Examining the Narrative Power of Face and Heel Turns in WWE

Ryan DilbertWWE Lead WriterMay 23, 2013

Photo from WWE.com
Photo from WWE.com

The journey of a Superstar going from hero to villain, from face to heel or vice versa, is one of the more dramatic elements of WWE entertainment.

A turn can be shocking, thrilling or simply timely. It is a testament to the darkness inside of all of our heroes, the hero nestled inside all of our monsters and a tribute to the duality of human nature.

We'll likely never see Spider-Man start plotting world domination with Dr. Octopus or the Cobra Kai thinking better of their wicked ways. In pro wrestling and on every WWE TV show and pay-per-view, anyone is capable of morphing right in front of us. Anyone can step toward or away from the dark side in an instant.

Face and heel turns can be overused and muddled, but if done correctly, they can be one of the most compelling elements of the jumble of sport, theater and spectacle that is WWE.


The Face Turn

Face turns are often a story of redemption. They are tales of a man or a woman looking to cleanse their dark past, to have audiences excuse them for their wicked deeds.

These moments appeal to our forgiving nature.

In sports, a man like Michael Vick went from torturing and killing dogs to being cheered.  Fans generally want to give people the proverbial second chance. This same merciful attitude is what makes face turns work.

Alberto Del Rio is now a hero to the people after beginning his WWE career as a cocky, vicious aristocrat. Forget that Del Rio attacked an already-injured Rey Mysterio, ambushed Edge and cheated and schemed his way to success. The narrative has switched Del Rio's hat from black to white.

Seconds after coming to the aid of his personal ring announcer Ricardo Rodriguez during an attack from Big Show, fans were beginning to cheer him.

Del Rio used to berate and abuse Rodriguez, but suffering the wrath of the gigantic Big Show shifted everything for Del Rio. He did away with his luxury cars and began to wear the colors of the Mexican flag. His arrogance shifted into valor. He suddenly became a better means for WWE to attract the Latino audience.

That's the transformative power of a turn.

These stories see valets turn on their evil employers or friends-turned-foes reunite once again.

Going from villain to hero can also kickstart one's momentum and make a popular star out of a floundering character. Lex Luger's run as The Narcissist saw him struggle to garner reactions from fans, but a move to a patriotic hero character had Luger, at least momentarily, ascend to the WWE Championship picture. For John Cena, a face turn meant trading attitude for gutsiness, a trade that led to him being one of the biggest stars in company history.  

As much excitement as a face turn can add to a wrestler's story, going the other direction is often the more compelling option.


The Heel Turn

Some of the WWE moments that have most quickened our heartbeats were when men we thought were heroes turned into something more sinister.

After the seeds of a character shift have been planted, fans witness sudden, shocking instances of a fan favorite snapping or an allegiance imploding.

Think back to the end of Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty's tag team, The Rockers. Michaels turned on his partner in dramatic fashion, smashing Jannetty’s head through a window.

That moment—along with Andre the Giant tearing Hulk Hogan's shirt in their infamous 1987 confrontation, Steve Austin joining forces with Vince McMahon and CM Punk clotheslining The Rock at Raw 1000—is among the most unforgettable moments in company history.

There is something both disturbing and exciting to think that all of our heroes have a dormant monster inside them.

Even now, it's hypnotizing watching Batista turn on his friend Rey Mysterio.

Batista felt that his best friend had cheated him out of a championship win. In real life, perhaps they would have talked it out, gone and had a beer and put it behind them. Where would be the fun in that, though?

WWE fans watch disputes snowball into violence as misunderstandings become rivalries. Many of these stories are built on a former face digging into the most wicked part of themselves to transform into hated heels.

For Superstars like Ryback, a heel turn is a chance to amp one's aggression and intensity, and for them to go from a hero's ally to the man looking to take away their championship title.

Both turns offer wrestlers a way to shake up the status quo. Fans can't bet on good guys staying good guys and vice versa. Anyone at any moment could change.

Knights may become the dragons and dragons may morph into knights. That uncertainty is a part of what makes WWE so fun.

Perhaps these jumps from hero to villain are oversimplified and tapped into too often, but they are usually entertaining.

Face and heel turns are ways to stimulate stagnant storylines and characters. They offer stunning cliffhangers. They are WWE's exploration of good and evil and the fleeting nature of each.