Over the last four weeks it feels like someone at WWE has flicked the creative switch on Monday Night Raw. What was previously a bland, segmented and thoroughly uncompelling tv show has suddenly started to feel alive with character and possibilities. This sense of intrigue has been built up as the WWE has begun to embrace one of the most popular storytelling mechanisms in pop culture right now, shared universe storytelling.
In case you haven’t heard the term before shared universe storytelling is when all the characters in a franchise occupy the same fictional space and their actions affect others in that universe. Shared universe is not a new phenomenon but has come to the fore in pop culture in the last decade off the back of the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that has its individual characters contribute to a grander story that is told over a number of movies and tv shows.
When the WWE is operating at its peak creatively this technique has often been one of the key pieces in its storytelling toolkit. As an episodic tv show, its shared universe takes a slightly different shape to the MCU however it involves the same basic philosophy of characters on the show staying true to their established history and motives and matches up and down the card combining to create an overall narrative. To see what this can look like you don’t need to go back too far at all, simply go back to the build up to Survivor Series last year where a battle for brand supremacy raged up and down the card and across both Smackdown and Raw.
Even better is possibly the best example of shared universe in recent years, the Ten Man Elimination Tag Match at Survivor Series 2016, where the characters, histories and current stories of all ten men involved intertwined to create one of the most interesting and rewatchable elimination matches ever. Be it Bray Wyatt trying to control the destruction of his former follower Braun Strowman, the desperation of Shane McMahon as the leader of the ‘underdog’ show or the brief reformation of The Shield when Dean Ambrose turned on his team to attack his rival AJ Styles, all the characters, their histories and their motives combined to create a greater narrative across the 50+ minutes the match went for.
The change to this style of storytelling on Monday Night Raw has come about naturally over the course of a few weeks. In that time a slow escalation that started with a simple rivalry between the champion and number one contender, has built to include firstly two factions and then over the last two weeks pitted “the three workhorses that run this business” against an entire segment of the Raw locker room. On both sides the conflict has spilled over to unintended places, bashing into others parts of the show. Best of all for a storytelling and character nerd like me, it has all harkened back to the histories the characters at the center of the conflict have with one another.
This sense of continuation of story is obvious for The Shield trio who have come together again for a similar reason they did originally, to establish themselves at the top of the company and relentlessly drive the business forwards. However I feel this character development has been particularly well done for the antagonists in the current story, Dolph Ziggler Drew McIntyre as well.
When The Shield debuted in 2012 the trio ate the WWE midcard alive and two of the men who were forced to take a step down the ladder were the former World Heavyweight Champion and former ‘future of the company’. Drew McIntyre even ended up getting sacked by the WWE, passed up for a new golden child.
Now faced with a reunited Shield at the top of the company, these two standard bearers for the lost generation that came before The Shield knew they had to act quickly to maintain their newly carved out niches on the roster. This desperation to cling to their relevancy saw this main event story spill over into the previously separate tag team division. The duo who are driven by insecurity and defined by the opportunities they missed in the past, seized the moment, attacked The Revival backstage and abumshed the B-Team in the championship match decimating the tag team champions before anyone could catch on with what they were doing.
In previous eras both Ziggler and McIntyre would have potentially faded into the background when the Intercontinental Title scene passed them by but in this shared universe they have had the chance to affect not just one, but two divisions. Even though he has had only a handful of matches since his return to the main roster this story has worked so well that people are now pointing to McIntyre as the next logical challenger to Roman Reigns’ Universal Title.
The shared universe does not stop there though, the beauty of it is that is only keeps spreading out. Braun Strowman, Ziggler and McIntyre have branded themselves the Dogs of War and have joined with a number of other members of the locker room in standing against the three men who claim to run the business. Guys like Kevin Owens, Drew Gulack and the AoP have now drawn a line in the sand against The Shield. TheShield even gave some of the more friendly wrestlers on Raw a battering when they came to intervene in a brawl.
It is also worth pointing out that despite being traditionally aligned as ‘heels’ on Raw, The Revival did not join with McIntrye and Ziggler in the beatdown of The Shield either this week or last. Normally the WWE will try to get as many bodies in motion for these segments, however The Revival’s story was allowed to continue logically with them choosing to not stand beside the men that attacked them and cost them their ultimate goal.
This kind of attention to detail really gives me hope as it shows that the WWE is paying attention to the whole story they are telling. The Revival have no beef with The Shield yet but the self proclaimed ‘Top Guys’ and rightful number one contenders are no doubt readying themselves to strike at the winner of the Hell in a Cell tag title match. Before Summer Slam the tag team division was off in their own world and the tag titles felt directionless. However this shared universe involvement with the primary storyline on the show has immediately elevated the stature of the division, and could easily be used to elevate The Revival up to the kind of level so many of us hoped they would reach when they debuted last year. On top of that, The Revival’s drive to finally win the tag team titles will add yet another layer of intrigue to the overarching story of The Shield v The Dogs of War.
This kind of dynamic storytelling simply could not take place when there isn’t a full time champion for the show to be built around. With a part time champion the overall narrative on Monday Night Raw was non-existent and even though some segments of the roster managed to stand out, as a whole, the lack of any kind of overarching story meant us viewers felt every minute of its 180 minute schedule. Now the show has a central story to orbit around the rest of the segments can contribute to something grander, increasing the stakes and audience investment in even the most arbitrary of matchups.
It is still early days for the Raw shared universe however, only four weeks in, the WWE is already producing the kind of show we could only dream of a few months ago.
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