It's safe to say that the work of assessing what makes a good WrestleMania, at this point in the event's history, is different from grading any other pay-per-view on WWE's schedule. It's rare to get technical clinics or amazing matches these days, which means we're left with fun, memorable moments. They're part of WWE's corporate branding now: the WrestleMania moment, invoked by wrestlers like an incantation meant to ward off injury and excuse their 1099 status.
WrestleMania 33 was one of the purest expressions of the WrestleMania moment as ideal. It was, by most measures, a really enjoyable show, which on its own is no small matter after last year's execrable effort. Sunday night's show had no real classic matches and dragged quite a bit during its back half, but it was packed with the little WrestleMania moments that WWE loves so much.
The closest WrestleMania 33 came to a classic during the main show was its opener, AJ Styles versus Shane McMahon. Styles came in looking as though he was about to enter the listless drifting phase of so many WWE careers, which would have been a shame and a waste, but would hardly have been unique; plenty of talented workers have been left without much of a story and condemned to slowly sliding down the card. So Styles was paired with Shane McMahon in an inversion of the old Stone Cold Steve Austin versus Vince McMahon storylines: the virtuous boss pitted against an arrogant, heelish employee.
The backdrop was not great, honestly. Having the best pro wrestler in the world sell the punches of a nearly 50-year-old non-athlete in the early parts of the match was almost painful to watch, and McMahon was gassed early. But the exhaustion turned out to be more an early plateau than the start of a disaster. McMahon grew into the match, and his nearly psychotic disregard for his own safety or capabilities, still fully intact after years of injuries, added a queasy thrill to every stupid, high-risk move he pulled off. Was this the one where Shane finally tried one risky move too many?
AJ Styles can pull off a good to great match with anyone; this one was no different, but it seemed to lack any larger purpose and mostly made McMahon look good, despite Styles winning. A better context, as the part of a longer build or a world where the McMahon family still get their comeuppance besides an occasional loss, probably would have made the match sit better. As it was, it left the viewer wanting a little more heft than the perfectly good but ultimately weightless match we got.
The climax of the evening took place nearly at the halfway point, when the three-way ladder tag match turned into a four-way with the addition of the returning Hardy Boyz. The crowd went absolutely nuts for the brothers in what was undoubtedly one of the best in-ring returns that WrestleMania has ever done. Matt Hardy was in full Broken Matt Hardy gear, while Jeff Hardy was in an approximation of his older WWE style. They won the Raw tag team titles, signaling that they will be around WWE for a good bit, so fans can discount the possibility this is just a couple months of hot dogging.
More interestingly, the crowd reaction to their return was legitimately moving. As media critic Jake Cole sharply pointed out, a significant part of pro wrestling's appeal is the idea of redemption: redemption from injury, or from personal demons, or from the ravages of time and the punishment of this dangerous work. To have a face turn, a wrestler first has to be a heel; the redemption storyline is threaded throughout the form, at all levels.
The Hardys have lived hard, and they've had to reinvent themselves more than once during their time in TNA and the indies. That's culminated in one of the most delightful gimmicks of the decade with their baroque, strange Broken Hardys work. For good or ill (and it's mostly ill), things don't really hit the big time in pro wrestling unless it happens in WWE. The Hardys have done that now, and the added visibility for this bizarre and delightful version of the Hardys—the best version of the Hardys to date—can only be a good thing, provided the company doesn't meddle too much.
The gimmick looks set to continue despite Impact Wrestling, as TNA is now called, threatening legal action against the two for using anything related to it. WWE, for its part, basically dared Impact to go ahead with that, as announcer Michael Cole explicitly made reference to the Broken gimmick. Where this goes is anyone's guess, and it should be one of the more interesting real-life stories to come out of WrestleMania this year.
There wasn't much room for WrestleMania to improve from there, and it didn't. The psychodrama of John Cena and The Miz fizzled out in a nothing mixed-gender match. Triple H versus Seth Rollins, which had the potential to be white hot, felt oddly disjointed. Bray Wyatt's big showdown with Randy Orton saw the latter win the world title in a match that featured projected maggots on the mat and crossed that invisible line of fun-dumb to bad-dumb. Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg had a perfectly OK spectacle of a match—five minutes of quick, impactful feats of strength but nothing so memorable you'd remember it long-term. The Smackdown women had a lightweight, feel-good match. It was hours of pabulum whose main achievement was that it didn't sour how consistently fun the first half of the show—the one stuffed with the Hardys, Styles, the Raw women, and the culmination of Chris Jericho's feud with Kevin Owens—turned out to be.
WrestleMania 33 reached its nadir during the closer. Roman Reigns beat the Undertaker in a stinker of a match that was unremittingly painful to watch. The rumor coming into the evening was that Undertaker was finally going to retire. Pictures over recent years have shown him using crutches to get around and it's been plain to see, even in his increasingly rare matches, that he just can't go anymore. That's no knock on him: the man is 52 years old and has been a company stalwart for 25 years, absorbing all the attendant physical trauma that implies.
Undertaker deserved a memorable match in his last bout. Instead, we got a boring anti-spectacle of half-hearted strikes and a couple high-impact moves through tables, all called by an announcing team that sounded shockingly bored, especially given the gravitas of the situation. The last image of WrestleMania 33 was the Undertaker removing his trenchcoat, hat, and gloves to place them in the center of the ring, with what looked like tears in his eyes, before slowly walking on his broken, aching legs to a rigged elevator, which lowered him into the depths, fist upraised, smoke machines billowing. The final tolling bell of his theme music sounded before the stadium descended into darkness.It should have resonated, but it was instead marked by the bloat that's defined his last act; it sounds cruel, but Undertaker should have retired after his loss to Brock Lesnar in 2014, his only other WrestleMania loss (which means you should bank on Lesnar versus Reigns next year).
Given that he was the last of the pure gimmick wrestlers, the lone survivor of an era where a job like repo man, NASCAR driver, or, yes, undertaker routinely became the entirety of a wrestler's professional existence, it would be shocking if we see Undertaker ever again, outside his locked-in Hall of Fame induction. There is no Mark Calloway for wrestling fans. The man himself is strangely uninteresting, given that so much of wrestling's appeal is figuring out where the real people and their characters converge. There is only the Undertaker, it's gimmick all the way down—the creature enslaved by the urn who became a biker for a little while, the one guy who required a bit more suspension of disbelief than usual. A generation of fans gave him that belief eagerly, hungrily.
Undertaker's descent was the last moment of WrestleMania 33, a final punctum for the crowd. As a wrestling event, it was fine, with the good-to-great baseline WWE has established holding true for the show's overlong six hours. As a collection of moments, though, WrestleMania 33 fond some real magic. That's what WWE wants with WrestleMania, more than anything else, and by that measure, it was a success.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.