Before anything else, I want to make sure it’s clear that the headline is asking. The question isn’t “Do we need good guys and bad guys?”, no one would really argue that as pretty much every story has this to some degree. But I’d argue that the system of faces and heels that’s embedded into wrestling is something nothing else has because nothing else seems to need it. So does pro wrestling need it? That’s what we’re tackling…
To get more into what I mean here, in any other medium, we look at a character for all their specific traits and actions. We judge them as good, bad or indifferent people in the context of the show’s world based on the sum of these parts. And the writing of these works are largely judged by how consistent and sensible these characters are.
Wrestling is a little less individualistic than that. While this has been worn down over time due to how unnatural it can be, it began with a strict set of rules that still inform the older audience’s perspective to this day. Of course a face follows the rules to the letter even to their own detriment and a heel breaks them even when they don’t need to. A face should never turn down a fight no matter what it is, a heel on some level is a coward deep down. A face is by default a better, stronger and flashier wrestler whereas heels are inherently weaker and less exciting to watch. It goes on like this.
A babyface needs to be presented as just and likeable in every given scenario. They are never outsmarted, they are always right, and they are always inherently superior as both a competitor and a person. A heel must be hateable in all situations. A fool and a foil, coming up with underhanded schemes for the express purpose of being thwarted, all in the name of making up for their shortcomings as a wrestler.
My point is, in dealing with most scenarios, the question usually isn’t what fits the character, but rather what fits their alignment.
Any long-time wrestling fan knows for a fact that few wrestlers in the world care less about following the rules than Edge. He’s one of the most infamous cheaters in WWE’s history and even speaks proudly of how devious he is in promos still to this day. But when he came back as a face, he fought clean and with nobodies’ help because that’s just how it works. When he’s the good guy, he does not break the rules. Not because of any meaningful moral stance but because the scenario paints him as the sympathetic figure so of course he doesn’t.
When Neville came up in WWE, he was thought of as one of the best high fliers in the world and one of the most exciting athletes of his generation. It was how he excelled, it’s what brought him to the dance. But when he became the dastardly King of the Cruiserweights, his style lost most of it’s flash. Did his character start railing against high flying maneuvers? Did he lose faith in the high risk style due to it costing him one too many times? No, not really. He just became a villain and that means not going off the top rope so much and slowing down matches even though a quick pace would put him at an advantage against anyone. It’s just how it works. It’s not questioned, it’s assumed. It’d be questioned if he didn’t do that.
These are things that make sense to a wrestling fan, but would honestly probably baffle a more casual viewer who isn’t privy to the rules that we assume are natural and logical. Especially when a face that turns heel suddenly loses all their skill and has to rely on cheap tactics, and similarly a heel that turns face suddenly gets inherently stronger.
Something that muddies this for people is the concept of a tweener.
This is something that can be debated but I think people have the wrong idea about this. They see a tweener as the absence of a heel/face system. I don’t think that’s true. I think a tweener is a loophole in the system, but it still very much exists within it. A tweener is a face and a heel at the same time. Which given the logic we’re running with, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not really the same as a nuanced, ambiguous character in fiction because we’re not working within the bounds of nuance or ambiguity in the first place.
Take Finn Balor’s current character in NXT, for instance. Currently I’d call him a tweener in theory. But in practice that means he’s a heel who plays face against other heels and that’s often how a tweener works. Finn’s character is, by all rights, a disillusioned and bitter jerk. The returning legend who as a rule regards the current generation of NXT upstarts with contempt and seems to bare a grudge against modern wrestling even though he’s one of the guys who helped put it on it’s current path in the first place. He’s a heel in basically every scenario, but because NXT’s main event scene is wholly comprised of heels now, they’re starting to lean him more towards a face role by necessity.
But in his feud with Timothy Thatcher, did he really have much of a moral high ground? Did Thatcher do anything to Finn that Finn wouldn’t do to someone else? Not really. But you know Finn better, and he wrestles flashier, so he’s got the role of face in the match. He’s what I refer to as a defacto babyface. A hero on that night not because of anything specific to his character but because somebody needs to play that role in a given match. In any other medium, when two villains fight, it’s generally presented as just that, two villains fighting. But in wrestling there’s a pressure to make one of them the good guy since you want people to have someone to root for at all times.
That’s not to say this can’t be done well on a case-by-case basis.
Another situational face that cropped up at the exact same time was Adam Cole. But this one, atleast to me, seemed less like a Tweener and more like a real character. You see, he’s usually as much of a traditional heel as you’ll find. He’s arrogant and obnoxious, and relies heavily on his band of cohorts to give him an unfair advantage. And yet, he was undoubtedly the babyface against Pat McAfee, even though he’s seemingly going right back to being a heel after the fact. But when you look at what that story was, it makes perfect sense.
The angle was that McAfee was disrespecting not only him but pro wrestling as a whole, referring to himself as a legit athlete in a world full of pretenders. He was disparaging both NXT and the business at large and essentially vowed to prove that wrestlers were frauds.
When Adam Cole took a stand against that, it did not break character in any way. He’s always been a proud, flag-waving supporter of the black and gold brand, because after all he prides himself on ruling the place. And as one of the top pro wrestlers in the game, why wouldn’t he defend pro wrestling? His ego does not detract from this, it only informs it. And if you support NXT and pro wrestling as a whole, why wouldn’t you root for Cole in this scenario?
This isn’t an instance of Cole suddenly being a different person week-to-week. He’s a coherent character you can easily side with in this specific situation, even if you wouldn’t side with him any other time. Even fighting clean in the match itself made sense given what he sought to prove. If McAfee was wrong and Cole was really better than him, why would he need help? Why would he need to cheat? It’d only undermine his point. But also why would he not be an arrogant cheating jerk again the next time you see him? Nothing about this experience changed him, he was proven correct in this angle, he’s not about to change his ways.
Even so, we look at situations based more on the face/heel dynamic than what actually makes sense for a given character.
Every human being on Earth is right sometimes and wrong sometimes and that’s the case for characters in every other medium as well but in wrestling this is seen as somehow confusing.
Brandi Rhodes, if you delve into it, is a fairly complicated character. Like Seth Rollins in WWE she is largely informed by the real life criticism that she’s bombarded with. But rather than turn that into a hateful character who lashes out against fans, this only feeds into a deep-rooted insecurity that she’d already struggled with for years. And this leads to her making some very poor decisions.
She’s so desperate for acceptance that she starts up a cult just so she can have more people that stand with her, only to fall deeper into her anxiety when it falls apart. She’s so desperate to feel like she matters that she puts a ridiculous emphasis on superficial stuff like having her own action figure and makes claims like “having a second one will make me whole”.
Nothing about this suggests that she has no loved ones. Nothing about it suggests that she’s a bad wife. She has some pretty severe character flaws but they’re often more destructive to herself than the people around her.
Nonetheless, in the logic of wrestling, she’s not allowed to be like this whilst also caring about her husband’s well-being.
It was so fascinating to see people disparage it when she came out to jump onto the fallen body of Cody in an effort to protect him from further harm when the Dark Order was destroying him. Not because it clashed with her character in any way, no one was even arguing that because they knew that wasn’t the case. They hated it because it clashed with the perception of her as a heel.
It was exactly the kind of thing that would never be a problem anywhere but wrestling. It was exactly the kind of thing that would only confuse someone that’s accustomed to how wrestling operates.
Thanos can literally disintegrate half of all living things in the universe but still genuinely weep when his daughter ends up needing to be sacrificed, and everyone understands it. But Brandi can’t be self-absorbed and obsessed with her action figure and also care when her husband is tipped from a stretcher without it being seen as a contradiction. This is a way that wrestling’s storytelling is fundamentally different from everything else and, I’d argue, fundamentally weaker as a result.
That example is fairly prudent because old school wrestling is often compared to old comic books.
They’re also supposed to have a pretty strict code here, right? They’re known for having very clear-cut good guys and bad guys, or atleast they used to be. And they were close to having as strict a system as wrestling. A good guy would be nice and pure and valiant in every situation, not only beating up bad guys but also helping old ladies across the street when needed. A villain would be evil even when it’s directly detrimental to them because they just don’t know any other way.
But even in the older era of comics, they could toy with that perception a bit. Really the whole idea of the Incredible Hulk is that of a superhero that’s also an uncontrollable threat in his own right, a danger to anyone he comes across regardless of their innocence. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde story but with a giant monster, and yet he ends up saving the day enough that he’s still regarded as a good guy. Imagine a babyface randomly attacking, even severely injuring other babyfaces in a blind rage on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how you explain it, they’re going to come off like a heel every time it happens.
Magneto is one of the most famous and feared villains in the Marvel universe with an unyielding hatred of humanity. He’s also a holocaust survivor that was conceived of by Jewish creators. He sees the mounting oppression against mutants and gets flashbacks to concentration camps. So he lashes out in an effort to prevent the same atrocities from repeating themselves. It’s not hard to see where he’s coming from and even sympathize with him, but the way he goes about it is reprehensible, ironically taking on fascist leanings in it’s own way, and you can easily root against him regardless.
(Note: I am well aware that there exists evil versions of the Hulk and stories where Magneto turns to the light side, I’m just talking about the typical portrayals of these characters.)
Both of those examples are from the early 60s.
Comics today are written largely like any other modern story, so there’s a lot more of this kind of nuance now but it was hardly unheard of even that long ago.
Even in media aimed at young children, you’re allowed and even encouraged to have complicated and flawed heroes going up against well-motivated and understandable villains.
Why is pro wrestling different, then? Why is basically everything else allowed to have deeper characters?
After giving it some thought, I think it might boil down to stakes.
In most stories that focus on action, there’s some pretty serious stuff on the line. People’s lives hanging in the balance, whole worlds and even universes that will be irreparably effected by the outcome of the conflict. And therefore, the scale of morality is based on where you fall in that conflict. Maybe you’re the one trying to prevent it, maybe you’re the cause or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle.
This allows you to shape these characters however you want. A hero can have selfish motivations for trying to save people. A villain can be sympathetic and make some sound points to back up what they’re trying to do. But at the end of the day, you’re going to side with the person who isn’t looking to murder or enslave people, or whatever else the conflict might be about.
Perhaps the protagonist in a cop drama isn’t the most likable or interesting guy, maybe the serial killer he’s after is more entertaining than him but at the end of the day, you understand that a serial killer can’t be allowed to run loose. No matter what their personality might be like, heroes and villain in most stories have different goals and it’s those goals that tend to define their alignment.
In wrestling however, everyone’s goal is basically the same.
It’s a sport. Everyone is ultimately looking to become a champion, regardless of what title they might be after. Even grudge matches are still just an athletic competition and unless some weird stip is attached, the result of the match doesn’t seriously affect anyone’s life beyond what is inherent to winning and losing.
The more cartooney, over the top wrestling products are a little different in that regard since they can have world domination seeking villains and the like if they want. In the 80s some of Hulk Hogan’s enemies actively threatened to nuke the US and Hogan himself seemed convinced that beating them in a wrestling match would prevent this somehow, so those were certainly high stakes.
But for the most part, winning a championship in a sport is a neutral thing that doesn’t help or hurt anyone else by itself.
It can have significance grafted onto it based on what the specific winner represents or how it’s done, but ultimately, someone was going to be champion. The world’s not really changed much by who ends up doing it.
Therefore it does stand to reason that in a sports story, the onus is more prominently placed on the characters within it to be likable or dislikable. Otherwise you don’t really have much of a rooting interest. In storyline anyway. Obviously a lot of fans will just root for whoever they find the most entertaining for one reason or another.
Indeed you can see this applied to sports movies quite frequently. They do have to go out of there way to make one team or participant have a moral high ground and/or overcome some great adversity in an inspirational way that their opponents aren’t depicted with.
Maybe the best thing to compare the typical pro wrestling story to is the Rocky franchise.
Being that it’s a fictional story centering around a combat sport, Rocky probably has more in common with wrestling than boxing. While there’s always a big fight to lead up to, the films are largely about who Rocky Balboa is and where he’s at in his life, because it’s essential that the audience relates to him and roots for him for the story to work. As such, he is always easy to sympathize with compared to his opponents, who become progressively more villainous as the series goes on.
Still, there’s room for nuance even in these relatively simple sports stories. Rocky certainly isn’t a heel in any sense but at the start of the first movie, he’s down on his luck with a shady job of being the collector for a loan shark, having to intimidate people into paying up. Mind you he hates the job and refuses to break a man’s finger when asked but nonetheless getting involved with that was a choice he made. His feud with Apollo Creed intensifies over the first two films but by the end of the third, it’s turned into a close-knit friendship. We see Rocky regularly fall into the trap of blowing his money as soon as he comes into it, and he’s certainly to be deceived, he went through ten straight title defenses without ever realizing his trainer had been hand-picking cupcakes for him to take out.
Ivan Drago is the most clearly villainous of any of Rocky’s opponents, showing no sympathy when Apollo Creed died from the beating during their fight, not to mention being a direct representative of the Soviet Union at a point when Cold War fears were still very real. And yet, even he got to have a moment of depth when he decided during the fight with Rocky to reject what he’d been taught and fight for himself, even denouncing Gorbachev on the spot right there in the motherland. Pretty brave stance for a heel to take. You’re still not rooting for him after it and it’s not as though he apologizes for anything, so it’s not quite like a turn but it’s certainly presented as a redeeming moment anyway.
If it’s possible to do this in a sports movie, why not in pro wrestling?
What really separates the two, conceptually? They’re narratives centering around a sport where you’re guided to hope for a certain outcome based on the characters involved. That’s kinda the core of it, atleast from where it was conceived. It likely does need heroes and villains, but faces and heels…?
I of course understand that you want people to cheer one side and boo the other. Which would be a strong argument in faces and heels, if audiences actually worked that way. But people are less receptive all the time to having their hands held and being told who to root for. Straight-up, the face/heel system has been failing at this for years.
And if eschewing it in favor of more typical heroes and villains leads to more mixed reactions? Well that’s a thing those characters would have in common with all of the biggest stars of the past two decades. Even Kazuchika Okada, the ace of New Japan, gets booed sometimes and they’re pretty much at their peak popularity. You can succeed with mixed reactions. You can. It’s okay. If anything, I’d argue WWE’s refusal to embrace this had a lot to do with the disintegration of their audience the past several years.
If nothing else, I hope it’s clear why this is a question these days.
What matters is that people can get behind today’s wrestlers, however it happens. When wrestling is at it’s hottest, it tends to be a reflection of the current culture in many ways, with the top stars often fitting into their eras like a glove. Specifically, it appealed to the younger audience of that generation. There’s a reason Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were a pair, and there’s certainly a reason Stone Cold Steve Austin was the man in the rebellious late 90s.
And I know that the older wrestling fan prefers not to have to think too deeply about the show they’re watching, that’s always a key explanation of faces and heels. But you have to go with what works today, with what connects to the modern audience, or else you’ll die out.
If you look at how storytelling has evolved elsewhere, I think that means we’re ready to get something a little deeper than what we’re used to.
This is informed by shows that dominated the last decade in Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, all of which center greatly around their moral dilemmas and characters that fascinate and delight folks even as they scratch their heads on where they stand on the morality scale.
And while I hate speaking as some kind of monolith, I’m a 20-something that prefers deeper stories and characters to the kind of simple stuff that wrestling’s based on, and I think the same is true of a lot of the current generation. We’re in the age of the fan theory, the video essays, the era of pouring over every second of a trailer to see any hints we can muster, where we can debate endlessly about any ambiguity a story gives us. Or atleast if it’s not where we’re at now, it feels like it’s where we’re going.
I don’t want wrestling to fall behind. So I’d like it personally if we moved past looking at these stories as “a heel doing a face thing, this bad” and to simply ask if what’s happening is in-character or not.