This past weekend gave us two huge pop culture happenings – the end of Disney/Marvel’s (first) Marvel Cinematic Universe saga with Avengers: Endgame, and the battle HBO’s Game of Thrones has been building to for a decade, the living vs. the dead in an episode entitled “The Long Night”.
Don’t worry, if you plan to but haven’t watched either yet. I won’t be spoiling them here. This is just some general musings from a longtime fan of superheroes, fantasy and pro wrestling, who wondered as the general public was lining up to celebrate the MCU and GoT why even wrestling people don’t get that excited about WWE.
Sports entertainment and serialized film/television aren’t exactly the same. Raw and SmackDown don’t have the luxury of “only” producing 22 movies or 70 episodes over the course of their runs. WWE isn’t able to write endings for their characters and conflicts the way other genres do, even ones which play fast and loose with death like capes or swords-and-sorcery.
So they’re not apples-to-apples comparisons. But they’re not apples-to-adamantium, either. At their core, wrestling, superpowers and medieval fantasy are all heroic fictions. Writers and performers are just looking for new, creative ways to spin a finite number of allegories about good and evil.
The MCU has proven they’re good at getting people to connect with their version of the formula by shattering box office records, such as the more than $1 billion dollars Endgame made over the last four days. Game of Thrones had 17 million-plus people pull up HBO on a TV or device for its April 14 premiere. For some reason or variety of reasons, WWE is failing to accomplish the mission in a way which resonates with their audience. They’re certainly not convincing the diehard fanbase to bring friends to the party. Television ratings, live event attendance, WWE Network subscriber counts and the good, old-fashioned bottom line all prove that.
While I won’t pretend to have the answers, I think the main problem is pretty clear. Viewers and critics can and will debate and pick apart how well the Avengers movies or GoT episodes succeed in telling their stories. But people keep watching them regardless because they care, and care deeply, about the characters who populate those stories.
This is where WWE having more hours to fill should help them, too. We get even more time to spend with the Superstars of Raw and SmackDown. How are we not more attached to them? Why does it take so long for acts we have shown an attachment to, like New Day and Kofi Kingston, to be featured in major storylines? Why are acts we do succeed in getting pushed into the spotlight like Becky Lynch hamstrung by repetitive obstacles and unsatisfying achievements?
Imagine if HBO saw the viral reaction to Lyanna Mormont, the young head of one of Game of Thrones’ northern houses (kind of like a stable, for folks who don’t follow the Westerosi territory), but never decided to stick to their original one-and-done plan for the character? Or if Marvel had Captain America lose a fight with Batroc en route to a showdown with Red Skull, only to have Bucky show up and beat Batroc to join a Triple Threat where Cap rolled up the Skull rather than tapping him?
Okay, that last one is strained to the extreme, but you get what I’m saying.
Too much fan service can be as much of a problem as constant fan denial, but the point stands. Instead of getting out of the way and letting their audience become more invested in their characters/performers, WWE continually gets between us and its stars in a way franchises like the MCU and GoT rarely do.
I don’t have pat answers, nor do I believe there’s an easy formula to get Raw and SmackDown to being anywhere near the levels of viewership and fan engagement that Thrones and Avengers have achieved. I do think creating WWE’s shows is a hard job, and that’s why trained professionals are paid pretty well to do it.
But the only stories WWE’s told in recent memory which seem to have thrilled it’s audience the way Endgame or “The Long Night” did theirs were Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 30, and Kofi Kingston at WrestleMania 35 (you could maybe throw the rise of Becky Lynch in here, but the story should have been Lynch vs. Ronda Rousey and, well, you know how hard that got to follow to a different destination). Both were things the company didn’t plan for, but which they treated in a fairly logical way once they decided to go along with the reaction the characters who resonated with us were getting.
There have to be some lessons there.
When a character connects with your audience, WWE, do whatever it takes to make them successful. And when your instincts tell you to force more of the same on your fans even when they’ve rejected it, say not today.
And if WWE can take us on rides like KofiMania or the YES Movement with stars like Kingston and Bryan more often, folks will be less likely to stop watching, and more likely to tell their friends to tune in.
Pro wrestling/sports entertainment probably won’t ever reach the level of a big Thrones ep or tentpole Marvel movie, but when it WWE stops getting in its own way, we might be closer to a WrestleMania that feels like a major cultural event.