randy Orton used to be an asshole and now he's not.' Showing wrestlers in a negative light isn't something new to WWE DVDs. How can it be with the antics of Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, the Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan, and so many other wrestlers from the past? There's a big difference between showing the negative side of 'legends' and your #2 guy, though. Orton's attitude problems aren't news to the online smarks, but to the average viewer? To kids? You have Orton and pretty much everyone else they interview call Randy Orton a complete asshole up until a couple of years ago. You have John Cena saying that he hated Orton and that he was only kept around because he was good in the ring. The closest thing to someone saying something positive about Orton outside of the ring then is Triple H saying that Orton never acted that way around him because he knew that Trips would have had his head. A combination of talent and coming from a wrestling family kept Orton employed despite every story or quote telling us what a nightmare he was backstage.

One part of Orton's life that I'm very surprised they kept on the DVD is his time in the military. He joined the marines in 1998 and hated it. He hated the dehumanising culture of the military, but figured that, after basic training, things would get better. When they didn't, he went AWOL, figuring they'd come after him and throw him out. They didn't, so he returned, was told they didn't want to kick him out, and did everything he could to get out until they court martialled him and he served some time in military prison. Considering the WWE's close relationship with the US military, that they put this part of his life on the DVD is shocking. It paints the military as a place of bullying, a place where a guy like Orton was miserable because of the treatment he received. Obviously, you could make arguments that place the blame on Orton or that things have changed; except no one even comes close to that.

Basically, the honesty of the feature is surprising. They bury 80% of the time Orton was in the company, trash the military, and it makes for good viewing. It made me realise that Orton's career path is very much like Shawn Michaels's in compressed form: he came in, got a big ego, was a nightmare to work with, and, then, settled down a little with his family, realised his spot is secure, and focused more on delivering great matches. Some people have talked about how good Orton was in 2011, how he seemed more focused on in-ring performance than anything else, and I think doing this DVD helped. He was already heading in that direction and doing a project like this is the sort of thing that could have made him think more about his behaviour and spot in the company. He's over. He knows he's over, so why worry about titles and pushes? Why not just go out and deliver great matches?


I haven't watched a lot of the matches yet. I've skipped around a little and what really caught my eye was Orton's match against John Cena at Breaking Point in 2009. It was an "I Quit" match for the WWE Championship where Orton would lose the match and the belt if anyone interferred on his behalf. An "I Quit" match is where the only way to win is to make your opponent say "I quit." It's a step beyond a traditional submission match where the only way to win is to make your opponent tap out. Now, tapping out and saying you quit are, basically, the same thing, of course. The thinking is that actually saying you quit is worse -- something that's harder for wrestlers to do. Tapping out is ending the match, but saying you quit is to admit total defeat. It's an act of cowardice in a sense. At least, that's how I always viewed the distinction. And "I Quit" matches have slowly become John Cena's 'match.' Edge has TLC, the Undertaker and Triple H both have Hell in a Cell, and John Cena has "I Quit." His gimmick is one where he doesn't quit. He doesn't give up. He's never lost an "I Quit" match. Logically, any time he has to pick a stipulation for a match, you'd assume he'd choose "I Quit," but that would mean, like, nine of those a year. Still, you see Cena in one of these matches and you know who's winning.

Breaking Point was a PPV that only happened once and was based around submission matches. I've never seen the entire show and didn't hear anything really positive about it. It seemed like your average WWE PPV, either a little above or below average depending on who you talk to. A forgettable show. The Orton/Cena match didn't get a lot of praise either, but it's become one of my favourite matches after seeing it on this DVD set.

As a storytelling medium, the wrestling match is limited. The few times I've discussed wrestling with Tim Callahan, I would defend it, but he was always right in saying that comics have far more options for telling a story and communicating ideas. There are a lot of things wrestling matches can be about, but the most common, obviously, is violence. These are fights -- what else would they be about 99% of the time? Even when other stories are told, they're told through violence. Yet, wrestling doesn't often try to tell stories about violence in a meaningful way -- or to play with the concept of violence. Because it's such an integral part of the text, it rarely becomes subtext.

The Randy Orton/John Cena "I Quit" match is a story about the futility of torture. Because of that, it's actually a fairly unimpressing match on the surface. For 95% of the match, Randy Orton beats the living hell out of John Cena. He uses weapons, he uses handcuffs, and he delivers a ton of punishment. It's an incredibly one-sided match, especially once Orton pulls out the handcuffs and begin slowly torturing Cena. He toys with him by taunting him, by beating on him in a casual 'I can hit you, but you can't hit me' fashion before making it more serious. At one point, he hangs Cena from the ringpost by the handcuffs and hits him repeatedly with a Singapore cane, pausing in between the violence to see if Cena will quit. Once the handcuffs come out, it becomes a torture session where Orton uses violence to try and break Cena's will. Every time Cena refuses, Orton becomes more frustrated and responds with even harsher punishment. That continues until Cena finally escapes the cuffs and mounts an offence of his own. But, that's not enough, because Orton could still take control. It's only when Cena handcuffs himself to Orton and puts Orton in a submission move after Orton tries to obtain the keys (just barely out of reach) that Orton gives up almost immediately.

Orton barely took any punishment, especially compared to the amount of violence Cena endured. But, that's the point: this was a match where the violence didn't actually matter. It was a contest of wills where Cena's ability to stand up under torture eventually broke Orton. Once Cena got the upperhand, even briefly, Orton knew he couldn't win. He had brutalised Cena so much that more violence wouldn't do any good and his only option was to quit, because he knew he couldn't last that long. Orton is the coward who can dish it out, but can't take it -- at least not to the extent that Cena can. Orton tried to torture Cena into quitting and it backfired, and handed Cena a relatively 'easy' victory in how quickly Orton gave up when confronted with opposition. It's a surprisingly smart match with a story that goes beyond the usual sort you see in wrestling. A violent contest designed to make another person bend to your will where the message is that violence is ultimately futile at making someone bend to your will. Fantastic.

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