On the Crushing of Our Antiheroes (or, What Is To Be Done?)

So if the “I Quit” match was as nonsensical as I think it was, the Rusev character has committed to its free-fall. This once determined and hard-working immigrant who treated his beautiful valet (girlfriend?) with dignity and respect is now a ranting, illogical, abusive asshole collapsing beneath his wild-eyed hubris. And why? It seems to me Rusev is being tanked because so many of us refused to boo him as a heel. Many of us tired on the idea of American exceptionalism years, even decades ago, and have traveled enough to know how to see past nationality and judge a person on their merit and strength of character. (And that’s not to mention the fact that WWE is an international product. Plenty of viewers don’t relate to the “U-S-A!” chants and see themselves as more like Rusev and Lana than Jack Swagger or John Cena.)  So for many of us, Rusev was not a heel, he was an antihero. All the reverse propaganda about Putin didn’t work on us either, because it was carried out with such absurdity it could only be read as satire for the smarter among us us. Remember when Lana threw a photo of Putin up on the big screen for us to boo, and then switched to a photo of Edward Snowden in such a way that we were also supposed to boo? But the thing is, half the country considers Snowden a hero. So the whole Rusev/Lana heel push has been either ambiguous or tone-deaf from the start.

But clearly they didn’t like so many of us cheering and praising Rusev and Lana. At first they tried to reheelify Rusev by tasking him with the truly dickish heel moves — eye rakes, low blows, and the like — and that was just fine. I’m not opposed to honest reheelification. But it didn’t work, because the smarter among us are post-ironic hipsters who simply appreciate a good heel. So now they are strong-arming the story in such a way that makes Rusev look terrible so we’ll have no choice but to hate, if not on him personally, on his narrative. And they can’t just let us like mean girl Lana, no — they have to turn her babyface.

And just look at what they did here, to those of us who complain about wrestling’s misogyny — they turned one of our favorites into a misogynist. Do you think this wasn’t deliberate? They heard our complaints, and they turned them against us in a powerful way. Their hostility for us is palpable. They think we’re a cantankerous bunch of whiners living in our parents basements. They don’t notice the fact that we have no complaints for Lucha Underground and NJPW. In fact, I think they resent us more for it.

They have undermined some other great antiheroes as well. Consider Bray Wyatt, who had us utterly captivated in his feud with John Cena. His promos were brilliant manifestos on the existential crises of America, and his voice was truly one of a spiritual (if morally problematic) leader. But we cheered him too much, so he descended into storyline chaos as a creepy sicko cult leader, then lost his cult, and if I’m not mistaken lost every significant match until he beat Ryback just now. I could barely stand to watch him for a number of months, and the magic is still mostly gone when I watch him now.

Seth Rollins, too — we all know he’s crafty, but there was a time when he was a strong, consistent wrestler as well. Now he’s a coward who ONLY maintains the belt with outside interference. My friend Tim Kail from the World of Wrestling was very articulate about this problem here:

I’m of the opinion that this crappy booking was deliberate — Seth Rollins was too cheered, so they ruined his character in hopes that we couldn’t possibly like him so much.

I remember over a decade ago, when I used to go to indy shows in Las Vegas, one of our favorite wrestlers was very annoyed at us when we refused to boo his heel turn. Please, he said after a show, don’t cheer me. They’re not going to let me be a heel if you keep cheering me. It seems to me that there is some old wrestling standard lingering here from the days when wrestling was still “real”: heels must draw heat, or the whole thing’s a bust. It’s an antiquated notion because what we cheer for now is a good performance, not a good guy, and yet the old guys (or maybe just the old guy) in charge can’t seem to see how we the audience have evolved to this point and are not going to turn back. So they try to force their will on us by MAKING the heels be what they want them to be, even if it ruins the entire narrative. This might have worked back in the olden days, when there was no way to rewatch, rewind, and revisit matches and stories to view them in the context of their larger narrative. In those days people watched wrestling for the spectacle of the moment, and accepted corny gags and simplistic melodrama as the nature of professional wrestling. But times have change with the internet and the WWE Network, and it will never be that way again.

So what is to be done? Do we stand by Rusev, Bray Wyatt, and Seth Rollins and continue to support them through these dark times? Will I be sorry if I pretend Rusev isn’t being a total asshole to Lana? Would I have hated myself for standing by Wyatt as a charlatan sociopath if he never flip-flopped back to his role as a speaker of dark truths? Can I legitimately praise Rollins as a cowardly weasel champion, because even if the story doesn’t grok, he’s done a damned good job playing out the flawed hand he’s been dealt? I guess all we can do is moan and groan about the booking, but I’m of the opinion that WWE has come to see our complaints as a positive, smark heat, if you will. Because if we’re griping, at least we’re watching (or so they think).

Aside from quitting WWE products completely, I guess our only hope for salvation, as usual, is in NXT. Kevin Owens has a fairly substantial fan base shouting “Fight Owens Fight!” and there seems no attempt to sabotage him. The idea that he’s got a secret grudge against Sami Zayn and is in fact a pathological meanie is perfectly reasonable reheelification: it enhances his character rather than undermines it. Perhaps this whole thing is one more problem that will work itself out once Vince McMahon finally releases his death grip on the company.

Until then, I feel betrayed, trapped in a corner. They sell me these wonderful heels, only to destroy them because I love them too much. It’s an odd little cycle of abuse and I feel powerless to stop it.

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One Comment

  1. May 19, 2015

    As de facto devil’s advocate, I would like to point out the New Day. When the debuted they were faces (relatively speaking), but they frankly sucked at it and got booed. Ever since their heel turn as a result of said boos, however, they are simply perfect in their antagonistic role.

    That being said, I do agree with your overall point. It reminds me of a quote I heard about Vince McMahon, that he’d rather have half the crowd cheering who he wants them to cheer instead of the whole crowd cheering someone he wants them to boo.

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