Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wrestlemania 24

Wrestlemania time again. Once upon a time, this was the only pay per view - frankly, the title shows its age - and it's still treated as the biggest show of the year. Of course, it goes without saying that a PPV is a PPV at the end of the day; but the WWE do treat this as the most important show, and generally book it accordingly.

This year, we're in the Florida Citrus Bowl. This is an open-air venue, and I'm not entirely sure what the plan is if it rains. Apparently there's some sort of apparatus to shield the ring if it comes to that. Personally, I've never really seen the appeal of going to a live event to watch a wrestling ring from a ginormous distance. Especially not in the rain. Reportedly, they're giving away the last few seats as freebies this year (which is unusual for Wrestlemania), so I may not be alone in that view.

Anyway, this is a fairly top-heavy card. There's not much space for the midcarders on this show, which has the odd side effect that this show is remarkably light on title matches. Only the three world titles are actually being defended. There's no tag title match; the Intercontinental and US Champions are in the ladder match; the Women's Champion is in a tag match (and more of that later); and the Cruiserweight Title has been vacant for months. In large part, this reflects the fact that the WWE regard this as lower-ranking titles, to such a degree that they simply don't have a place any more on a really big show.

So what do we have?

1. WWE Heavyweight Championship: Randy Orton v. Triple H v. John Cena. This is the Raw world title, and frankly, it's not my idea of a main event for the biggest show of the year. You'll recall that John Cena held the title up until last autumn, when he tore a pec and had to take time off for surgery. Randy Orton got the vacant title and, since then, has been defending it as heel champion (which is to say, he doesn't actually win very often, but keeps hanging onto the title on technicalities). Cena made his surprise return at the Royal Rumble at the end of January, and won the title shot.

So far, so good. Cena returns ahead of schedule to reclaim his title from the bad guy. And then... they inserted Triple H into the match. This is a terribly bad idea. Triple H/Orton isn't an interesting match. As a threeway, there's not much story to it either. Triple H/Cena is potentially interesting, because we haven't seen it before, but it needs one of them to be champion already. Basically, this match doesn't need Triple H, and would be better off without him.

In fairness, one possibility is that the WWE was legitimately nervous about perilling the main event for Wrestlemania on a man returning months ahead of schedule from a muscle tear. This way, if he reinjured it, at least they had a fallback match. But that's a pretty weak argument; and I suspect it's just a case of Triple H wanting to win the title on the biggest show of the year.

The match will be good, and Triple H will win, probably to set up a more promising feud with Cena over the summer. But it doesn't have the anticipation that a main event needs.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Edge v. The Undertaker. Over on Smackdown, we have a rather similar situation. The Undertaker held their world title last spring, only to go down with an injury. In order to get the title off him, they had Edge cash in last year's Money In The Bank title shot and beat him in a short match. After that, Edge also went down with an injury, but the title found its way back to him at the start of the year.

So, you'd think the story would be that the Undertaker wanted his title back. But they haven't really done much with that. Instead, we've had a lot of emphasis on Edge as the cowardly heel champion, with his oddball group of followers; and a lot of talk, as usual, about the fact that the Undertaker is undefeated at Wrestlemania. (He's been defeated plenty of times on other shows, of course. But not at Wrestlemania.) There's been a half-hearted attempt to suggest that Edge is also undefeated at Wrestlemania, which isn't true - he lost a ladder match last year.

Anyway, Edge is already a major star, and there's no point in throwing away Undertaker's winning streak for him. He doesn't need the help. So Undertaker is regaining the title, and from there, we presumably go into the last big title reign of his career, which was the plan last year. Match should be good.

3. ECW World Title: Chavo Guerrero v. Mystery Opponent. Not so much a match as a polite concession to the fact that ECW is still on the air. Chavo Guerrero is a perfectly fine wrestler, but he's not world title material. It's increasingly clear that the WWE has given up on the notion that the ECW Title is in any way the equal of the other two. Frankly, that's probably for the best.

The problem with ECW is that it's clearly the C-list brand, but it doesn't have anything to distinguish it from Raw or Smackdown. The original ECW was a vaguely alternative, semi-underground promotion, different from anything else out there. The current ECW is just a third WWE show, and frankly, we don't need it.

But for so long as it's around, we still have to pretend it matters on some tiny, trivial level. And so Chavo Guerrero will defend his title against... the winner of a 24-man battle royal, which will take place before the show, and be broadcast exclusively on the internet. Uh-huh.

The 24 wrestlers in question are mostly geeks from the midcard of Raw and Smackdown. Three of the main ECW wrestlers - CM Punk, Shelton Benjamin and John Morrison - aren't available, because they're in the Money In The Bank match, which is more important. Big Daddy V appears to have vanished off the face of the earth, and I'm losing no sleep about that. That leaves a load of nobodies and the occasional prominent wrestler who had nothing better to do.

The WWE hasn't actually posted a full list of the participants, as far as I can see, but they did have them all in the ring on Tuesday's ECW, for the benefit of very attentive note-takers. Most of them are plainly no-hopers. There is no way on earth we're getting Chavo Guerrero v. Domino on the biggest show of the year. Realistically, it's probably going to be Kane, because he's the most prominent babyface in the match. This will be short, and it'll probably be used as filler in the undercard. There's no point doing a title change with no build, so I suspect Chavo retains on a screwjob in order to set up a rematch.

4. Money In The Bank Ladder Match 2008: Mr Kennedy v. Shelton Benjamin v. Chris Jericho v. Carlito v. MVP v. CM Punk v. John Morrison. This is the fourth annual Money In The Bank ladder match, which basically provides the crazy stunt segment for the show. Basically, there's a briefcase over the ring, and the winner is the first person to retrieve it. More to the point, the winner gets a title shot at any of the world titles which they can cash in whenever they want over the next year.

So far, the MITB title shot has always led to a title change. Hardly surprising, because if a heel wins it, he can ambush the champion immediately after another match - which is what Edge has done twice. The other winner was Rob Van Dam, who was a babyface and therefore played fair - he simply demanded a title shot with proper notice on his home turf. But he still won. So the MITB match has been established as a big deal. In practice, it's a device for elevating a midcarder to the main event.

The original plan was supposedly for Jeff Hardy to win, but he's been suspended for violation of the drugs policy. So one of the other seven now has to get the nod, even though that wasn't the original plan. This could be interesting.

Chris Jericho is notionally a main eventer already (though he's on the fringes), and he doesn't really need the win. He's a safe bet if they don't trust the others, but I'd be surprised if they were that conservative. Carlito, on the other hand, is way too midcard to be in serious contention for the role. Ditto Shelton Benjamin, who's presently stuck on ECW in the midst of another failed push. Mr Kennedy has already announced that if he wins the match, he'll cash in the title shot immediately and enter himself in the main event. Well, that's obviously not happening, so we can rule him out too.

That leaves CM Punk, John Morrison and MVP. They always seem to run a bit hot and cold on CM Punk, and he's not really a typical WWE-style wrestler, so I'd be surprised if he got it. Morrison has definite possibilities, and I could just about see him jumping to Raw or Smackdown at some point during the year, with a few months of extra build behind him. But if they seriously saw him in that role, he wouldn't be co-holder of the Smackdown tag titles.

So I'm picking MVP as the winner. He's the US champion, he's a prominent character, he's continuing to improve in leaps and bounds, and he's on the verge of making the break to become a main eventer. He's the best choice in a number of ways.

And the match... should be chaotic, but great fun.

5. Ric Flair v. Shawn Michaels. The latest instalment in the "If Ric Flair loses, he must retire" storyline. It's been a particularly incoherent plot, even by wrestling standards, as we've never been favoured with any rational explanation for why Vince McMahon would insist that Flair retire on his next defeat. Apparently this story made a lot more sense when it was first pitched, but somewhere along the line it's become terribly garbled.

Flair, one of the greatest wrestlers of the 1980s, is now pushing sixty. Unusually, while he's stuck around in the industry, he's allowed himself to drift back into the midcard instead of pretending that he's still a main event contender at his advanced age. This storyline is genuinely supposed to be his big send-off, and the conventional wisdom is that he's losing on Sunday. The plot broadly involves Shawn Michaels being very reluctant to take the match, because he doesn't really want to retire Flair; and Flair getting very offended about the insinuation that he couldn't win.

There's a lot of pressure on them to have one great last match, and I think they'll manage it. For a lot of wrestling fans, this is the real draw. It's expected to be the big sentimental moment. I'm not so sure whether it'll play to the casual audience, to be honest - it's been a lo-o-o-ong time since Ric Flair's prime. But I expect a good match.

6. The Big Show v. Floyd Mayweather. This, on the other hand, is supposed to be the big draw for the casual audience. The Big Show - or Paul Wight, if you prefer - has just returned to the company after an extended break. He's a genuine seven-foot giant, and even after dropping a lot of weight, he's still a huge guy.

Floyd Mayweather is the WBC Welterweight Champion, and quite what he's doing on this show is something of a mystery. His match against Oscar De La Hoya was a huge PPV draw in the world of boxing, and the WWE is clearly hoping to cash in on that. They claim they're paying him $20m, but unless they've completely lost their minds, that can't be true. There's no way he's going to bring in that sort of revenue.

The promotion of this match has been a bit weird. At one stage, they seemed to be planning a tag match, with Rey Mysterio involved somewhere. But he's out with a serious bicep tear. So we're getting Mayweather versus the Big Show, and it's going to take a lot of bells and whistles to get a good match out of that. Obviously Mayweather is athletic, but working an entertaining match is harder than you'd think. And then, for a while, they seemed to be going for the David and Goliath angle - completely ignoring the fact that Mayweather is a born heel. The light seems to have dawned in the last few weeks, leaving us with a strange heel/heel freakshow match.

Since the WWE have belatedly announced that the rules include a no-DQ stipulation, you can take it that they'll be throwing everything at this match to make it interesting. I've no doubt it will have been heavily rehearsed. I'm still not expecting much. It goes without saying that Mayweather will win; he's the heavily-paid guest.

7. Batista v. Umaga. Two main eventers with nothing better to do, but they're billing it as a Smackdown vs Raw match in order to make it seem more interesting. In fairness, you don't see these two together that often, so at least it's a fresh match, even if it is filler. Hard to predict whether they'll have any chemistry, but Umaga's pretty good and Batista's generally fine. However, this can't be allowed to overshadow the main events, and I'm expecting an adequate undercard match.

Batista ought to win; it's meant to be a one-off match, he's the hero, and he needs the win more.

8. Street fight: Finlay v. JBL. Buried on the undercard, this appears to be the pay-off for the baffling "Vince's son is an Irish midget" storyline. Essentially, they've extricated themselves from the whole fiasco by just declaring that Hornswoggle was Finlay's son all along - with no explanation whatsoever, and no attempt to explain whether that means Vince's real illegitimate child is somebody else instead. Or, if not, why he faked the whole thing. It makes absolutely no sense, even by wrestling standards. On top of that, they've been trying to make us take it seriously. And you can't take a story about a midget leprechaun seriously. Not even in the world of professional wrestling.

Anyway, they'll have a brawl, and they'll hit each other quite hard. It'll be okay, but the storyline is a complete no-hoper, and hopefully we can draw a line under this whole mess.

9. Oh god... "Bunnymania Lumberjack Match": Maria & Ashley v. Beth Phoenix & Melina. Beth Phoenix is the women's champion, but the real purpose of this match is to promote Maria's photo shoot for Playboy. In a curious illustration of the WWE's bizarre (and not-so-vaguely misogynist) sexual politics, only Beth apparently merits a surname. Of course, that's no bloody use to Playboy, who can hardly advertise a photo shoot with somebody called "Maria", and so the cover duly credits her as Maria Kanellis. This may make her one of the few people in history to have gained a surname when posing for Playboy.

Now, Maria's often quite funny playing a naive ditz, but she's not much of a wrestler. Hence the tag match, which in theory would have protected her. The idea was to team her with the returning Candice Michelle, who's also appeared in Playboy, but who's a much better wrestler. Unfortunately, Candice reinjured her clavicle in her first match back, and so they've had to replace her with... with...

Well, consider the choices. Mickie James? She's the best of the bunch in wrestling terms. But she has no connection with Playboy. (With porn, yes. With Playboy, no.) So we've ended up with Ashley, who is ungodly terrible, but at least fits the theme. In practice, the heels will have to walk them through the match, and I can't imagine it being any good - even with all the other women on the roster at ringside to cause distractions. Obviously, the babyfaces will win. Specifically, Maria will pin Melina, because they surely can't be dumb enough to pin the women's champion just to promote a photoshoot.

Worth buying? Um. It's not the strongest line-up this show has ever had, but most of the matches should be good or better, and the dodgy ones are buried deep in the undercard. Ric Flair's retirement match should be the highlight of the night, if it comes off.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Seven Basic Plots

I finished reading this book a while ago, but never got around to writing about it.

Well, I say "finished." More accurately, I gave up about a hundred pages from the end. Which may seem an odd thing to do, as the book is seven hundred pages long, so I was pretty near to completing it. But boy, this one gets seriously haywire as it goes on.

Christopher Booker was one of the founders of Private Eye back in 1961. The Seven Basic Plots is an examination of the recurring motifs and structures of storytelling, and an attempt to explain in psychological terms why human beings tell stories in the first place. He spent thirty years working on it. It's divided into three parts: a taxonomy of the seven basic plots that he identifies; an analysis of the ways in which twentieth century storytelling started deviating from those structures to an unprecedented degree; and an attempt to explain the underlying psychology.

Part 1 is largely persuasive. Part 2 is somewhat persuasive. Part 3 is a whole load of stuff about Jung. Actually, Jung provides the central structure for a lot of Booker's analysis, but the final part of the book is a serious attempt to sell us on the genius of Jung. This is the bit where I gave up.

The first part, however, is pretty good stuff, and well worth reading. Booker basically suggests that most traditionally-structured stories fall into one of seven basic patterns, which he labels as Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Quest, Voyage & Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

That list calls for a couple of footnotes. Firstly, by "Comedy", he means the standard "confusion and mistaken identity is all sorted out in the end" plot as used in Shakespearean comedies and Greek plays. He's not suggesting that all humour follows this plot, nor that all stories with this plot are necessarily humorous. (As he points out, it's been widely lifted for straight romance stories.)

Secondly, Booker isn't suggesting that these are the only seven plots - merely that they're the seven major plots of traditional storytelling, and that the vast majority of stories are combinations or inversions of elements from these stories. He acknowledges that there are other stories which don't fit into any of these categories, such as origin myths, or the relatively recent genre of detective stories.

His basic point is to identify a common structure in each of these genres and to argue that they all express essentially the same ideas: that the hero triumphs by becoming a fully-realised person, in touch with his feminine side (or vice versa for heroines), and that in doing so he overcomes some threat and (symbolically or literally) succeeds to a kingdom, which usually involves him becoming an acknowledged alpha male, having a wife, and settling down to start the next generation in a symbol of life, rebirth and continuity. Basically, these stories are all morality tales in some way, as they illustrate characters succeeding by becoming Good People, or (in the case of tragedy) missing the mark and plunging to annihilation.

So far, so good. The second part of the book then has to account for the deviations which start to crop up in the twentieth century, as experimental narrative and dark inversions become increasingly popular. This is where Booker starts to get into trouble. Basically, as a good Jungian, Booker feels compelled to explain everything in terms of the ego. So if a story isn't following the prescribed pattern, it's because the writer is attempting to follow an ego-driven path, whereas the underlying patterns of storytelling are designed to express the hero transcending the ego and embracing the self. (Don't ask.)

Now, he has something of a point here. It's true that the last century or so has seen a massive increase in the number of stories expressing the desirability of individuality and distinctiveness from the herd - traits which previously tended to be treated negatively. Moreover, it's also true that a lot of writers have been trying to express these ideas by nailing them onto established story structures which, Booker persuasively argues, were originally designed to express the exact opposite.

But this still presents Booker with a problem, because what he really wants to say is that the traditional ideas expressed in storytelling pre-1900 embody archetypal ideas deeply embedded in human nature. The fact that humans have drifted away from expressing them over the last century, and have started expressing opposing concepts, is clearly an obstacle to that theory. Ineviably, Booker ends up having to argue that humans have become more ego-driven and alienated from the self, and has to try and shoehorn lots of stories into that theory.

To some extent that works. He can plausibly dismiss a lot of stories as "sentimental" variants that repeat the outward form while lacking any of the archetypal content. (The typical Hollywood action movie, for example, which always includes a token unification with a love interest at the end.) He's also able to get rid of a lot of stories by explaining them as dark inversions of the main plot. But on a closer reading, he often seems to be bashing stories into that category simply on the grounds that he disagrees with the ideas they express. And in order to play up the degree of sex and violence in 20th century literature, he has to vastly underplay it in classical myth. Oh, and his analysis doesn't seem to take any account of elements of storytelling other than the plot.

Inevitably, this leads to some stories being interpreted in ways that range from strained to jawdroppingly wrong. When Booker seriously argues that The Trial is a story about an egocentric protagonist trapped by his own inability to empathise with other people - rather than, say, a paranoid fantasy about a man at the mercy of an impenetrable external state - you have to wonder whether he's reading the same story.

Ultimately, Booker can only offer a partial explanation for twentieth century fiction, and while there's enough of interest in his analysis to suggest that he's in the right ballpark, he's clearly gone wrong somewhere along the line. For example, he gets into all sorts of trouble with sexual politics, as Jung's archetypal classification depends strongly on drawing a distinction between masculine and feminine values. Stories which position women in a classically masculine role confuse the hell out of Booker, who can only account for them as anomalies or as self-conscious point-making inversions of the classic plot. (Some of them are, of course, but not all of them.)

And then we get to the third part of the book, which is really an attempt to argue that the underlying structure of stories proves that Jung was right. Since this bit really depends on you buying into the argument outlined so far, frankly, it gets tiresome rather quickly.

Still, the book is worth reading. There's a good five hundred pages of interesting material in there, before it goes soaring off into its grand theory - at which point you can stop. He's got a good point about the common ideas expressed by traditional stories which dominated for centuries, and there's got to be some significance to that.

The X-Axis is taking a week off.

Because quite honestly, there's nothing out.

The only X-book this week is Wolverine: Origins, which is the third part of a five-issue fight scene. Quite honestly, I can barely summon up the willpower to care about it long enough to finish this sentence. And there are a couple of fairly obscure new indie titles, neither of which did a great deal for me. Oh, and Garth Ennis's Phantom Eagle series, which is another Garth Ennis war comic, and you all know the drill by now. And that's genuinely about it.

So rather than extend "Meh" over four pages, we'll just skip it and come back next week. And I'll use this space to catch up on some other stuff instead.

- On a completely different topic: Susi and I watched Election last night. Susi, who hadn't seen it before, didn't take long to figure out that Tracy Flick is quite clearly Hillary Clinton. Oh yeah, I thought. She is kind of like Hillary Clinton.

And then, right on cue, this speech came on...

Uncanny, isn't it?

Monday, March 17, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 16 March 2008

I will, honestly, be posting some more stuff this week. Honest.

But for the moment, here's the weekly comments thread. This week: X-Factor adjusts to not having a point; Comic Book Comics reviews the history of comics; and The Last Defenders is, of all things, a Defenders miniseries without the Defenders.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 9 March 2008

This week: four new titles. Cable brings us exciting babysitting action, Logan goes back to Japan, Echo breaks new ground in the depiction of dialogue-free hailstorms, and Young Liars... well, it's a recent Vertigo title.

- Occasional lapse into linkblogging: Stephen Fry explains why he hates dancing. At incredible length. Fry has an odd approach to blogging: he puts up entire essays, and he's now started a podcast version where you can hear him read them out.

I'm not quite as violently opposed to dancing as Stephen seems to be, but I know what he's getting at. I can't stand dancing. Or rather: I have no interest in dancing whatsoever. I couldn't care less what you do as long as you leave me alone. But there are those who genuinely can't believe that some people don't like dancing. When you say "No thanks," they hear "Please drag me to the dance floor against my will - I will have a wonderful time really and will be eternally grateful." Somehow it never seems like the appropriate time to tell them to get lost...

Sunday, March 02, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 2 March 2008

This week, X-Men: First Class #9, featuring the Black Widow in a costume that time forgot; X-Men: Legacy #208, beginning a new direction without actually making clear what that new direction is; Kick-Ass #1, the latest high concept Mark Millar book; and RASL #1, the new project from Jeff Smith.