The past two weeks of Raw have been a breath of fresh air for me. A show struggling to accommodate an absentee champion has suddenly burst to life, producing a main event scene full of moving parts, fun matchups and interesting story possibilities. However the biggest thing that stood out to me, particularly when browsing social media after each show, has been the divisive response amongst us fans. There are some, such as myself, that are loving what is being presented, however it has been impossible to ignore the anger gushing forth from others when it comes to the lead protagonists on Raw at the moment, Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman. Anger that stems in no small part from fan’s rushed attempts to force these three dimensional characters into the outdated paradigm of ‘faces’ and ‘heels’.
For a long time the WWE has operated in a strange limbo, part traditional travelling pro wrestling circus, part weekly TV show. This has meant doffing the cap to a lot of well worn pro wrestling tropes, while also forging a path that places its programing alongside other mainstream TV shows. One aspect that the company’s creative department has begun to embrace more and more from the TV side of its existence is complexity of character. Where in the past wrestlers were more often than not easily divided up into the groupings of heroic ‘faces’ and villainous ‘heels’, the WWE is now chock full of far more complex and multi-layered characters.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t good guys or bad guys any more and this isn’t just the Vince Russo style of booking where the heroes are villains, the villains are heroes and you never know when someone is about to switch. Far from it. Creating conflict is the very bedrock of storytelling and opposing forces of good and evil or ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ will always be a very clear way of presenting conflict. These simple characters still exist down the card where the screen time needed to develop nuance is just not possible.
However what the WWE has very clearly been doing with its most prominent talent is creating more fleshed out characters with complex motives and backstories who act in a way that fits their characteristics. There have of course been times when they haven’t done so well at this, however the last two main events of Raw have been clear examples of this philosophy at work. A philosophy that makes for an infinitely more interesting fictional universe.
Before we delve into Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns sordid past let’s look at an example outside of wrestling for a moment. For a number of years one of the biggest criticisms thrown at the excellent Marvel Cinematic Universe was its lack of memorable villains. While the early movies did an fantastic job introducing its heroes, for much of the first two ‘waves’, amongst a deluge of very simplistic and formulaic bad guys, the only villain anyone could remember was Loki, Thor’s brother and the main antagonist in the original Avengers movie.
That all changed when the movie Captain America: Civil War came out and instead of the traditional good v evil struggle we had seen for the majority of the previous movies, the heroes of the franchise were pitted against each other. Because the previous movies had done such a great job introducing and getting us invested in these characters’ motives and intertwining histories, the conflict between them felt so believable and compelling. No one batted an eyelid when Captain America and Iron Man eventually squared off, we understood that based on who they were at their core and how their character arcs had played out, their conflict was inevitable. Many critics even reported feeling sympathetic to both sides of the story’s central conflict because they understood the characters involved so well.
Since Civil War the MCU has embraced the creation of more complex, three dimensional antagonists to great acclaim. Lords of Pain’s very own Rich Latta did a podcast discussing how he sympathised with the perspective of Killmonger in Black Panther more than the movie’s hero T’Challa and in Avengers Infinity War a convincing argument can be made that Thanos is the true protagonist of the movie.
It is this kind of conflict that the WWE is trying to create with Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns. When you look at their conflict beyond the surface level, it is evident that these characters are acting within the established parameters of who they are and what they have previously done however too many fans are failing to see it in their rush to talk about who just ‘turned heel’.
Two weeks ago at the post Summer Slam Raw, when Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins rushed to Roman Reigns aide it was only when Braun Strowman looked to take advantage of a weakened Reigns that the Shield brothers took action. When The Shield originally appeared in the WWE, their constant refrain in their promos was that they were here to fight injustice in the company and throughout Reigns’ rivalry with Brock Lesnar he would also return to that same theme of fighting against injustice in the WWE’s treatment of Lesnar. Braun Strowman cashing in his title shot after Roman had given another man a fair fight would have been a gross injustice by any definition so Ambrose and Rollins acted to prevent it from happening. As we saw the week after, this was not The Shield ‘turning heel’ and suddenly helping Reigns cheat to avoid losing the championship, it was them staying true to their own code of morality and ensuring the Universal Title scene was fought on a level playing field.
A similar level of complexity emerges when we look at the Raw main event this past week. When Braun Strowman was forced to tag with Roman Reigns he wasn’t simply teaming with a guy who he feels neutrally towards. No, Strowman was forced into a corner with a guy that just over a year ago literally tried to kill him when he reversed an Ambulance, that Strowman was trapped inside of, into a cement wall, a guy that has thrown Strowman off stages, through tables and announcers desks and a man who is holding the championship that Strowman wants. Braun Strowman is not a character that has ever shown forgiveness or restraint, at TLC last year he cost his team a victory to settle a personal grudge with Kane and he has consistently demonstrated an enjoyment in showing off his strength and causing others pain.
When he ignored Reigns tag and allowed his partner to get beaten down he was not ‘turning heel’, he was simply acting in the only logical manner his character would act. In fact given these characters’ histories, the one thing that wouldn’t have made any sense would be for them to have amicably tagged together to comfortable win and respectful but tense stare down.
Reigns and Strowman are now set to collide inside Hell in a Cell in just a few weeks time. Given what has transpired in their rivalry in the past I can only imagine the result will be spectacular and it will be made all the richer and interesting for the level of complexity the WWE have given it.
This is also just one example of this complexity in character that the WWE has developed in its main event scene, for further examples look at the layers that have been given to AJ Styles since Wrestlemania. He is a phenomenal athlete no doubt, but is a man in possession of a short fuse and propensity to lose his composure when provoked mentally. See the slightly entitled way the ‘people’s champ’ Daniel Bryan has acted towards The Miz, a reality TV star who arguably had to struggle harder to gain acceptance in the WWE than the indy darling. Or finally tremble in fear of the cold blooded intelligence of Samoa Joe as he works out how to perfectly deconstruct you and I haven’t even begun to touch on the incredible depth in the relationship and characters of Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose.
There will still be more simple good and bad characters, particularly lower on the card. However, at the top of the card, when you look beyond the surface level I think you will agree that the evolution of the simplistic face and heel tropes of the past to the more complex characters of the future are only creating a more compelling and exciting product for us all.
In fact if you completely disagree with me on Roman Reigns and want to read something from the complete other side of the spectrum, why not check out Believe In The Shield, the latest from former Main Pager Kleckamania.