Professional Wrestling can be on and off again with coherent storytelling. One minute two wrestlers can be engaged in a blood feud spanning for years. The next could be an episode of Raw where Tucker turns on Otis because the fans are the problem. Regardless, in order for people to care about characters, they need significant long-term investment. Not only that, subtle teases and clues are needed to keep the fans invested and to theorize where the story will go next. There’s a reason I tune into Dynamite every week. It’s because of their successful characters in the men’s division they’ve built in just two years. No other wrestling company is doing the long-term booking and subtle storytelling better than All Elite Wrestling.
AEW invests in long-term booking to make stars. Look at Hangman Adam Page. His arc of friendship, alcoholism, and depression has made him, in my opinion, the best wrestler in all of AEW. Kenny Omega’s arc of trying to re-live the glory days in Japan made him a household name now more than ever. Jungle Boy is carefully constructed as the next face of the company. Forget NXT, AEW is truly promoting and developing new young stars. What’s great is that AEW’s booking is subtle throughout weeks of build on Dynamite, Dark, and various YouTube shows.
Continuity is key for successful long-term storytelling. One reason why I refuse to watch WWE anymore is because of their selective storytelling on Raw & Smackdown. Character relationships and history are ignored for generic Teletubbies good guy vs bad guy narrative. Shows like Game of Thrones & Mad Men pushed the envelope with complex characters and plots. For the longest time, New Japan Pro-Wrestling was king in long-term storytelling for years. Taking their time to develop their stars into household names. However, I argue that in two years, AEW has surpassed the king of sports and NXT in storytelling.
AEW lays hints on where the story will go next. Remember when Kenny lost to Pac at All Out and began teasing The Cleaner? That was more than a year of teasing and building character arc until he turned against Moxley and brought back his Bullet Club character. Hangman originally revealed he applied to join The Dark Order back when FTR showed up. Then FTR betrayed Page, he was kicked out of The Elite, and The Dark Order became his real friends. These moments work because they were built up for months if not years! It’s not the same as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s damn near close.
I despise WWE’s soap opera film style where characters are robotic and the storytelling is one note. WWE Wrestlers rarely act like human beings on TV. Instead, when they are given a chance on Talking Smack, they have the freedom to explore who they are. AEW gives their male wrestlers the same opportunity except on TNT and YouTube. I may be a writer but I much prefer when the wrestlers take charge of their own creative vision to create something unique. AEW feels more real, even with Ninja Luchadors and Dinosaurs.
Wrestlers in AEW are full-fledged human beings whether they are babyfaces or heels. Hangman’s personality is more defined than just “good guy.” He’s insecure, depressed, alcoholic, and wants to prove he is just as good as The Elite. Cody Rhodes is the youngest son of Dusty Rhodes who grew up more like Ric Flair and wants to be the success WWE never believed he could be. Lance Archer is a force of nature hell-bent on destroying anyone and wrecking carnage. After years of WWE’s cookie-cutter bullshit. I am so happy to have unique characters in American wrestling again.
I am a story over moves guy, though I love excellent ring work from the best of the best. In order for me to invest in a wrestler, I have to be given reasons to care about them. Who are they? Why are they wrestling? What’s their gimmick? What drives them to succeed? These are all basic questions for writing characters. AEW takes these questions and adds more to develop the men’s wrestlers into full fledge personalities over a period of time. Again, it’s not on the level of the MCU. But it’s damn near close.