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How similar are WWE and Marvel?

“ . . . Something to similar to Marvel and DC with lots of potential crossover appeal not just for performers but the characters and WWE brand itself.” 

Under the direction of Nick Khan, WWE sees itself in the process of transforming into a multi-media juggernaut. Recently, the name “Marvel” has come up as their inspiration. On the surface, Khan’s projection makes perfect sense: Both companies feature larger-than-life characters meant to appeal to young boys but have a core audience made up of much older clientele. However, the corporate culture in both companies is where the analogy falls apart. In reality, WWE has a long way to go before they become like Marvel, if that’s even possible.

1961: Marvel’s first hit, Fantastic Four #1

In many ways, WWE’s evolution has mirrored the trials of Marvel Comics/Studios. Marvel began as a single title in 1939. The company existed in the ’40s and ’50s as both Timely and Atlas Comics before rebranding themselves following the 1961 success of the Fantastic Four comic. After that, a creative boom under the direction of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby followed. In less than a decade, they helped create an array of beloved, iconic characters.

In the early 1980s, Marvel invested heavily to create Marvel Entertainment, a group focused on utilizing Marvel’s characters in various forms of media. While Marvel Entertainment struggled to sign a major film studio deal that could achieve the same box office successes of Superman and Batman, they did succeed on the small screen. Marvel would create a new generation of fans by introducing children to their characters through various animated series.

Though the WWF didn’t find as much luck with its own animated series, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, they did have more success after plugging their syndicated programs into the same Saturday Morning cartoon blocks.

Following a comics industry boom in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Marvel went public in July 1991, less than a decade before WWE did. However, the comics industry would collapse after the flight of comics speculators who’d artificially propped up the comics market. A failure of super-gimmicky concepts led the company to declare bankruptcy in late 1996.

Coincidentally, this happened at the same time that the former WWF was facing its own financial struggles. But while the company would experience a near-instant turnaround in 1997 which led to an wrestling industry boom, Marvel took a much slower route to solvency.

Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling was WWE’s attempt at transforming their wrestlers into beloved global IP.

As a company, Marvel Entertainment saved themselves by selling the film and television rights of their two most popular series, X-Men and Spider-man, which turned them into franchise films. However, it was the actual comics of the same era that really set the company up for success. Newsstands used to be the lifesblood of the comics industry, but as newsstands began dying out, Marvel would double down on distributing to the direct market, or comics specialty shops.

In the time between the ‘90s comics boom and its collapse, editors would often dictate stories, while writers were merely brought in to get characters from Point-A to Point-B. Though sales would never equal the massive numbers they hit during the ‘90s boom, Marvel pivoted and began focusing on its creators. Under the direction of Editor-and-chief Joe Quesada, Marvel experienced a creative renaissance in the 2000s, with a new crop of creators revitalizing Marvel. Creators like Christopher Priest,  Garth Ennis, and Clerks director Kevin Smith brought new takes to old characters and Marvel in general. Some versions worked better than others, but the efforts bolstered Marvel’s creative catalog overall.As Marvel Studios head, Kevin Fiege recruited comics writers like Brian Michael Bendis to help shape the first phase of MCU, starting with 2008’s Iron-Man. What’s evolved from there has turned Marvel into a multibillion-dollar business. Disney purchased the company in 2009 but allowed Fiege to continue the direction of the MCU. While it’s easy to see why WWE would think they can emulate Marvel’s success, it will be much more difficult because of the very nature of both companies.

After 13 years, the MCU has established a deep continuity that runs through their films and shows. Marvel doesn’t stop the story to help catch the audience up. Much like in the books, you can always go back and find what you missed. If a viewer hasn’t seen a particular movie, that’s on them.

Marvel rewards fans who’ve spent years watching and paying attention to their work, rather than just assuming their audience can’t remember what happened in a previous film.

While pro wrestling fans often bemoan continuity as too difficult to hook in new or casual viewers, Marvel has taken a different approach: They go out of their way to create super-fans. Marvel rewards fans who’ve spent years watching and paying attention to their work, rather than just assuming their audience can’t remember what happened in a previous film. Marvel also rewards its hardcore base by adapting stories directly from the pages of the books they’ve followed for years. If you haven’t read those books, Marvel offers the trade paperbacks and digital comics to hook any new reader who’d like to know more.

This approach is in stark contrast to how WWE handles its creative. Vince McMahon infamously has had his staff rewrite scripts just hours before their live shows aired. He assumes his audience won’t remember beats from previous stories so that individual moments are forgotten because “they don’t matter” more often than not. In this kind of environment, it’s impossible to create the deep layers of continuity and character development that Marvel expertly employs. The approaches are entirely opposite.

Marvel Comics, at this point, exists an intellectual property farm, allowing writers and artists to experiment with decades-old characters. Often, creators can breathe new life into C- and D-list properties, such as the case with the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Starlord-led version of the team debuted in 2007 but couldn’t sell enough copies to continue publishing the book. However, under Fiege and director James Gunn, the property has become a cultural icon, turning obscure characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot into household names. Imagine WWE putting that much effort into any of their lower-mid card talents.

One advantage Marvel has over WWE is that their characters don’t truly age. Tony Stark will always be Ironman in the comics. In essence, they don’t have to create new stars. They can just invest in Spider-man and Captain America forever. But that isn’t what Marvel does. Now that their franchise characters are played by real actors, who age and eventually leave their roles, Marvel has put considerable effort into digging into its vast pantheon and has had success elevating lower-tier characters. WWE has rarely brought characters through the ranks where viewers can watch someone go from nothing into stardom. Instead, wrestlers usually stay where they were initially slotted. Sometimes, when performers do breakthrough and achieve a different level of popularity, which often happens outside of the company’s efforts, they are quickly pushed back into their assigned slots. WWE doesn’t want breakout performers unless it’s someone they’ve chosen. It’s hard to find a Groot that way.

In this kind of environment, it’s impossible to create the deep layers of continuity and character development that Marvel expertly employs. The approaches are entirely opposite.

Last week, WWE came under criticism when former writer Kenice Mobley admitted on a podcast that she was hired despite having no product knowledge. It wasn’t the first time WWE has brought outsiders into creative positions. On the surface, it seems like a logical move, but the company has long viewed hiring wrestling fans as a negative. While not every Marvel Studios writer/director comes in with an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU, there’s an expectation that the creatives research the properties and understand the enormous opportunity in working with Marvel.

Ultimately, the major difference between the two companies is how they view their own products. WWE has long sought to separate itself from the world of professional wrestling. They will say they are everything but wrestling. Marvel has no qualms admitting they are a superhero company that’s grown beyond the pages of comics. At the same time, it freely admits everything about their characters and their world comes from comic books. Marvel embraces its roots rather than fighting them.

“What other people are adapting from the comics medium, I watch with as much interest as I do any other movies. Because I’m a fan, and I want to see what other people are doing in the world,” says Fiege.

It’s hard to imagine Vince McMahon saying the same about any wrestling outside WWE, isn’t it?

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