I’ve been thinking about the traditional heel/face (bad guy/good guy) dichotomy in pro wrestling for some time now. It’s interesting because it tends to be rare that a truly popular face, one the crowds will cheer like mad, starts out a face and then remains a face until they are a megastar. There are a few who did it that way (Ricky Steamboat and Rey Mysterio being the most notable). But more common is for a wrestler who is not over with the crowds to spend some time as a heel and build up a following in that manner.
There are reasons, of course. The hardcore fans love a good heel because then they can cheer for the guy all the little kids boo. (This has never been more true than when the company is headed up by a truly over face in their prime, a la Hulk Hogan or John Cena.) Heels get to be snarky and clever and sarcastic. Heels drive storylines – faces, like superheroes in comic books, are reactive elements in the story rather than proactive. Heels get to cheat, and cheating is the easiest and most satisfying way to get a crowd reaction. And if you’re a good wrestler at all – if you understand the skill of making moves look realistic, both on the giving and receiving end, and if you understand how to pace and build a match – in many ways you get more opportunities to build your craft as a heel. Thus, a very common progression for most wrestlers is to vary between the two – spend time as a heel, then time as a face, and revert back and so forth.
But the real reason most wrestlers who build a following start doing it when they’re heels because faces are the people the fans want to cheer, and it’s not easy at all to tell a crowd to cheer somebody. The Rock, Randy Orton, and John Cena (just to name a few) all started out as basically vanilla faces that the WWF/WWE tried to get the fans to cheer, and all failed miserably to draw a reaction until they were converted into heels.
But the WWE’s current problem in this regard started with Steve Austin back in 1996 or 1997, because Steve Austin was over as a heel and then was converted into a face – except he wasn’t. He was a heel who happened to get cheers and who continued to act like a heel: he would cheerfully cheat and swear and be a bad person generally and this was all sort of awesome. But then the Rock started doing the same thing, because he was mega-over as a heel and it just sort of stuck.
And on some level this is understandable, because if you get over as a heel doing a specific thing, you’re not going to want to mess with that just because you’ve become so popular that now you have to be a face by default. But now it often seems like the WWE’s top faces are just heels who happen to get cheers rather than boos. CM Punk, for example, is still basically a dickhead. Randy Orton just beats people up for the hell of it. And John Cena, who is supposed to be the WWE equivalent of Superman, now seems to spend more time beating up and humilating non-wrestlers in a distinctly creepy way than beating up baddie wrestlers.
It’s a problem, because wrestlers have to come up with new ways to get boos and if it is suddenly cool for the good guys to beat up and humiliate or emasculate helpless people, then they need to up their ante. (Daniel Bryan was on the verge of turning face by default but seems to have pulled back from that by maxing out his dickishness to an amazing degree.) But this leads me to wonder: is there something faces can do to proactively get cheers?
The only thing I can think of is the rescue. Fans always mark out for one face coming to rescue another, probably because it hits that six-year-old inside of us (or, in the case of Cena kids – and admit it, even if you don’t like Cena, Cena kids are awesome – outside of us) who wants Batman to show up whenever Luthor is menacing Superman with Kryptonite and beat Luthor up Bat-style. But is there anything else? I am genuinely stumped here.