Heroes and Villains: Here Come the People in Gray

Hi everyone. I said last time that I’d discuss continuity this week, and I still intend to do so at some point in the future. But the events from Taboo Tuesday have left me inspired to write a column on a different subject: characters who don’t fit in as either faces or heels.

THE PEOPLE IN GRAY

Wrestling has traditionally been about black and white. Good guys always fought cleanly, stood for the same values as the audience (i.e., capitalism, democracy, and a half-assed kind of populism that stood for vague traditional values–usually this was defined in the negative, as in “I’m against your big city ways, Ric Flair”). Bad guys were cheaters, sadists, and proponents of values which somehow stood against those of the viewing audience (i.e., communism, homosexuality, and a vague sort of hedonism/crass materialism, as in “jet flying, limousine riding,” and whatnot). Yes, in recent years we have seen the advent of the anti-hero in wrestling, best exemplified in Steve Austin–guys who are hellraisers, who aren’t adverse to cheating or brutality, but who have values that are essentially the same as the viewing audience. The popular term for these folks is “tweeners,” but this is a little disingenuous. These folks aren’t really in between the categories or heel or face–they simply combine aspects of both groups. A more accurate term might be “hybrid faces;” even better would be to simply use the existing literary terminology and simply call them antiheroes. (By the way, who came up with this term “tweener”? What’s the point in inventing a new word when there’s a perfectly good word already out there? Was the inventor of this word simply not aware of the term “antihero?”)

If we must use the term “tweener,” I think it best that we use it to describe those folks whose motivations lie somewhere in between heel and face. There are two great examples in the WWE right now–Edge and Kane. Neither one falls directly into the category of heel or face. Both do heel-ish things, but they also do things (or have things done to them) which are associated with faces. These characters occupy a kind of gray area, one which bookers have historically been hesitant to use. For the sake of brevity, I’ll call these “gray characters” or “ambiguous characters.”

Now some folks will tell you that gray characters are a bad thing. They will tell you that they are the products of lazy or incompetent booking. They will tell you that these characters cannot draw money; they will tell you that all characters should be emphatically heel or face. These people apparently believe that there is no room for gray in the wrestling world. I have a hard time getting a handle on people opposed to ambiguous characters. I can only come up with two possibilities. Some of these people are those who wrestling to remain pure and simple, essentially unchanged from their childhood (or their memories of childhood, at least). I just can’t sympathize with this. I guess these are the same sort of people who like to watch the same movies over and over, even if they know what’s coming. In fact, I suspect that they enjoy these repeated viewings because they know what’s coming next. I know this is a gross overgeneralization, but I suspect these are people who want to be reassured by the things they watch on television or at the movie theater. They want simple morality plays about good vs. evil, wrong vs. right. Again, I just can’t understand this. You don’t have to be a genius (and I’m the living proof!) to figure out that the real world is seldom as simple as wrong vs. right, black vs. white. The real world isn’t even as simple as shades of gray–the real world is in color, where lightness and darkness is complicated by an infinite range of pigments.

Personally, I don’t like watching the same things over and over (which probably explains why I don’t own any movies on DVD–just wrestling DVDs and the first season of Rocky and Bullwinkle). I want to be challenged on some level by the things I watch or read. I don’t want to guess what the ending will be–I like it when characters and their motivations are ambiguous. But I do accept that some people like simple, predictable struggles in which good inevitably triumphs over evil. These people seek escapism in their recreational choices. And I realize that these people are annoyed by ambiguous characters.

I have less tolerance for the other group of fans who don’t like gray characters. These folks seem to dislike ambiguous characters not out of personal choice, but out of some kind of misguided sense of protectiveness for the wrestling industry. Such fans assume that the only characters which draw are those who are clearly distinguishable as faces or heels–black or white. There seems to be an underlying snobbery here–“Well I get it, but I’m much smarter than the average wrestling fan. This angle is just going to confuse the other morons who watch wrestling.” Somewhere along the way these people seem to have come to the conclusion that the quality of a wrestling angle is determined solely by how much money it draws. I guess these people also assume that a highly-rated show must be a good show, or that a best selling author must write good books. Again, I think this is ridiculous–and given the fragmentation of mass culture in America (and much of the world), I think most people are with me. The diverse array of entertainment choices available to us tells me that people are less likely to assume something is good just because it’s popular. To those of you who judge the success of angles on financial rather than aesthetic merits, I propose that you’re missing the point. Art/entertainment should be about the relationship of the book/program/movie/etc. to each individual audience member. Saying that an angle sucks just because you (or Dave Meltzer or Wade Keller, or anybody else) don’t think it will draw is ridiculous.

Whew. Sorry for the mini-rant–I just wanted to get that off my chest.

Contrary to what some folks think, I don’t believe that the average wrestling fan is too stupid to wrap his or her head around the concept of ambiguous characters. To the contrary: I think “casual” fans are intrigued by gray characters. Take for instance the “Crow” version of Sting, circa late 1996. His motivations were unclear, as were his loyalties. As a result, every appearance by Sting was fraught with tension. We never knew who would be next to be whacked in the stomach with the baseball bat. The same was true, to a lesser extent, of Steve Austin around this time (the WWE was quicker to assert his status as a heel and later as a face, thus making him a bit less ambiguous). Fans still responded to Sting, even though his allegiance was uncertain. We weren’t so confused that we didn’t react; instead, Sting was probably bigger in 1996/7 than at any previous point in his career.*

Gray characters are great because they’re unpredictable. We don’t know what they’re going to do when they show up (or, in some cases, fail to show up). Will they ally with the good guys or the bad guys? Will they clean their tag team partner’s clock after they win (or lose) the match? Will they run out to make the save when a colleague is receiving a beatdown? This match involves two guys who the gray wrestler isn’t feuding with–so why did he come out to watch it? Some fans seem to think unpredictability is evidence of poor planning or lazy writing. In reality, it’s a highly effective tool to keep the audience’s attention.**

I should also note that the motivation(s) for gray characters don’t necessarily have to be mysterious. Some of the most compelling characters, in wrestling or any other medium, are those which are avowedly only out for themselves. Now one might argue that this is the motivation for everyone in real life, which is true enough. Others might argue that this is the motivation usually reserved for heels/villains, which is also true. But here’s the thing: if a character is really only out for himself, he will do things that help out both the good guys and the bad guys. Only the complete sociopath uses a scorched earth policy; the craftier, self-centered character realizes that there are advantages to be had in allying with faces and heels. Again, this sort of motivation makes characters more interesting because we never know which side he or she will join. I hope that Edge is headed in this direction; let him be a face when fighting heels, and a heel when fighting faces (sort of like Brock Lesnar in late 2002, prior to his betrayal at the hands of Paul Heyman).

Now having said all that, I do think that an ambiguous character should eventually choose a side. If a wrestler spends his whole career somewhere between face and heel, fans will probably quit reacting to him eventually. Gray characters should eventually choose a side. If the writers/bookers have done their job well, this face or heel turn should really light a rocket under the wrestler. An effective ambiguous character will gain fans during his run. When the turn comes, these fans should feel either elated or betrayed. This turn will also provide a signpost to the audience that the character has entered a new stage in his development. Here’s an example: in 2001, Jericho moved from major babyface to ambiguous character (he hated the Rock, but he was on the WWF side during the Invasion) to full-fledged heel. That intermediate gray period really underscored Jericho’s transition from heel to face, but it was his assault on the Rock at Survivor Series that moved him clearly into the “heel” column. Jericho became the first Undisputed Champion soon after.

One final note: the gray character type should not be overused. In fact, I don’t think a promotion should have more than one or two gray characters per year. Part of what makes this character type so interesting is its novelty; if you take that away, the gray character seems less “special” (and thus less effective). However, I do think that Vince McMahon and the WWE would be well served to have at least one non-traditional angle running on Raw and/or Smackdown at all times. They won’t always be successful, but it will give the writers a chance to move beyond the usual formulaic angles–hopefully sharpening their ability to write interesting storylines for all characters. Raw has been pretty good about this over the past year; we’ve seen the Jericho/Christian/Stratus angle, the Kane marriage/pregnancy angle, and the Eugene during the last six months alone. Kane in particular has been the focus of many of these angles, I now realize. In fact, it’s time for an official change of policy from me regarding Big Red Machine.

*I will grant that some B-show level wrestlers have portrayed characters with unclear face/heel status, yet have not gotten over. The reason for this, I think, has less to do with their ambiguity and more to do with their general jobber-ish-ness. Some wrestlers with strong gimmicks, particularly those who have one particularly popular segment to their matches (see Rikishi or Scotty Too Hotty), are still over even though they lose practically every match. Generally speaking, however, fans only respond to wrestlers whose actions seem to have consequences. If a wrestler does naught but lose, then it stands to reason that his actions have little consequence in the grand scheme of things; thus they are not over (see Val Venis).

**The trick is to eventually let the audience in on why the wrestler chooses his path. Confusion is good at the beginning of an angle. However, if the audience is still confused by the end of angle, then the whole experience has probably been more frustrating than intriguing. This isn’t really a fine line sort of thing; it’s just something that needs to be done. We need to feel like we’ve been rewarded for paying attention. Having said that, some of my favorite movies and books are those that end on an ambiguous note. I don’t think that this works for wrestling, however, because wrestling is a serial that never ends. If an audience leaves an angle unsatisfied or unclear about the result, then the participants in the angle will probably lose heat. Furthermore, the audience will be ill-disposed to follow another story with a gray character in it.

DEDICATED TO JOHN HALEY, WHO KNEW WHAT WAS GOING ON BEFORE ANY OF THE REST OF US

I see now that I must admit the error of my ways. After all these years of watching wrestling I still had no idea what was going on with Kane. I thought that his booking was a product of laziness or stupidity (which I still believe is the case for the whole Katie Vick thing–someone’s going to have to convince me that this isn’t true). I, like so many of you, was fascinated with the Snitsky angle because it put Kane in an interestingly ambiguous position (he was the victim in a sense, but he also was the transgressor in that his unborn child was essentially the victim of rape). This storyline angered some of you. But friends, I’m here to tell you that we were all missing the point. For you see, I know realize that the character of Kane is one of the deepest and most compelling in the history of professional wrestling.

It wasn’t so long ago that, when pondering a column on history of Kane, I was afraid to proceed. I was lost in the details. Who all was related to him? Had he killed his family? Was he hideously scarred or not? When did he learn how to talk? Can he still set things on fire with his mind? Yes, these are all inconsistencies. However, I was falling in lockstep with Conventional Net Wisdom in assuming that these inconsistencies made Kane an inherently flawed and silly character. This isn’t true–I now realize that Kane has evolved over time. Kane is a fully-formed character, and there aren’t too many wrestlers who answer to that description. To show you what I mean, let me break down Kane’s history into four easy pieces.

The Uncontrollable Monster Years
Kane, when he first debuted, was little more than a mindless killing machine. He was under the spell of Paul Bearer; he did his bidding, and little else. He appeared to be a physical wreck, scarred by a fire and unable to speak. I submit to you that Paul Bearer had him brainwashed, convinced that he was a hideous monster. Certain of his own inhumanity, Kane matched his monstrous actions to his monstrous self-image.

The “Freaks Rule” Years
Over time, Kane’s exposure to the outside world weakened Paul Bearer’s grasp on him; Kane started rejecting the lies which Bearer had fed him. First he realized that his voice did work. Then he realized that his body wasn’t completely scarred. However, he never gave up his mask, as it served as a protective barrier between himself and a world he did not yet trust. During this period Kane generally tried to do good; his occasional lapses back into monster territory were usually occasioned by things that reminded him of his imagined scars (see, now the whole Jericho coffee feud makes sense to me). He was usually lured back into the realm of good by those who cared about him and emphasized his humanity; his brother the Undertaker usually performed this role. Nonetheless, Kane’s continued insistence on wearing his mask signified deep-seated psychological troubles.

The Year Without a Mask
When HHH unmasked Kane, it thrust him fully into the world. All the positive work of the previous few years was instantly undone. Kane continued to see himself as a monster, and in fact used makeup, contact lenses, and creative haircuts to recreate this illusion. Mistaking the public’s initial shock at his unmasking for genuine revulsion, Kane became more sadistic than ever. Forced to walk the earth without the protective barrier of his mask, Kane sought to destroy the world around him to ease his pain. He was simply psychically unprepared for his unmasking, and tried to re-mask himself by adopting a new, sadistic personality.

The Months of Marriage
All this came to a head when Kane encountered Matt Hardy and Lita. Jealous of their love, Kane tried to destroy it by impregnating Lita. He may also have had designs for his offspring, but those remained unrevealed for now. Whatever his motivation for impregnating Lita, it seems clear that Kane’s impending fatherhood changed him. Lita’s pregnancy was something more than another avenue for sadism. At this point, a new figure entered Kane’s life and shattered his sadism defense mechanism. Whereas Kane was accustomed to dishing out punishment, Gene Snitsky turned the tables by (accidentally?) inducing miscarriage in Lita. Kane, for the first time since his years with Paul Bearer, was now the victim. He tried to channel his grief into the usual sadistic avenues, but failed; Snitsky consistently beat him at every turn. It remains to be seen if this simply reflects Snitsky’s superior athleticism, or indicates a subconscious desire on Kane’s part to be beaten and punished. When Snitsky stomped on a steel chair over Kane’s throat (an attack Kane had used on Shawn Michaels some months before), Kane’s journey from transgressor to victim was complete.

And that’s where we are now. The buzz coming out of their match at Taboo Tuesday is more about Snitsky’s future than Kane’s; the consensus seems to be that the WWE has inadvertently created a major new heel, and would be foolish to sacrifice Snitsky to Kane whenever he returns. Personally, I think it’s more important that Kane get his revenge so that his character can continue evolving. I’m going to be severely pissed if Kane reverts to his old ways after all this. And a face Kane absolutely has to get his revenge on Snitsky. I’m not sure if the WWE can keep Snitsky strong and let the angle play out to a satisfying conclusion– I do think it’s possible, however. Meltzer and Scherer are both reporting that Kane’s off to shoot his movie (as opposed to sitting out to get a better contract), so I presume that this will give Snitsky a few months to terrorize Raw. I hope they make the most of this opportunity, but even if they do it might not be enough to keep Snitsky strong if Kane returns and immediately squashes him. The writers might consider letting Snitsky win a few of their matches before Kane finally reaches a psychological breakthrough and finally beats Snitsky decisively. That way Snitsky still has all those wins over Kane, but Kane still gets his revenge. Plus it would fit in with the development of Kane as a character over the past eight years.

That’d be a great story, wouldn’t it? There would be a lesson about relying on terror and brute strength–there’s always somebody bigger, stronger, and scarier out there. There would be a story about grief, guilt, and redemption as well–perhaps that Kane’s guilt over failing to save his family from fire informs his guilt over putting his unborn son (right? they did say it’d be a boy, didn’t they?) in harm’s way. There’s a story about inflicting pain in order to relieve pain. This would explain Kane’s occasionally cartoonish behavior since he’s been unmasked; it turns out that Kane wasn’t a cartoon character, but a complex individual trying to cope with a variety of psychological traumas. Sounds pretty cool to me.

The real question now is how the WWE will deal with Lita when Kane returns. Will she stand by him or go back to Matt Hardy? How will Hardy react to all this?* I know I’ve stated that wrestling can’t get love right, but this might be an opportunity to prove me wrong. There’s actually enough background here for me to buy into Kane and Lita having a complex relationship–just like in the real world. However, the WWE might be sending out an unintentional message here–having a female character fall in love with the man who raped her** isn’t exactly a positive message about gender relations. I guess we’ll see how it turns out, but I hope Vince McMahon and the writers tread cautiously here.

*When a reader first suggested to me that Hardy was pulling Snitsky’s strings, I thought it would be a cool twist; now I’m not so sure.

**For those of you who would dispute that a rape happened here, be aware that rape happens whenever one person forces another person to have sex against his or her will. Lita’s decision to have sex with Kane was not consensual–his repeated attacks on her and Matt Hardy constituted a threat to their safety (and possibly their lives). Thus, there was significant coercion involved which might meet the legal definition of rape. It’s not exactly the same as a gun to her head, or even to Matt Hardy’s head, but it’s the same principle. The WWE, by the way, has a strange enough understanding of rape as it is. Michael Cole and Brock Lesnar repeatedly used the phrase “raped of the title” when Big Show beat Lesnar for the title in late 2002. “Raped” of the title. What the hell is that supposed to mean? You can’t be raped “of” anything–that’s not how the word works. This has led me to question whether the writers actually understand what the word “rape” means. It’s not a generic term for any crime–a victim of police brutality isn’t “raped” of his civil liberties. An armed robber doesn’t “rape” the bank of its money. Whenever I worry that I’m being too hard on the writers, I think back to this bizarre idiocy and realize that, if anything, I’m not being critical enough.

PLUGGAGE

Let’s see what’s going on at the pulse this week”¦.

Basketball season is almost upon us. If you’ve forgotten what happened since the big Pistons victory (like I have), or failed to keep up with all the offseason moves (as I did), then check out Inside Pulse’s week long NBA preview. Sounds like a cool feature–I’ll definitely be reading.

Speaking of cool things I’m looking forward to reading, do not miss Lucard’s return to horror mythology and lore. Great, great stuff–I’m really looking forward to getting to read this every week. I liked Lucard’s work in games (even though we seem to be philosophically at odds on the subject), but this is by far my favorite of all his 411/IP work.

While we’re (sorta) on the subject of games, the tribunal has passed judgment on Katamari Damacy. My girlfriend was completely addicted to this game. I haven’t played more than a couple of minutes myself, but there really isn’t anything else like it on the market. Check it out if you can find a copy–and definitely read both the tribunal report and Liquidcross’ review.

Finally, at Comics Nexus we have Matt Morrison’s amateur detective work on Identity Crisis. Fun, fun stuff. I’m a sucker for mysteries; I’m an even bigger sucker for reading theories on mysteries. I’ll be sure to check this series out once it’s been collected in a book.

THAT’S ALL

God, this was a long one. The plan for next week is to take one of the suggestions offered by the mysterious entity known only as Light Castle–either continuity or trying to figure out the theme of ongoing WWE angles. We’ll see how things shake out on Raw and Smackdown this week, and go from there.