During WWE's controversial "Attitude Era," the company changed in a variety of ways. Superstars and Divas became more sexual, matches became more violent and storylines took on more adult themes.
As part of this transition, many of wrestling's old sacred cows were openly sacrificed.
The tone was set by Vince McMahon during a speech on Raw on December 15, 1997. McMahon told viewers:
We in [WWE] think that you, the audience, are quite frankly tired of having your intelligence insulted. We also think that you're tired of the same old simplistic theory of good guys versus bad guys. Surely the era of the superhero who urges you to say your prayers and take your vitamins is definitely passe. Therefore, we've embarked on a far more innovative and contemporary creative campaign that is far more invigorating and extemporaneous than ever before.
During this time period, WWE was criticized by the media for its new adult nature. McMahon often defended the product, comparing it to shows like HBO's The Sopranos.
However, in addition to glorified violence and sexuality, the Attitude Era also brought a certain sophistication that was missing in years prior.
Rather than having outlandish, one-dimensional characters like Max Moon and Battle Kat, there were now extremely complicated individuals like Goldust and Mankind.
And rather than just having "good guys versus bad guys," characters were now many "shades of gray." For example, though Steve Austin and The Undertaker feuded, they nevertheless were both antiheroes who had fans.
Fans were actually asked to think about why they rooted for or against different Superstars.
Dwayne Johnson's character, The Rock, became one of the most popular personas of the time.
The Rock's popularity stemmed from the fact that he could cut a great promo. He was charismatic and incredibly funny and had a way with words.
Furthermore, The Rock was able to mock other people's personas and gimmicks. He renamed The Big Show "The Big Slow," called Michael Cole a "puppet," literally turned the cameras on cameramen and said that Booker T thought two plus two equaled "Thomas Jefferson, sucka!"
Additionally, The Rock would even poke fun at the fans. At least once, when the audience chanted his catchphrases, he declared, "This isn't sing-along with The Rock."
As such, The Rock became WWE champion for the first time at Survivor Series 1998 when he defeated Mick Foley in a match that actually satirized the highly controversial "Montreal screwjob" of one year prior.
In essence, The Rock's appeal was that he helped break the fourth wall. And since breaking the fourth wall was the overarching theme of the Attitude Era, this made him an icon of that time.
Fast forward one decade.
During the modern "PG Era," wrestling has reverted back to its pre-Attitude mindset. To a large extent, the same old characters have returned but are just played by different actors—see Flash Funk and Brodus Clay.
Rather than being complex or challenging, Superstars are once again straightforward and easy to digest.
Santino Marella is a goofball. 3MB likes rock and roll. Daniel Bryan says "Yes" and "No." That's really all you need to know—not to mention all that you're going to get to know.
The one exception to this rule is CM Punk.
Since his famous promo on June 27, 2011—during which he wore a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin shirt—Punk has been an Attitude Era performer trapped in the PG Era.
Though the return of The Rock has also added a distinct Attitude Era vibe to today's product—especially last year when he feuded with John Cena—he nevertheless doesn't quite play the same role that he used to.
Rather than being an edgy, irreverent skeptic, The Rock has instead become someone to be satirized by others.
He's now sort of an old-timer, one who left the industry in order to become a movie star and is able to walk back into the sport to immediately main event Survivor Series, WrestleMania and Royal Rumble.
To some extent, The Rock has become today's equivalent of the WCW stars he mocked 15 years ago. He is someone who just rests on his laurels, does the same schtick that fans have seen hundreds of times and adds nothing really new outside of calling CM Punk "cookie puss"—which is actually a reference from the 1970s.
Today, CM Punk is actually the edgier, cooler character. He's more irreverent and relevant than The Rock. He embodies the present and the future of the wrestling industry.
He is the one pushing the envelope. He is the "invigorating and extemporaneous" Superstar—not Dwayne Johnson.
As such, The Rock is not the real Attitude competitor in this year's Royal Rumble. That honor is reserved for CM Punk.