The WWE has a problem.
Surprisingly, I’m not talking about anything related to stock value or corporate governance. I’m referring specifically to the aspect of pro wrestling that matters most to me as a fan: Storytelling. And, whether the creative team realizes it yet or not, the WWE has a huge, looming issue that will negatively impact the long-term fortunes of the product.
Something is changing about the way WWE tells stories. It’s a change that is heretofore unknown in the world of sports entertainment.
Look at the current WWE roster. Notice anything odd?
Maybe not. I’ll explain what you should be looking for . . .
Let’s start with a basic point: For storylines generally to work on a consistent basis, the WWE needs heels (bad guys, in case you came here expecting to read a review of an 80-year-old movie) and faces (good guys). To be sure, not every story has to be a pure “heel vs. face” conflict, but, over time, that dynamic is the one that must appear most frequently. On top of that, the WWE needs its stars to be “over,” meaning they get a strong crowd reaction.
Consider a 2×2 matrix, with “heel” and “face” rows and “over” and “not over” columns.
If you were to assign every WWE performer to one of the quadrants, the box for “over / heel” would be fairly empty, wouldn’t it?
That’s the odd thing about the current WWE roster: There are heels, there are faces, and there are guys who are over. But the supply of over heels has never been smaller.
“Wait, you idiot,” you’re screaming at your tablet. “What about Bad News Barrett? Ever heard of Bray Wyatt? How about Cesaro?!?”
Now we come to the heart of the problem.
With a few exceptions, the live WWE audience in 2014 will begin to cheer any heel who is effective at his job. That’s not unprecedented, although it happens now more than ever. The truly new aspect of this is that the WWE has decided to embrace those cheers and to give its heels face-like qualities. That decision appeases fans in the short run and makes for better in-the-moment crowd reactions—but it also undermines the product from a storytelling standpoint.
To take the Bray Wyatt example. Wyatt is a creepy, swamp-dwelling cult leader who would have been a dangerous, pure heel in any other era. To its credit, the WWE presented him and promoted him perfectly during the build-up to his debut and his subsequent early appearances.
Now? Wyatt is still theoretically a heel. But he leads the crowd in song. He says he’s fighting for underdogs and outcasts. He acknowledges the town he’s in upon every entrance, something that Mick Foley used to do in a meta bid for a cheap pop.
Help me out, WWE. Am I supposed to hate this guy? Fear him? Like him? Cheer him?
Feeling conflicted about a character is ok. Feeling confused in an “I’m not sure what they’re doing, here” way is not. There’s a difference.
While Wyatt may not be wearing the local sports team’s jersey to the ring anytime soon, these are not positive developments. Meanwhile, Bad News Barrett has also gotten over with a heel gimmick, only to begin hearing a positive crowd reaction. This, in turn, has led him to interact with the crowd in a “face-ish” way.
Cesaro is another one. He became a de facto face while a member of the heel Real Americans. He then had a falling out with Zeb and Jack, but he immediately got paired with one of the few truly over heels in the company, the incredible Paul Heyman. Still, he’s cheered, and his crowd-pleasing swing is a huge part of his gimmick.
Heck, even the formerly-mega-heel Shield guys are now the protagonists in the top angle in the company at the moment.
I greatly enjoy and respect all of these performers. But they shouldn’t all act like faces.
It seems that WWE has fully embraced the idea of rolling with the punches thrown by an audience that is “smarter” (if not smarter) than ever.
True enough, fans have always had some influence over stories. At a minimum, they’ve helped guide who gets “pushed” and who gets de-emphasized. But the rise of Daniel Bryan as a main-event player and world champion signaled that the creative side of WWE has become more responsive to the desires of the WWE Universe than ever before.
This may seem like a good thing—and, to a limited extent, it is—but there also comes a point where fans get in the way of storytelling.
That seeming contradiction actually makes perfect sense: Fans don’t see the whole picture, partially because they lack expertise, but mostly because they lack access to the inner-workings of the company’s creative process. So, while they may not like what the WWE is doing in a given week, that creative decision may be one step in a bigger plan that will ultimately be more satisfying to the viewer and be—dare I say it—best for business.
Except that’s not what’s happening with some of these characters.
That brings me back to my hypothetical matrix. Right now in WWE, there are intended faces who are over as faces (e.g. Daniel Bryan), intended heels who are more or less over as faces (e.g. Bray Wyatt), and intended faces or heels who aren’t over enough to be main-eventers (e.g. Big E as a face, Rusev as a heel).
What WWE doesn’t have much of are main-event-level, over heels who don’t get face-like reactions. And, as I said in the footnote earlier, the ones they do have aren’t long-term solutions to this problem. Those who qualify are either short-timers, part-timers, or non-wrestlers.
How does WWE put a stop to this before it starts to damage the product in a serious way?
First, turning John Cena heel wouldn’t be a good solution to this particular puzzle. The company has too much invested in him as a role model for children, and he still sells more merchandise than anyone. Flipping him before either of those two things change does more harm than good.
Secondly, relying on someone new is also problematic. The temptation of creative to let a new heel character become a tweener as soon as he’s over—as happened with Wyatt, as happened with Barrett, as eventually happened with The Shield—has to be curbed. My worry with someone like Bo Dallas would be that he would be told to start playing to the crowd in a positive way as soon as he became sufficiently entertaining.
In a perfect world, Brock Lesnar—the most pristine monster heel imaginable in today’s industry—would work a full schedule, rendering this entire article moot. Lesnar is a modern marvel, a performer dripping with authenticity and credibility who neither wants nor needs to sneak a toe over to the “face” side of the line. Pairing him with Heyman just ups that incredible ante.
But we don’t live in that world.
The first step to fixing this problem, as always, is recognizing that there is a problem. It would be easy to think that’s not the case. After all, some might argue that we live in a post-heel/face era. Shades of gray and all that.
The reality is that pro wrestling is, at bottom, a reflection of basic human truths. The simpler those truths are, the better. That means that the good vs. evil archetype must be respected in the long run. If it isn’t, the stories that the writers are trying to tell become incoherent. I beat this dead horse a lot, I know, but I am a firm believer that the most important element to the health of the wrestling business is presenting compelling characters who do things that make sense within the contextual boundaries of sports entertainment.
That may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t.
The lack of an over heel at the main-event level is going to become a bigger and bigger hurdle creatively as time goes on, especially once the Evolution storyline runs its course and Batista leaves.
The WWE needs to find someone who fits this bill:
1. Capable of skillfully portraying a true heel character.
2. Committed to the business full-time and long-term.
3. Capable of performing at a main-event level.
4. Unappealing to smart / old-school fans.
The first criteria is where Cena would have trouble. The second is where Lesnar and Batista probably get knocked out. The third excludes guys who are too inexperienced on the elite portion of the card. Then there’s that fourth criteria.
That fourth point has become increasingly, improbably important as the WWE has become more malleable in the hands of the live crowds. Simply put, the WWE needs someone who can not only be entertaining as an antagonist, but also offends the sensibilities of a critical mass of “smart” fans.
That may seem like a negative, but, for a heel in this environment, it absolutely isn’t. Rather, it’s a necessary precaution against the possibility of becoming a de facto face.
That’s also why even a hypothetically-returning C. M. Punk would have problems pulling it off, despite his tremendous skill.
Who can fill this role?
Personally, I think there’s a glaringly obvious choice.
That’s right. The Miz. The former WWE Champion who had an amazing heel run in 2010–11. The guy who once pinned John Cena in the main event of WrestleMania. The performer who will do whatever the company asks of him. The same Miz who once shot Hornswoggle in the groin with a t-shirt gun. That Miz.
The timing couldn’t be better. He’s been away filming the latest Marine movie, giving his character a chance to “refresh.” Daniel Bryan is out for at least a few weeks, and the status of the world title is up in the air. Establish the Miz as a heel now, then have him feud with a returning Bryan (with whom he has history) when Bryan is ready to return.
The angle is an easy one: The Miz cuts a promo explaining that there are just a few guys who have main-evented WrestleMania on the entire roster, and he’s the only one who doesn’t get the proper measure of respect or support from the company or the fans. He can emphasize that he’s actually younger than the rest of those erstwhile WrestleMania main-eventers, but it still seems like the WWE has only pushed him aside, while the others continue to get opportunity after opportunity. He can highlight his hard work and dedication to the WWE, but say that being in movies feels like a consolation prize—when what he really wants is to win the WWE Championship again. Maybe he comes out at Payback in Chicago in a couple of weeks and cuts a condescending promo where he expresses his “disappointment” in the crowd’s fickle nature, all the while wearing a Punk t-shirt as a not-so-subtle trolling effort.
We can imagine a scenario where a feud with Bryan would include Miz trolling “smart” fans in a number of ways, including mocking Bryan’s “reckless” wrestling style, pointing out that he never gets injured (it always helps when a heel has a point). Miz could further needle the IWC and indy fans by, e.g., taking a turn at commentary during which he openly admits that he doesn’t even know the names of most of the wrestling moves being performed in front of him.
All of that could culminate in a match where Bryan wrestles circles around Miz for 15 minutes, ultimately only to lose via, say . . . a legdrop.
I’ve missed the heel Miz, but him being an ineffectual face for the last couple of years works in his favor now. He can resurrect his old persona, tweak it, and become the character that the company will need to keep the creative scales from tipping too far in the “face” direction. That’s especially important now, when the WWE suddenly needs to have a great second half of 2014.
A heel Miz back at the top of the card would be gloriously entertaining. He has always been sorely underappreciated. Perhaps more importantly, such a decision would be an effective solution to the problem I just described.
The alternative is to move forward as is.
I don’t believe that alternative is sustainable over the long haul.