I haven’t engaged with WWE since WrestleMania 36, exhausted by the concept of empty arena wrestling and the unending parade of decisions that, even for a company as brutal and ruthless as the worldwide leader in sports entertainment is, seemed extraordinarily cruel and tin-eared. How do you watch a wrestling promotion that’s not only willing to endanger its crew of performers, but seems hellbent on further endangering those performers by running live shows or disrupting their lives during a pandemic by releasing them despite their frankly shocking cash reserves and income.
I asked to cover Money in the Bank when I heard that the tagline for it was “Climb the Corporate Ladder,” which was the same week they started making cuts. They must have heard Twitter on how insensitive that was given the circumstances, so they changed the tagline to the somehow even worse “The Risk Is Worth the Reward.” The reward, of course, is the Money in the Bank briefcase, a hideous object brought into being by Chris Jericho that has served as a means of shaking things up and anointing new plug-and-play main eventers. Like other such rewards before it (King of the Ring and the Royal Rumble) it’s worked for some and not worked for others. Normally a clusterfucky ladder match, it’s an excuse to put a bunch of guys on the card, let them do a bunch of high spots, pop the crowd, and consign one lucky superstar to the fate of carrying a briefcase that says MONEY IN THE BANK on it through the airport.
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The “risk” in question is, obviously, the conceit of this year’s match, where even getting to the portion of the match where ladders are involved requires the competing wrestlers to make their way to the roof of WWE Headquarters, the fabled Titan Tower, which previously hosted a Super Bowl advertisement where people were set on fire and launched out of windows into the parking lot below. Oh, I guess another risk is contracting COVID-19, but until that happens to someone on the roster I guess we’re being asked to take it on faith that the measures WWE is taking to keep its performers safe have been effective.
I thought that these things—the cuts and the risk of the pandemic—would come into play in my critical evaluation of the match, but instead I’m struggling with what I saw, the sheer scale of this year’s Money in the Bank match and how transcendantly bad the whole thing was. It’s weird—before the show, I texted Hunktears my worry that the match would be a banger demanding its praises be sung. There was reason for that worry, too: Against the odds, despite old man Undertaker and my general dislike of Bray Wyatt, I loved the “cinematic” matches they threw out on WrestleMania weekend, and “lots of people fight through a tall building” is one of the great genres of cinema. WWE would have been right to walk into their corporate headquarters for a match of this nature with a little bit of swagger—they did what their former rivals World Championship Wrestling tried and failed to do, finding the right balance between enjoyable B-movie spectacle and enjoyable enough wrestling, so why not try again?
One good reason would have been the difficulty of shooting two matches and editing them together so that they’re happening simultaneously, culminating in bits where both the men’s and women’s matches were happening in the same shot. That’s really the only way to do something like this—how do you have one match wrestle through the carnage of the other without making the whole match, ostensibly your main event, be reaction shots to whatever mess Otis and AJ Styles left in their wake? So you have to run them together, men and women working from different areas of the complex towards the same goal. But I’m stuck on the editing here, because it’s never been one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s strong suits.
Like, you know how the live editing of a normal WWE match is such that there’s five or six cuts during a headlock, or three between the execution, collision, and aftermath of a strike? There’s not a lot of that during these cinematic matches, but editing being a massive hole in WWE’s presentation of its product, the issue that cropped up during the Money in the Bank match was one of continuity, particularly around AJ Styles. At various points trapped beneath barbells and thrown into a room full of Undertaker shit for whatever reason, Styles just kept catching up to everybody like the 8th place racer in MarioKart 64. Similarly, Auska, pretty much always the clear cut leader of the pack in the women’s half of the match after hitting a cross body off of the balcony in the lobby and taking the elevator, would be in a room, and suddenly all of the women would be in the room with her.
Something I’ve been trying to figure out about “cinematic wrestling” is how I’m meant to judge it. Was this a wrestling match? Nominally. Was it a film? Charitably. But editing and plotting are crucial aspects of both, and Money in the Bank was terrible in both regards, despite lead time. At one point they try to edit Stephanie McMahon into a bit where Dana Brooke thinks a briefcase in a conference room is the real Money in the Bank briefcase, and the stark contrast between the sharp HD of the regular camera and the webcam graininess of McMahon Zooming in would have been funny enough without the conceit that Steph was really in the room. Also worth pointing out was the score, which sounded like the background music in an arcade racer when theme songs weren’t poking through with the assumption that you’re too stupid to know who Vince McMahon is if “No Chance” doesn’t play.
Watching the Money in the Bank live, I got the feeling that I was watching something truly special, a match so awful that I’d remember it forever, but today I’m confronted by the fact that it was just a mirthless brawl through an office building, punctuated by the kind of comedy that completely ruined WWE programming for years before they decided to ruin it with the overly serious stylistically flat wrestling and character work that now dominate Raw, NXT, and SmackDown. At various points, WWE alumni like Johnny Ace, Doink the Clown, and Brother Love showed up to run routines that are eight, 27, and 33 years old respectively, along with that old gag where someone is doing menial labor in a closed office building where there’s a fight, because you’d totally have the janitors report for duty on a day you’ve scheduled a bunch of people to fight.
The best bit in the match was also its least sensical, as Paul Heyman was in the building because the Money in the Bank match was a catered affair. In burst the competitors of both matches, mid-fight, Heyman center frame in some shoddy recreation of da Vinci’s Last Supper. Then, because an extremely online person was one of the writers of this mess, Otis declared a food fight and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played, making Paul Heyman (the son of) God.
wild that Beethoven probably saw God while composing Ode to Joy and now it’s for slow motion food fights in movies
— JP (@jpbrammer) May 1, 2020
I’ve referenced this a few times on Fanfyte’s various podcasts, but one time WWE ran a casket match between Triple H and Kane over Triple H’s insinuation that Kane had sex with a corpse. I was at that show in October 2002, and had I not stumbled into a Buffalo Wild Wings on a night where John Cena wrestled The Great Khali, that match may have been my last. It was such a miserable affair, the corpse sex thing, that it managed to kill my interest in wrestling entirely. Were it not for wrestling’s mere existence in 2020 already working to do that, there’s a real chance this Money in the Bank match would have been a similar inflection point. Like, Baron Corbin threw two men off the side of the building and the match wasn’t even curious about their fate? On what planet does that happen without a cameraman pointing his camera groundward, without sirens in the distance, without a cutaway to Vince McMahon reaching for the phone to dial up WWE lawyer Jerry McDevitt to get the company out of another jam?
I understand that what I’m being asked to do here is to treat Money in the Bank like harmless fun, but the damn thing has to be fun for me to do that. Instead, I got to see the worst match in the careers of Auska, Daniel Bryan, and AJ Styles simultaneously, which is an accomplishment, I’ll grant, but I could have wasted my time last night a dozen ways more fun than watching Brother Love zip up after taking a piss. If there’s something you can say for the match, it’s that the whole “the risk is worth the reward” thing is kayfabe true, as COVID-era WWE MVPs Auska and Otis walked away from Titan Towers with their guaranteed title shots. Whether or not the company is brave enough to strap Otis up later this year is automatically the most interesting narrative thing WWE has going for it moving forward, but I’m pretty sure this is my floor and it’s time to get off the elevator.