Ringside Shadows #170: The Evolution of the Heel
It's often been said that a good hero is nothing without an interesting and / or threatening rogue's gallery. Being a hardcore comic book buff myself, I find it quite easy to draw a similarity between the villains that dominate that world and the "heels" of the WWF and WCW. For instance; Batman has long been regarded as having one of the finest lists of opponents in the industry, while Superman had, until recently, never been given much of a run for his money. Thus; Batman was largely considered the more interesting of the two, while Superman remained the "boy scout" and eventually lost his popularity, bit by bit. In pro wrestling lingo, that's like comparing the Austin / McMahon feud with Bret Hart's past angle with Jerry Lawler. It's just a completely different game.
Without Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant and Paul Orndorff, there would have been no Hogan. Without Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley or Vince McMahon there would have been no Austin. Without HHH, the Rock would still be developing in the midcard. The list just goes on and on, and it paints a blatantly obvious picture: behind every good face there are two or three great heels. Any good rivalry can promote growth not only in the storylines, but in the participants themselves. Both the heel and the face grow a little bit each time they step into the ring with a good opponent. They learn something new and take one more step towards becoming a legend.
Back in the days of kayfabe, the role of a heel was much more clear cut. He'd break the rules, perhaps earning himself a disqualification or two along the way. An assault from behind was always a quick way to grab some cheap heat. Perhaps the use of some powder or a foreign object during the heat of battle. But still, even though those were simpler times, the role of a heel was hardly a piece of cake. While audiences may have shown a strong reaction at first, if the heel didn't grab the ball and run with it an entire angle could go down the tubes over the course of only a couple weeks.
Ted Dibiase shines through in my mind as the absolute embodiment of a good heel during his era. A cocky, egotistical jerk with plenty of money to throw around... sure, it sounds easy enough. Throw a black sequinned jacket with a big gold dollar in the middle, around the shoulders of anybody on the roster. You've got an instant main eventer, right? Not quite...
See, Dibiase's run as "the Million Dollar Man" worked in part due to Vince McMahon and his merchandising conglomerate, of that there is no question. But it was also a blistering success because of the underspoken work of Dibiase himself to not only fit the role of a rich bastard, but to actually become the man he was portraying on TV. When fans saw him strutting to the ring, bellowing out that memorable cackle, they found themselves legitimately hating his guts right out of the gate. If they saw him in an airport, they'd boo him because he was so convincing at what he did. When he would casually leaf through a wad of cash, leading the audience to believe he'd actually toss a couple bills out into the crowd, they didn't see a wrestler dressed up in a fancy outfit pretending to be rich. They saw someone who knew he was better off than they were, someone with no problem rubbing that fact right back in their faces. And when he got in the ring and actually proved his point by completely outwrestling his opposition, it just made fans hate him that much more.
Now, with the advent of the "smart mark" and the revelation that these matches and gimmicks are scripted, everything about a heel has changed. The role and behaviors of a traditional face have almost flip flopped with those of a heel. Some might call it a sign of the times, others a natural progression from the innocence and naivety of wrestling's youth. Either way, the fact remains that the rules have changed and it's a brave new world in which we're living.
Take, for example, Kurt Angle. A honest-to-goodness Olympic champion and national hero, who now portrays a jock too full of himself to realize the fans don't like him. Or perhaps "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was every bit the traditional heel during his monstrous success as the WWF's top babyface in the late 90s. I mean, give it some thought. If Austin had burst upon the scene in 1987, stunning the owner of the federation, flipping the bird to the audience, draining beers after every match and embracing that "don't trust anybody" credo he founded, crowds would have been screaming for his blood. Hell, Andre the Giant didn't do half that and he was the biggest heel in the industry at the time. Society has taken some big steps in those fourteen years, and wrestling has kept with the times.
Building upon the groundwork laid by Roddy Piper, Gorgeous George, Ted Dibiase, Curt Hennig, Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels, the modern heel has completely reinvented himself. While the line between the "cool, rebellious face" and the "heel that went too far" is now thinner than ever, the industry's current torch bearers have never known so precisely where that line really is. In addition, these new perceptions of the face vs. heel formula have led to some interesting plot devices as well. Using Austin as an example yet again, take a glimpse at his recent heel turn. Looking back today, there were several blatant hints he'd be making the big turn along the road to Wrestlemania, but because he's always portrayed as a heel anyway, they were quite easy to overlook. Thus, the alignment with Vince at Wrestlemania and subsequent shift from "cool face" to "over the edge madman" came as pleasant surprises that were almost a natural progression for his character.
So long as society keeps changing, the world between the ropes will keep mimicking it. Coming off the major status quo shift that saw the faces become heels and vice versa, it's relatively safe to say we'll be adjusting to these new terms for a little while, but not even that is a certainty. If nothing else, you can always count on one thing; every main event face will have arrived there on the shoulders of a main event heel. Because without any opposition, what fun is the reign?
A quick note before I take off; my presence on the newsboards may be a bit slimmer than usual over the next couple weeks, as my last days as an undergraduate are inching closer and closer. Finals begin Monday, April 30th and I'll be getting my degree on May 5th... so things are bound to be hectic. Once those are out of the way, I plan to continue my writing on a regular schedule. So don't be too shaken if I'm not around next Friday.
until next time, i remain...