I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that WWE Studios’ films suck more often than not.
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get an ironic enjoyment out of watching The Marine franchise (and I freaking adore the first Scooby-Doo crossover), but if WWE was earnestly trying to put out great films with finished products like Dead Man Down starring Wade Barrett, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for them. The movies do little to showcase the talents that their wrestlers have, casting most of them as brooding anti-heroes or horror movie villains that have the charisma of an unplugged toaster.
But WWE Superstars™ have all kinds of charisma when left to their own devices or when given a competently written script and an experienced director. Look at Sasha Banks in The Mandalorian — I’ve always enjoyed Banks as a wrestler, but it was never for her acting. Yet, when she donned the blue armor for the Star Wars franchise, she gave a quiet but still strong performance.
The online discussion after Sasha Banks’ Mandalorian performance often revolved around what would happen if Banks left for Hollywood, and it’s queries like that that directly led to the inception of WWE Studios. With their own movie studio, Vince McMahon gets to quell his roster’s yearnings for movie stardom; meanwhile, the wrestlers get SAG-AFTRA benefits, which helps ease the pain of there not being a union for pro wrestlers.
But what do we get out of these films? One pity laugh while watching Triple H’s The Chaperone? Pass.
WWE Studios’ next project is a big-budget animated feature called Rumble that stars Will Arnett and Terry Crews among others, and it features Roman Reigns and Becky Lynch. I actually have high hopes for that one, but I doubt WWE will take that success and turn into the next Pixar or DreamWorks.
They’re going to need a gameplan that’s sustainable, and there’s an easy path to take if they want to make that happen.
If you’re already going to be WWE Studios, why not just make a few movies that take place inside the WWE Universe?
Though WWE Films sort of had a hand in producing The Rundown and Walking Tall (two absolute dad films), the first three film projects that they announced on their own were The Condemned, The Marine, and See No Evil, which starred Steve Austin, John Cena, and Kane, respectively.
These three films did different things in relation to the wrestlers’ in-kayfabe characters. For Austin, the film fully focused on the “badass” aspect of his persona. Anyone moderately cool could have starred in that movie — heck, it probably could have starred Nathan Jones in terms of gimmick — so it was less a movie made for Austin and more a slot to put him in since, hey, The Rock is good at acting!
The Marine also didn’t have anything to do with Cena’s character (especially since it was written with Randy Orton in mind), but unlike Austin, Cena’s WWE character actually changed after the film came out. Gone was the white battle rapper who created spinning championships (though he did still hold onto his “bling”); instead, Cena started to fully transition into the Hogan-style pro-America goody-two-shoes. In fact, The Marine changed his character so much that I thought years that Cena really did serve in the military. Stupid mark I was.
But See No Evil is the kind of kayfabe-synergy that we’re looking for here. Though Glenn Jacobs was playing “Jacob Goodnight” in the film — which is a pretty solid indie wrestler name in of itself — you could reasonably watch the movie thinking it’s still about Kane the Wrestler. Kane lit JR on fire and electrocuted Shane McMahon’s dolla-dollas live on RAW; who’s to say he wouldn’t scoop out some 20-year-olds’ eyeballs?
What I’m proposing are films where we just ditch the middleman and, instead of making a movie where the wrestler plays a character that’s similar to their in-ring persona, we make one where the wrestler just IS their in-ring persona.
Now, maybe not all of the performers want to be confined to one character? Maybe they want to stretch their legs and play all sorts of characters, like how Kane and Dolph Ziggler played cops in Countdown? I mean, they can’t possibly be taken seriously as actors if they only ever play the one character, right?
Counterpoint: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
I’ll take absolutely nothing away from The Rock as an actor, but the man has never blended into a role in his entire life. Whether I’m watching Rampage, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Skyscraper, whatever, I don’t even bother learning the character’s name because, dude, that’s The Rock. He’s literally doing the People’s Eyebrow! Imagine my surprise when I learned he was starring in Hobbs and Shaw, a film in which he had to be either Hobbs or Shaw.
But Johnson crushes that role every time. There’s a reason why he’s the biggest action star we have: The Rock is a strong character that he’s been crafting since his wrestling heel turn in 1997. I love that I can watch Guardians of the Galaxy and only see Dave Bautista as Drax, but I’m also down to see Johnson playing the Rock playing, uh,
Calvin Will Luke Hobbs and knowing the whole time that that’s Rocky Johnson’s boy.
I want to see if other wrestlers can figure out their niches as actors who just play their wrestling characters, because as cool as it was to see Rusev and Lana as themselves in Countdown, they still ended up fighting Ziggler’s Ray Thompson. In the immortal words of Sonic T. Hedgehog, that’s no good.
I already gave Hollywood my pitch on how to make the perfect 2000s nostalgia-bait film, but as a wrestling fan first and foremost, I figure I’ll spread a little bit of my “genius” WWE Studios’ way. So, here are four short pitches for films I might make under this new directive.
The Undertaker, Dark Knight Returns-style
We already have two horror movies where Kane plays totally-not-Kane, but one thing I’ve always wanted to see is an actual story in which we see the origins of Undertaker and Kane. Now, we obviously can’t do an origin story in which the two 50-year-olds play their younger selves, but we can do a hybrid piece in which some hunky Under-Faker plays his younger version while the real deal endures his own story.
When I watched the Boneyard Match between AJ Styles and The Undertaker at WrestleMania 36, all I could think about was how cathartic this farmer strength vs. old man strength beatdown would have been if it had been earned (urn-ed?) throughout the feud. Styles had been talking trash about ’Taker for a while, sure, but he’d also been taking chokeslam pinfalls for months up to that point, already a loser.
Imagine a film in which a bunch of punk youngsters poke the bear that is The Undertaker and wind up in a reversed-perspective horror movie in which we’re fully on the slasher’s side (assuming you don’t already root for slashers). We get flashbacks to ’Taker and Kane’s childhood home going up in flames, Bearer bringing his boys to WWE, and tons of lore, all while setting up a part-John-Wick, part-Logan, part-Batman, part-Friday-the-13th finale.
Does a movie about a retired wrestler create new stars? Nah, but Undertaker is arguably the most compelling wrestler in WWE history, and I’d love to see his lore explored.
A feature-length, Wyatt-led Fiend project
I don’t want to go into this one too much because it’s another horror-ish film and WWE Studios already tries too hard with those. However, if we’re talking wrestlers with lore, The Fiend is by far the most interesting wrestler in WWE today.
What is the Fiend’s relationship with Funhouse Bray and Swamp Bray like? What happened to John Cena? How do Husky Harris and the Wyatt Family inform the modern character outside of references — and, to that point, how does Bray respond in-character to the tragic passing of Luke Harper, his most trusted ally?
I don’t have a solid plot in mind, but that’s because this project should be the brainchild of Windham Rotunda himself, no matter what. I’d love to see how much questionable Fiend booking Wyatt could justify given an hour or so to work with, especially if it means he can get me to tolerate Alexa Bliss’s Funhouse character.
An absurdist comedy starring the New Day
I initially wanted to pitch a Bill & Ted-style adventure starring Edge and Christian, but the latter recently debuted in AEW, so I feel like we’re a ways away from that. There are numerous banter-full friendships that WWE could capitalize on in film form, though, and while a part of me would love to see this spot go to Breezango or The IIconics, I’m always going to go with the New Day for anything.
Not only are they a well-defined act, but they also translate very easily to a higher-level of pop culture awareness. I remember seeing tons of memes about Booty-O’s back in the day from non-wrestling fans, and just one clip of Woods playing the trombone while E and Kofi twerk would a passerby intrigued enough to want to learn more.
Also, I just want to see all three of them together, man. The podcast just isn’t enough.
Whether the result is an epic battle with rainbows and unicorns, a reference-heavy romp through Titan Towers, or a shot-for-shot remake of the 1999 animated film Our Friend, Martin only with the New Day replacing Miles, there’s surely money in a film about WWE’s most successful tag team.
The Rest of Paige’s Story
This idea may sound a little weaker, but I really couldn’t think of another woman whose story is as easy to translate out of wrestling as Paige’s. Part of that could be down to the fact that we’ve already seen hers done well, but while 2019’s Fighting with My Family was about Paige joining WWE, I’m incredibly interested in everything that happened afterward.
And sorry, Florence Pugh, but I want to give this one back to Paige herself.
Fighting with My Family was intended to be outside of kayfabe but instead ended up with its own weird canon where Paige’s name isn’t Saraya and Pete Dunne tried out for WWE in 2011 (when he was only 17). I think the movie is fun and wouldn’t change it at all, but this next movie wouldn’t have too much to do with the last.
Instead, I want to take the BOOM! Studios “WWE Comics” approach and use this movie to fill out the gaps in WWE’s storytelling. Paige debuted at the top of the women’s division, instantly winning the Diva’s Championship the night after WrestleMania 30. One year later, she was already a “veteran” in her division, leading Becky Lynch and Charlotte as they made their own debuts. She took a lot of 2016 off with injuries (and personal problems), became the judge for Tough Enough, took two of the show’s runners-up under her wings, and once again led a faction while staving off her inevitable retirement.
She is only 28 years old today.
Instead of peppering kayfabe into Paige’s reality like Fighting with My Family did, take a little bit of reality and using it to inform Paige’s kayfabe story could lead to something amazing. You don’t even need to go all in with the Alberto Del Rio stuff; just say she was injured and move on. But from debuting as the Anti-Diva to her short run as SmackDown General Manager, she experienced a whole 20-year career in about 5 years.
We make a lot of jokes here. This isn’t one of those. This movie, perhaps more than any of the others, could be something special.
Give me a call, Vince.
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