My favorite movie is Margin Call. It's not only because I'm a finance buff, but because it is a master class in acting and storytelling. The film, which portrays 24 hours in the life of an investment bank (based on Goldman Sachs), was riveting. Atypical of most financial thrillers, it focuses solely on human conflict between others and oneself with the 2007-08 mortgage-backed securities and housing crash serving as the backdrop and key plot device.
There were no heroes and villains in the film—just individuals caught up and coping with an impending collapse that would introduce a new wave of cynicism in the economy, in politics, in society, and in culture.
I consider the typical morality play—"good guy" vs. "bad guy" a bit of a tired cliché, none of it worse than in pro wrestling.
But I'm not necessarily going to regurgitate the history of heels and babyfaces in pro wrestling. That would be a waste. I do, however, want to dig into what makes the trio of Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey work so well.
After crowds refused to buy into Lynch as a villain, WWE essentially had two directions: They were either going to try to force a reaction out of the audience (purely for optics), or they were going to let the audience decide for themselves. WWE brass went with the latter. As a result, we are, for the first time, seeing a woman serve as the protagonist of a pro wrestling program. And while weekly pro wrestling shows are technically ensemble casts, Lynch has clearly moved front and center.
Lynch's storylines, which are intertwined with Charlotte, don't need someone in a well-defined heroic or villainous role. SmackDown writers Road Dogg and Ryan Ward have been able to simply focus on writing about the conflict(s) that arise from the new attitude out of Lynch's character.
One of the things about the Attitude Era—and it's a key lesson that's being employed now with Lynch—is that writers worked with the crowds. Key writers Vince Russo, Ed Ferrara, and Chris Kreski developed teleplays that were in concert with what the crowds were willing to buy into. Asking the crowd to "suspend their disbelief" (which is a useless term for simply buying into the fiction presented) is not something that can be demanded, but something that must be earned.
Promoters, writers, and even some "smarks" tend to overthink what it really takes to buy into a fictional presentation. It's not so much having to get the crowd into who is the "hero" or the "villain" but compelling the crowd to take someone's side. The audience is the ultimate consumer—they are going to accept or reject the premise and direction of a given character, even if it's on an athletic stage.
Right now, WWE is being fairly smart with all three (okay, you might have something there about allowing Ronda Rousey to cut lengthy promos—but how else will she learn?) All three, especially Lynch, represent some degree of catharsis for the audience: Lynch's rise after two years of being a supporting act; Charlotte for injecting life into what was a boring Survivor Series with a brutal beatdown of Rousey; and Rousey herself as a pro-wrestling novelty (I'll stop short of saying prodigy).
These three make women's wrestling cool (which by the way, was a key goal of Lynch). But they are more than just representatives of "women's wrestling"—they're professional wresting, period.
WWE has three extremely over performers—arguably the three most popular performers in the company at the moment. The company cannot afford to "force" a crowd to react a certain way because of optics. Each has a unique appeal and their stories should be written accordingly.
Personality-driven, character-driven angles full of conflict and tension should be the format of pro-wrestling stories going forward. You may say that it is already like that, but too many times we're trying to figure out who is the "face" and who is the "heel". In truth, it's irrelevant. The "face" and the "heel" should be up to you, not what WWE or any promoter tells you. Don't try to "figure out" who you should be "rooting for"—just pick whose side you're on and own it.
In a way, pro wrestling is too fake for real sports but too real as a typical scripted show. Real athletic theater and drama come from stories of conflict and tension where the audience choose their side. You see it all the time in the NBA—currently the world's greatest soap opera.
Regardless of what happens next with these three, I am hoping that WWE continues on its current trajectory—eschewing the typical "face" versus "heel" dynamic to focus more on stories that emphasize personality, ego, and conflict, and simply allow the audience to decide for themselves who to support. The boos and cheers matter, but angles should be fluid enough to where scripts to be written in response to the audience instead of trying to force a specific reaction. It results in better angles, better storytelling, and most importantly, a better show.