A few days ago I wrote a blog comparing superhero archetypes to the heroic characters in professional wrestling. It’s only natural that I would do a companion piece for the villains. Pro wrestling bad guys are usually referred to as “heels” by those in the business and those who follow it, so don’t be surprised if I start throwing that term around liberally. I got my start as a writer by working for a wrestling news website, so a lot of the terminology is ingrained in me. Bad guys are heels and good guys are babyfaces. It’s just what I know.
As in any other form of media, a professional wrestling hero is only as good as the villain they are paired against. And just like most other forms of media, the bad guys have their fans as well. Somebody who appreciates the art of storytelling is likely to recognize a well done villain and enjoy seeing them. And because professional wrestling is a performance art, sometimes the heel is a better performer than the babyface and gets cheered by fans who value talent above the story going on.
If that seems like an odd phenomenon, consider the popularity of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight or the fact that the character of Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds helped make Christoph Waltz a star. If a villain is more interesting and the actor playing the character is more talented, can we really be blamed for cheering them over the heroes? I think not. That is the nature of art appreciation.
The Monster: The Destroyer of Everything
The concept of an unstoppable beast of destruction is ancient, as old as any plot device in the history of storytelling. Noble knights slay dragons, David battles the giant Goliath, Perseus survives the deadly Medusa, modern man faces the soulless threats of artificial intelligence and extraterrestrials. These monsters are usually not considered to be intelligent, and if they are than they lack any morals and present a danger to everyone around them. While easily the least complex of villains, monsters play a vital role in storytelling because of the threat they present. When Doomsday killed Superman, something nobody thought they would ever see, it was national news. That’s what a good monster can do. And when somebody manages to bring down a monster, it feels like an accomplishment. It takes a lot of effort to make Batman defeating The Riddler feel like a difficult feat, but put him up against Killer Croc or Clayface and there’s immediate tension.
Professional wrestling is a genre that thrives on the monster trope. In a world where massive size and brute strength alone can make somebody an attraction, it isn’t a surprise that many of wrestling’s most successful villains have been dominating giants. Probably the most famous match in wrestling history put the heroic Hulk Hogan in the seemingly impossible position of trying to defeat the villainous Andre the Giant. The early 1990’s saw two very successful monsters; the 600 pound Yokozuna (Samoan wrestler Rodney Anoa’i) was the WWF Champion for most of a year between WrestleMania IX and WrestleMania X. In WCW there was The Man They Call Vader, a man who was not as large as Yokozuna but compensated with startling agility and absolutely vicious punches that looked real because they are often were. Vader’s battles with Sting are of particular importance to me because they got my older brother hooked on wrestling, which led to me getting the bug as well.
While wrestling as a whole has seen a trend towards smaller, more athletic wrestlers, that doesn’t mean the monster trope is anywhere near dead. Instead the monsters have evolved. Pictured above is Brock Lesnar, an absolute freak of nature who seems truly superhuman. He has the legitimate credentials of being a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion in amateur wrestling as well as a run as the UFC Heavyweight Champion. While he is imposing at 6’3″ and around 300 pounds, what makes Brock truly scary is the mix of strength, speed and stamina that make him a virtually perfect athlete. With all of these assets and his legitimate credentials, he’s arguably the most effective monster heel in the history of wrestling. His matches are a spectacle because every person he is pitted against is an underdog in the fight of their life.
The Mastermind: The Smarter, Unscrupulous Puppet Master
Not everyone is a physical giant. Indeed, those freaks of nature are actually pretty rare. So most villains are defined instead by the greatness of their ambition, their intelligence, and their ego. When these traits mix with unlimited resources and a lack of scruples, we are presented with perhaps the most dominant villain archetype of the last century, and certainly in comic books; the Mastermind. This is the person who is smarter than everybody else and believes this puts them above the rest of humanity; rules are for the simple minded and power is there to be obtained by those brave enough to seek it. Mad scientists, corrupt politicians, criminal millionaires, evil dictators – we all know this villain when we see it. The likes of Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom and The Red Skull have all had lengthy careers with this trope.
And wrestling has its fair share of evil masterminds as well. In fact, perhaps the most effective way to show wrestling fans you are a bad guy is by using your intelligence to target an injury or avoid some crowd pleasing but high risk attack from the babyface. Tapping the head to indicate one’s intelligence is a surefire way to get the crowd booing you. “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair was arguably the greatest bad guy in the history of pro wrestling, and he prided himself on being smarter than everyone, breaking any rule to win matches and by using his influence to have a gang of thugs called The Four Horsemen do his dirty work. The most prolific villain of the late 1990’s was Vince McMahon, the real life owner of the World Wrestling Federation. Using his position of power to play on the common man’s hatred of the evil boss, Vince used his influence and his creativity to sabotage the promotions most popular heroes.
One of the defining aspects of the wrestling mastermind in recent years has been taking advantage of injuries. Adam Copeland, pictured above, portrayed a character named Edge who was hated by most of the audience but used his intelligence to become one of the most decorated stars of all time. He revolutionized the business when he won a “Money in the Bank” Contract that allowed him to challenge the World Champion at any time of his choosing. Instead of using this opportunity in an honorable way, he waited until the champion John Cena had successfully defended his title in a grueling match against five other men in an Elimination Chamber (a massive cage with metal chains) to cash it in when he was at his weakest. Now it was not just the strongest and the toughest that could become top dog, but the smartest and most devious.
One of the reasons I choose to promote wrestling on this blog is to expose people to great characters that they may not have otherwise known. Wrestling is an episodic television show with characters that constantly evolve and add new layers forming personas that become downright iconic along the way. Even if one never acquires a taste for the specialized art that goes into creating a great wrestling match, it is possible to find a character in wrestling that resonates with you. If you enjoy heroes and villains, and if you read a blog about comic book characters, you probably are, I am willing to bet that you can find something to like in the world of professional wrestling.