“And my father said, when I was younger,
‘hard times breed better men.”
It’d be difficult to name that many gimmick changes that match the sheer upgrade Cody received when he left the WWE. Cody Rhodes was a bland face at best, and a bizarre, creepy heel at the worst. When he burst into the Indie circuit, Cody renovated his image and crafted one of the best developed characters in contemporary wrestling. The very concept of the American Nightmare character is only suited for a heel or anti-hero type role. Though Cody has the charisma and acting ability to pull off a fantastic heel or face gimmick, he falls more naturally into a villainous role.
So much of Cody’s character is inspired by his father, so it’s important to remember what the Dream was all about. Dusty was incredibly charismatic. His promos draw you in like a magnet, and you could never help but root for him, though sometimes his accent, lisp, or word choice might leave you scratching your head. He was so incredibly genuine in all he did. Dusty, the Son of a Plumber, became a blue collar icon in the wrestling world. He was emblematic of the American Dream, that anyone from any background or origin can rise to success through hard work.
But what happens after a man finds wealth and success? This is where the American Nightmare comes into existence. The son of the son of a plumber, who climbed the social ladder to become successful, is now growing up with the benefits of his father’s hard work. He’s rich, spoiled, and entitled. In NJPW and on the Indies, Cody manifested this idea perfectly. He was cocky and smug, but still charismatic like his father. There are so many similarities between Cody and Dusty, some accidental and some intentional: Cody’s lisp, (which has largely been trained away), his dyed blond hair, his tendency to bleed at the drop of a hat, his open mouthed, toothy smile. He’s truly his father’s son, but such a bastard.
What made the American Nightmare a little different from typical heels is that he still loves his father no matter how different the two of them are. Cody on the indie circuit acted almost as a vigilante, hunting down all of those who wronged his father and avenging him. Maybe the clearest example of this was during a confrontation with the “King of Old School,” Steve Corino in Ring of Honor. Cody stalked around Corino like a lion as he spoke:
“Do you remember what you said to the American Dream Dusty Rhodes in 1999? I do. You said to him ‘I have no respect for you, I never did.’ And then you told him to look you in the eyes while he was talking to you. So how apropos, that I can stand here and tell you: I have no respect for you. I never did. Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you, Steve.”
Cody’s time in Bullet Club saw a lot of development for his character. He was by far the most heelish of the Elite; while the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega were mischievous and disrespectful to their opponents, they were endearing in their own right through their clumsy, comedic spots. Kenny’s reunion with Kota Ibushi cemented him as a face in the company, and the Bucks followed suit. Cody, while he was well-liked, was dastardly.
He’s manipulative and power hungry, but at his core, the American Nightmare is lonely. Cody focused all of this energy, the loneliness, the entitlement, and his unending ambition, into an attempted coup in Bullet Club. Cody would start rumors about club members in order to pit them against each other. He encouraged the Young Bucks to break up, and tried to convince them that their best friend, Kenny, was only using them. His manipulation would culminate into two outstanding matches in Elite history: Golden Lovers vs the Young Bucks at Strong Style Evolved, and Cody vs Kenny Omega at the G1 Special in San Francisco.
Everything Cody did tied back to the fact that he was a spoiled kid who felt entitled to everything from his birth, like title belts, paychecks, and the Bullet Club. A major aspect of the Civil War storyline was Cody feeling entitled to Kota Ibushi, Kenny Omega’s second half. Cody would go so far as to forcibly kiss Kota during their matches, and boldly proclaimed to Kota during their match at Wrestle Kingdom 12, “Kenny doesn’t love you like I love you.” Whether Cody was truly in love with the Golden Star himself seems unlikely. More plausible is that Cody saw that reuniting with Kota brought Kenny the IWGP Heavyweight title, and therefore jumped to the conclusion that aligning himself with (or dating?) Kota could do the same for him.
What Cody needed, though, was friendship, not followers. He realized this himself, perhaps a bit too late, in Episode 110 of BTE, “Family Dinner.” In this episode, the Elite are beaten in the ring by the rest of Bullet Club, the BCOGs, who as it turns out were equally unsatisfied with Kenny Omega, but decided to toss out all of the Elite with him. Cody approached the ring and is offered a chair to hit over Kenny’s head. He holds it for a second and thinks, before attacking the BCOGs and proving that he wasn’t as big of a jerk as he could’ve been.
The end of Cody’s time in NJPW did see a bit of a face turn, but more often than not it was seen as a joke. After realizing that all his manipulation got him was isolation and hatred, Cody monologued “Empire of Dirt” in a very emotional piece of cinematic history, and made a change. He tried to be good, for example he’d had a custom weight belt made for Kenny as a means of apologizing to his friend, but in the end he stole mints and candy from Kenny’s luggage as he dropped off the belt. He tried to make amends, but he couldn’t resist being the spoiled child he is at his core. The rest of the Elite begrudgingly accepted his attempted apologies, and welcomed him back to their reunited stable. The group would then move onto AEW on better terms than ever (minus one Englishman who shall not be named).
AEW presents audiences with a completely different Cody. This Cody, the EVP, still reveres and loves his father dearly. What’s absent from his character now, though, is the spoiled entitlement and cunning that made the American Nightmare such a charismatic, intriguing character in the first place. To be clear, I understand why this switch was made; since Cody was undoubtedly going to be one of the faces of a brand new company, it was a smart decision to make him likable to wider audiences. I can’t help but feel, though, that the American Nightmare is too profound and unique of a character to be cast aside.
Cody’s acting ability, and amazing in-ring storytelling skills, means he can pull off being a babyface or a heel. I can’t help but feel, though, that the anti-hero role he fell into in NJPW is the most natural for him. Cody seems to be slipping into a more anti-hero type role in aew, as seen by his heelish tactics in his TNT title matches. When he faced Sonny Kiss, for example, Cody argues with the referee and removes a turnbuckle pad to slam Sonny’s face into it. Viewers will have to see how his character develops with time. Will he remain the babyface known for his love of the business, or will he devolve back to his origins?
photo by Rick Havlik