At its best in 2013, WWE impacted the audience with images of triumph, rebirths and wickedness. At its worst, its storytelling failed and jokes were too juvenile to be enjoyed.
Mark Henry, Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler and Rob Van Dam are among those who provided the most memorable and exciting moments of the year. Those are contrasted with what the company asked Santino Marella, John Cena and Eva Marie to do.
The optimist WWE fans will remember 2013 for Ziggler's cash-in and Rhodes teaming with his brother to win the Tag Team Championships. The pessimists among us will bring up a sock puppet taking orders from a flute and poor booking choices galore.
On pay-per-view, Raw and SmackDown, WWE either exhilarated or irritated. Here is a look at moments that accomplished either of those feelings, the ones that will go in the collection of greatest hits and those best suited for the trash bin.
Chris Jericho, Royal Rumble entrant No. 2
Surprises are rare in a time when information zooms across the Internet. Chris Jericho managed to pull off one of the most satisfying surprises in recent memory when he entered the 2013 Royal Rumble.
Dolph Ziggler, the man who had defeated him and sent him away from WWE, waited in the ring for the second Rumble entrant to appear.
Even fans who religiously read every wrestling news outlet didn't see Jericho coming. The crowd erupted upon seeing the returning Superstar. The timing, the star power and the unexpectedness combined to make this a moment worth cheering.
John Cena and The Rock square off at WrestleMania.
John Cena's and The Rock's wins at the Royal Rumble set up this expected matchup.
The WrestleMania rematch was Cena's chance to defeat the man who sent him spiraling in 2012. The star power and spectacle were all there, but the match was a letdown.
The spark from their "Once in a Lifetime" clash was lost. The two foes' chemistry had worsened.
Cena and The Rock hit each other with their finishers and kicked out too often. Rather than hype the crowd the way false finishes powered the Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker matches, this trading of signature moves caused the match's energy to sputter.
In hindsight, fans can blame some of the match's dullness on The Rock being injured. The Great One underwent surgery after WrestleMania, leading to speculation that this may have been last go-round in the ring.
The night after WrestleMania proved to be Dolph Ziggler's coronation.
After holding the Money in the Bank contract for months and after failing to turn that briefcase into championship gold, Ziggler finally saw his opportunity, and it resulted in an electric moment.
Alberto Del Rio had just survived a match against Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger. He writhed in the corner, barely able to stand, thanks to Swagger tearing at his ankle.
With a raucous crowd behind him, Ziggler stomped on that ankle and looked to snatch Del Rio's world title away. Suspense built as Del Rio seemed close to escaping. He had Ziggler caught in the Cross Armbreaker, but The Show Off wrenched Del Rio's injured ankle and was soon celebrating with AJ Lee and Big E Langston.
Even though a concussion would later derail Ziggler's reign, this remains one of the moments from 2013 most worth watching several times over.
Had someone been recording Santino Marella's sock puppet getting charmed, SmackDown would have made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for most people rolling their eyes simultaneously.
WWE fans constantly suspend disbelief. Sometimes, though, the company tears apart the rules of its own reality.
Santino was about to strike Heath Slater with his cobra puppet. Jinder Mahal used a flute to hypnotize the snake into attacking Santino himself. Great Khali counter-charmed the cloth snake and urged it to hit Slater instead.
Comic relief is necessary on programming that features so much violence, betrayal and darkness. This segment pushed the silliness too far, though.
The moment may have inspired a few chuckles from kids, but how many older fans instead felt inspired to channel surf? WWE leaped over the fine line between funny and stupid with this segment, one that surely irked diehard and old-school fans.
Rob Van Dam soared back into the WWE at Money in the Bank 2013.
He battled Sheamus, Randy Orton, CM Punk, Christian and Daniel Bryan for a shot at contract for a WWE title match. It proved to be the best match of one of the best pay-per-views of the year, thanks in large part to the excitement of seeing Van Dam back in action.
Mr. Monday Night was no nostalgia act, either.
From this bout on, he was so athletic and consistently entertaining that one has to wonder if there is a fountain of youth located somewhere in Battle Creek, Mich. Van Dam went on to have impressive matches against Chris Jericho, Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio.
Primo and Epico were a talented tag team in need of a character adjustment. WWE seemingly went into its idea box from 1991 to find it.
The two Puerto Rican wrestlers became bullfighters in pink outfits. A little person in a bull costume accompanied them.
The videos hyping their debut created skepticism. The duo couldn't prove their doubters wrong, as they have since been a forgettable addition to WWE programming.
Blame some of that on the company having them battle 3MB too many times in a row without a story, but the gimmick itself is the major cause of Los Matadores' failure.
After managing CM Punk, Brock Lesnar, Big Show and others to success, Paul Heyman was ready to add another name to his list of clients.
In May, he called upon a man who few would have expected in Michael McGillicutty. The former Tag champ entered with a new name and a revamped version of his father's entrance music. The birth of Curtis Axel was a moment that had people buzzing, that instantaneously elevated a benchwarmer.
The power of Heyman's reputation for managing champions launched Axel forward.
Even if Axel hasn't matched the success of Heyman's other clients, his career was transformed that night. He would later take on Chris Jericho, Punk and Triple H in prominent matches and win the Intercontinental Championship, feats that were impossible to imagine him doing before joining Heyman.
Randy Orton towers over The Miz after injuring him.
Apparently, the medical facilities in Cleveland, Ohio are incredible.
On Sept. 16, Randy Orton mauled The Miz. To worsen the blow, the attack happened in front of The Miz's parents and in his hometown.
This was supposed to be Orton's return to being a predator, the destructive force that once kicked John Cena's father in the head. Medical staff attended to The Miz, and WWE.com later wrote that he had "difficulty moving his neck and arm and signs of a pinched nerve."
He missed no time, however.
Rather than play up the power of Orton's attack, WWE pushed Miz back into action right away. He barely seemed affected by the vicious attack, as if an upper thoracic injury had the same effects as hitting one's funny bone.
Mark Henry gave the best WWE acting performance in 2013.
The former world champ had everyone believing that he was retiring. He spoke about wanting to see his family more and reflected on his career in front of the live audience.
It was all a ruse, though.
Henry instead attacked John Cena, telling him he had a lot left in the tank. Fans had to wipe away tears, clear their throats and pretend that they saw the deception coming.
The dramatic shift in emotion that Henry caused made his fake retirement speech one of the most moving and visceral experiences of the year.
Damien Sandow called himself the "uncrowned champion" once he won the Money in the Bank contract in July.
One night after John Cena won the World Heavyweight Championship, despite Alberto Del Rio wearing out his surgically repaired left arm, Sandow prepared to pounce. He smashed Cena's injured elbow with his briefcase and shattered it against the ring steps.
Cena looked more ready for an emergency room visit than a match, but he then had to defend the world title.
Sandow couldn't beat him. Cena proved that the gap between him and other Superstars is so great that with one working wing, he still managed to outlast a fresh Sandow. Rather than give Sandow a career highlight and create a compelling rivalry, WWE chose to further convince fans of Cena's super nature.
The best dramas often make the audience uncomfortable, and that's what Paul Heyman's attack on CM Punk did.
Two former friends and allies saw their relationship shatter. Heyman had Curtis Axel handcuff and hold Punk up while he cracked him across the chest with a kendo stick. The violence of the moment was disturbing enough, but Heyman screaming that he loved Punk and that he broke his heart made for an unforgettable scene.
Heyman's anger blended with pettiness and his aching echo to produce a searing image.
After a pay-per-view that featured an ending so unsatisfying that fans sought and received refunds, per PWInsider.com, WWE needed something more definitive to cap off Battleground.
Instead, the vacant WWE title remained vacant.
Big Show knocked out both Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan. He clocked a pair of referees and left the match a mess. This didn't feel like the end of a chapter but instead a transition to the next show.
Bryan never did receive the happy ending so many fans hungered for. The focus shifted from Bryan, whom the fans roared for every night, to Big Show. WWE took the air out of its balloon with that decision.
Big Show's narrative limped along while fans waited around for Bryan's day to come.
WWE could have just announced that Cody Rhodes would be gone for a few weeks so he could get married and go on his honeymoon. Instead, the company turned Rhodes' exit into the catalyst for one of the biggest stories of the year.
Triple H put Rhodes' career on the line in early September, telling him he had to either defeat Randy Orton or lose his job.
Orton and Rhodes put on a fantastic match that sent spark along fans' veins. Rhodes then delivered the best promo of his career on his way out, proving that he is ready for the main event.
WWE elevated a Superstar and maximized the drama of a situation with Rhodes' temporary departure.
Watching Eva Marie's first in-ring action on Raw was like watching a blindfolded person paint a self-portrait.
Her part in the tag team match was awkward, uncomfortable and poorly done. Her timing was off, and she moved as if she was made of wood.
Why was someone clearly not ready for that moment put in that position in the first place? WWE's reported reasoning is worse than the performance itself. F4WOnline, via WrestlingInc.com, wrote that due to backstage heat on her, "she was purposely set up to fail by members of management."
That's a foolish way to do business. There's no reason for the product to suffer because of pettiness.
Alberto Del Rio attacks Dolph Ziggler.
A villain became a warrior while a hero reverted back to wickedness in one of the best stories told in 2013.
Dolph Ziggler entered Payback as a heel and as the world champ, just having recovered from a severe concussion. Del Rio attacked Ziggler with such mercilessness, zeroing in on his foe's head, that it was impossible to keep cheering for him.
Ziggler, meanwhile, showed off resilience and toughness that is so often associated with wrestling's heroes.
The rare double turn was executed to perfection, crowning a new champion and altering the career paths of both men.
Shouldn't being abducted, stuffed into a trunk and left disoriented in a parking lot have a bigger effect on someone than it did Daniel Bryan?
On the Nov. 25 edition of Raw, The Wyatt Family left the arena with Bryan in tow. There wasn't enough concern from the announcers to sell the moment that week or the next.
Bray Wyatt promised that Bryan would become a monster from the experience of being kidnapped. Instead, he was unchanged. Add to what happened or didn't happen with Kane, and that makes two times that the creepy clan captured and released a foe with no ill effects.
That reduces the sense of danger of The Wyatt Family and makes future events like these seem less significant.
AJ Lee cut down the cast of Total Divas with a promo that will be forever remembered.
She mocked them for their lack of acting skills, laughed at their daddy issues and forcefully claimed to be far better than them. The performance was one of AJ's career highlights and is the first time in recent memory that the Divas division produced a non-wrestling moment so charged with emotion.
WWE has failed to fully capitalize on this tension catalyst, but when AJ dropped her mic post-speech, the Divas division had folks buzzing, and AJ had cemented her status as the division's queen.
The Authority distract Big Show.
The defeat-by-distraction method that was the end of Randy Orton vs. Big Show at Survivor Series just doesn't compare to the best endings of past WWE main events.
The Authority promised not to get physically involved. The group instead just hung around at ringside long enough to misdirect Big Show's attention. This unimpressive climax followed a long string of disappointments and screwy finishes.
This was not the way to have fans feel that their money was well spent, that the time and energy they had invested in the narrative was worth it. WWE then dropped the Big Show battling The Authority angle, leaving the final chapter untold.
Cody Rhodes and Goldust helped turn a lagging tag team division into WWE's most dependable element. Their journey saw them defeat The Shield at Battleground to earn their way back into WWE and later beat Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins on Raw to become Tag champs.
Both victories were among the most emotional of the year.
Goldust's return to action, where he's looked even better than before, combined with Rhodes getting increased spotlight time resulted in great matches and moments that made our heart rates increase. It's not often a team besting another causes so much joy in the audience.
On the Raw before Christmas, WWE seemed to say it would be willing to appeal only to the children in the crowd at the risk of alienating the other fans. A Christmas-themed episode's low point resulted in a match that was WWE at its worst.
The fate of Christmas was on the line as Mark Henry (Good Santa) battled Damien Sandow (Bad Santa).
Even in a world populated with a supernatural mortician, a man who wrestles in gold face paint and a Funksaurus, this premise was so ridiculous that it hurt. The action itself was no better, as it saw Henry shove Sandow's face in a toilet and The Intellectual Savior of the Masses not be able to operate a fire extinguisher.
It's a bout that like that that makes fans wistful for dance-offs.
Randy Orton prepares to cash in.
SummerSlam ended with heartbreak.
After defeating John Cena for the WWE Championship, Daniel Bryan celebrated in the ring, confetti falling on his bruised body. A Pedigree later, and the new champ was left vulnerable for Randy Orton to cash in and steal the title away.
The marriage of joy and defeat in those few minutes after the bell made for a powerful moment.
It instantly made Orton the most hated guy in the company and began what looked to be a promising rivalry. With this turn of events, WWE inserted butterflies into our stomachs before punching us in the gut. The result was a visceral, lasting experience, the kind that makes WWE such a unique medium.
What will the company do in 2014 that matches this?
Title changes, betrayals and drastic shifts in character await fans in the new year, Bryan in search of elusive championship glory while Orton and others look to stomp on heroes' dreams.