Jim Ross is not impressed by how WWE has booked its heels of late. One of the things he says heels need to do is "selectively be a coward."
I know how he feels, but not because I feel that way right now. Because I used to feel frustrated about how WWE was booking its heels when the company was doing it in a way that JR probably approved of.
This is because I think there's a good and a bad way to write villains in a story, period. It doesn't matter what medium the story is being told in. Pro wrestling, movies, television, video games, books--it makes no difference. In my opinion, making your primary villain cowardly is usually a bad idea if you're going for drama rather than comedy.
Let me explain.
Long before I got into wrestling, I was into Star Wars. I was born the same year that "A New Hope" was released, and was watching those movies as a little kid even when parts of them were impossible for my young mind to understand. So one of the first (if not THE first) villains I ever saw in a live action story was Darth Vader.
Now if anybody tells you Darth Vader is not an excellent villain (well, in the original trilogy, anyway), they are a filthy liar. He repeatedly demonstrates how merciless and perhaps even psychotic he is by executing his minions for fucking up. Obviously, he shows even less mercy to his enemies.
Just as importantly, he kicks the heroes' asses. Obi-Wan can't beat him. Luke can't beat him, not at first anyway. And that is a large part of what makes him an awesome villain.
Later on, when I was a teenager, I got into comic books. (I'll get back to wrestling after this part, don't worry.) I read mostly Marvel titles, so I can't really speak for how DC does things. But the heroes in Marvel stories often got beaten by their enemies.
That's not to say that the good guys never won, or even that the good guys didn't win more than they lost.
But consider that the first time Spider-Man fought Doctor Octopus, he got cocky and was defeated because of it. The only reason he didn't die at Ock's hands was because the villain had won so easily that he didn't think killing Spider-Man was worth the trouble. This allowed Spidey to learn from his mistakes after overcoming a crisis of confidence, try again, and succeed in that second fight.
Also, take Daredevil. Daredevil had his life destroyed by the rich and powerful Kingpin after the latter learned his secret identity, since the Kingpin had the money to buy the loyalty of judges, politicians, law enforcement, etc. Daredevil lost his job, lost his home, lost everything, and finally lost his grip on sanity. When he finally figured out who was behind it all, he went to confront the Kingpin--but his unhinged mental state made him sloppy, and he got pummeled as a result. Like Spider-Man, he survived, came back, and eventually triumphed.
This kind of thing is common in comics. One reason for the heroes to seem outmatched--or to really be outmatched--so often is because it makes it that much more impressive when they do win. I mean, what's more impressive: winning a fight against a giant, or winning a fight against a somebody four feet tall? If the giant has beaten you in a previous fight, then the victory's even more meaningful.
Time to get back to wrestling. You can make the argument that wrestling's different. That if you make a heel too much of a badass, then people will start cheering for him or her. Examples of this are Austin, Randy Orton during his feud with Cena in 2009, and The Shield. You can argue that main event level heels need to be cowards who can't take main event level babyfaces in a fair fight, and thus have to resort to cheating and outside interference and whatnot.
However, as I see it there is one problem with that argument. Here's the problem: there have been heels in wrestling who did a great job of getting the crowd to hate their guts and want to see them beaten, and they did this without really seeming like cowards at all.
Andre is strangling Hulk Hogan seemingly to DEATH, and no matter how hard the entire locker room of babyfaces tries to stop him, they can't. He's too tough for them. As Hulk Holland recounted in a recent column, seeing Andre not only dominate Hogan but no-sell everything the babyfaces tried to do to stop him made him absolutely hated by all the Hulkamaniacs of the day.
Also, look at Triple H recently. A number of times, he used both his power within the company as well as his ability to throw down when necessary to leave Daniel Bryan laid out at the end of Raw, while Hunter and the woman RD Reynolds long ago dubbed "Nipple H" stood over him and mocked him. I don't know about the rest of you, but just seeing this happen once made me loathe Triple H and Steph in a way I have not loathed any heel since the nineties. I hated him so much that I had to remind myself that it was a story, that he was just playing a character, that I was overreacting.
The point is that when it came to pissing us off in his WrestleMania program with Daniel Bryan Triple H was, as he was so fond of saying back in the day, THAT damn good. And he accomplished it without being very cowardly at all. He was just a smug, bullying asshole who was putting somebody we cared about through hell.
Even on the post-Mania Raw, when he arranged to have Bryan beaten down before he stepped into the ring with him, Trips looked like less of a coward and more of an evil mastermind. Not to mention a complete bastard.
I would like to see a lot more of that kind of thing, and I'd like to see a lot less of heels being made to look like impotent little punks by the likes of John Cena.
Hopefully I'll get my wish.