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Textual Chocolate: Tombstones Don't Fix Bullet Holes

I’ve spoken before, on the very first edition of Textual Chocolate, about what it is exactly that defines faces and heels in pro wrestling. For those who didn’t click that link, I boiled it down to whatever it is that character does: if his actions and values line up with what society collectively defines as good, he’s a face, and if they’re bad, then he’s a heel. The cheers and boos of the people have little to do with moral alignment—it just means they either like or dislike a character.

What wasn’t in that discussion, however, was the direction of a tweener. A tweener, for those who only know what a face or a heel is, is a character that blurs the line between good and bad. Their actions and values can fall under either category depending on the context, and all the more does audience reaction not apply to them.

 For example, when Brock Lesnar is bullying John Cena, it can be said that he’s being a heel; but when he’s taking out his rage on the WWE for Seth Rollins ducking his contractually-obligated rematch, it can be said that he’s being a face. But the core of Lesnar’s character didn’t change: he was still this beast powered by anger. He F-5ed Michael Cole, who is an innocent civilian despite being annoying, and good guys don’t hurt civilians. But at the same time, you can sympathize with him because he got screwed out of a championship he earned the honest way. (It was lopsided, but it was clean.) Because he straddles both good and bad, because he’s in between them, he’s a tweener.

And when the Undertaker came back at Battleground last Sunday, it wasn’t as the usual supernatural being most fans mark out over. Usually, Taker is the face; he’s been the face ever since he returned from being buried alive, even though a close examination of his character makes him a tweener. But he returned as a heel, kicking Brock in the balls and (again) screwing him out of a championship. He explained it all on RAW as an act of revenge; not so much for breaking the Streak (because it’s a truth he had to deal with) but more so for having Paul Heyman incessantly brag about it after the fact.

On one hand, Taker seems petty. But that’s okay. He’s human. Human beings are petty sometimes, and whether you can relate to it or not, it’s a thing that happens. Lesnar and his anger management problems are human too. But the audience’s rather lukewarm reaction to this feud—most are excited that Taker is back, but once the excitement dies down and we’re realizing that Taker returned and screwed Brock over for a rather petty reason, they’re all meh—is also human. Agreeing with his quest to avenge his Streak and saying it makes sense is also human. It’s also okay to not like a petty guy, and it’s also okay to wish Brock was fighting someone else at SummerSlam. Those are human reactions.

There is a section of the WWE’s audience, mostly the vocal ones on the Internet who dissect and overanalyze the product (like yours truly) who would prefer that wrestlers be not painted in shades of black and white, of distinct good and evil, because human beings live in shades of gray. After all, it’s possible to portray a highly-flawed protagonist as long as storytellers can get people invested in their stories. I keep coming back to this example, but it’s the best: Walter White from Breaking Bad is a really flawed protagonist, but he’s really popular.

So it should be this easy, right? We just try to make wrestling characters hyperrealistic, and all should be well? What better way to do the Reality Era right than to give fans real people?

Well, not so fast, my friend.

Now, I think JR is one of the old guard in that he thinks a little too old-school for my tastes, but he has a point.

Traditionally, heels like Ric Flair drew dimes because they made the crowd want to see them get beat up by faces like Dusty Rhodes. Wrestling’s stories worked—still do, actually—because good vs. evil was easy to get behind. They may look different now in the Reality Era, but when you play it real close, it still works. Look at Daniel Bryan vs. the Authority. That was good versus evil; the only difference now is that we choose who we want to believe in. We determine the heroes we accept.

But J.R. is right, if only because splitting the crowd down the middle when it comes to cheering a wrestler isn’t good business practice, at least on paper. It’s okay to make a top guy human, but what if he pisses half the crowd off while making the other half fall in love with him? That might be what he’s getting at, and it makes sense. You don’t maximize the strengths of getting behind a single person when the crowd is divided.

At the same time, however, I can see how a new model might start to work. People are starting to cheer heels and boo faces, and it just isn’t the same as it was back in J.R.’s heyday. Divisive tweeners can drive the business if we empirically accept that audience reactions determine moral alignments. You’d be basically reversing the existing storytelling model not just for wrestling, but for anything at all, be it fiction or non-fiction. While I’m not so sure if that’s a good idea, what I think wouldn’t matter if it ends up driving business.

It’s possible, though, to properly write a character firmly in either the good or bad side and give him shades of gray. Hell, they’re able to do it with Kevin Owens, and they kind of pulled it off with Brock himself. Maybe the biggest issue with the Undertaker’s return is that while he was acting like a heel, the attempt to justify it was weak, not well thought-out. Or maybe, leaving us to decide whether he is good or bad for doing what he did is throwing us into too much chaos. Maybe we just wish the WWE was more like Lucha Underground.

It’s just a matter of figuring out what works with who, and maybe not reducing one of your most iconic characters to a petty, iconic shell of himself.

Photo from WWE


Romeo Moran (@roiswaris the Editor in Chief of Smark Henry and one of the three hosts of the Smark Gilas-Pilipinas Podcast. He gets by in this hard knock life through working in publishing. Smark Henry was his and Stan Sy's original vision of a watering hole for local wrestling fans. He roots for the undersized guys who hit hard, but really hates Davey Richards with his entire soul.

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