Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, pro wrestling storylines are insipid, insulting, and exhausting, and yet pro wrestling is the only narrative form I’ve seen consistently execute the most difficult storyline device out there:
A double-turn is when a hero and villain walk into a match, and by the end of their fight, the hero has become the villain, and the villain has become a hero.
The most famous example:
In 1997, long-time fan favorite Bret Hart met chaotic evil asshole Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin had trash talked and sneak-attacked Bret for months, and Bret, a no-nonsense veteran, couldn’t wait to get his revenge. When the two finally met at Wrestlemania 13, the fans cheered Bret to the ring. The match quickly became vicious and intense. Bret expected to dominate Austin with his technical arsenal, but every time he had the upper hand, Austin brawled back.
Bret became increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t put Austin away. While Bret’s hair was a oil-tinted lion’s mane, his personality was all crew-cut: tight-lipped and taciturn. Now, however, he seemed fatigued and annoyed. For the first time, Bret’s straight-laced persona began to crack. His blows became crueler, designed to injure rather than score a victory. It was no longer enough to beat Austin, Bret wanted to diminish him, humiliate him, break him. Twenty minutes in, Bret opened a terrible gash along Austin’s forehead. Blood spilled down into Austin’s eyes. Between the sweat and crimson, the ring mat became an unfinished Pollock.
Austin, for his part, wouldn’t relent. Through the pain and abuse, Austin would raise a middle-finger and claw his way back into the match.
Finally, however, the Bret found his endgame, locking Austin into the Sharpshooter, his brutal submission leglock. Austin writhed to relieve the pressure, but couldn’t reach the ropes to force a break. Bret sat back and wrenched harder. Austin howled in agony. Blood poured down his face, a horror-movie mask. The crowd roared – but were they cheering for Bret or screaming for Austin to fight on? The longer Austin resisted, the more the audience found a grudging respect for his toughness, his courage.
Austin couldn’t make it to the ropes, but he didn’t tap out either. With his spine mangled in the Sharpshooter, Austin passed out from the pain. The ref ended the match, but Austin never gave up. He wouldn’t be broken.
Bret couldn’t accept that. The match over, he stood over Austin’s defenseless body and stomped into him, threatening to tie Austin into the Sharpshooter again until the referee pried him away. Hart sulked from the ring to a chorus of boos. As he walked to the locker room, he turned back only once, to look a betrayed fan dead in the eyes and shout “Fuck you.”
Once awake, Austin limped to the back under his own power, groggy and defiant.
The crowd chanted his name.
Plenty of movies have face turns, where the dreaded villain redeems himself in the climactic moment – Vader throwing the Emperor down a ventilation shaft to end Return of the Jedi.
Plenty of TV shows have heel turns, where the protagonist’s guileless smile curls into a snarl – Walter White watching Jane choke to death to reclaim control over his business.
And yet somehow pro wrestling – baffling, sprawling, incoherent pro wrestling – alone wields the most breathtaking narrative trick of all. The double-turn.
It’s time for Hollywood to catch up.