From Marvel to AEW: Pop Culture’s Success in Opposing Politics of Hate

If I can get it out to a simple point: diversity is better business.

– Shahid Khan

I made these comments on the micro-blogging platform of Twitter in response to recent events in the entertainment industry. Yes, even professional wrestling has hope. There was, I added, a fortune to be made in reflecting progressive, modern values, so even from a cynical business standpoint, it still made sense to speak to an increasingly savvy, street-smart, switched-on audience by targeting products at that market.

Despite this gap in the market, in recent blog posts on this site I looked at the ongoing regressive nature of pro wrestling company WWE, whose founders, the McMahons, helped finance the presidential campaign of their long-time friend, the fascist Donald Trump. This is a union-busting multibillion dollar corporation that has aggressively expanded and overseen a monopoly on its industry, while contractually locking up performers and restricting their outside activities, at the same time refusing them employee benefits and instead categorising them as “independent contractors” who therefore have to pay for much of their own health care, pension plans, and long-distance transportation, while unable to accept bookings to perform for any other pro wrestling company except on very rare occasions. In addition, WWE have been exposed for their culture of drug abuse and steroid scandals, sexual harassment, and concussion crises, while promoting racism and racist performers and sexist segments, and providing public relations for Saudi Arabia. They were still subject to the de facto dictatorship of 73 year-old promoter Vince McMahon. They didn’t know any other way.

Yes, for a long time it has seemed if you wanted to watch pro wrestling, the dominant presentation and platform for this artform around the world was provided by a very unsavoury organisation, to say the least. With each passing year – as they went from regulation- and tax-dodging family company to corporation on the stock exchange – I gave them less and less of my money, to the point where I just stopped having much to do with them at all apart from news and clips on the web to keep abreast of the landscape. I couldn’t reconcile it any longer. And hey, the product itself started to suck.

However, after nearly twenty years of this, an alternative emerged in the spirit of the underdog, do-it-yourself, punk ethic: “The Elite” pro wrestlers Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks banded together with other genuine independent contractors able to take on different bookings, and organised, promoted, and delivered their own event, All In, drawing a red-hot crowd of over 10,000 fans to the Sears Center in Chicago, Illinois. I wrote here about how Vince McMahon, in the true spirit of vulture capitalism, suddenly looked to sign the Young Bucks and Cody – following his traditional pattern of owning someone or something just to stop them successfully existing outside of his world. I also wrote about how their decision in response to such an offer could literally define the future of pro wrestling. In actual fact, far from that being hyperbole, it turns out that was, if anything, an understatement on my part.

What they did instead was announce the launch of a major pro wrestling promotion of a scale incomparable to almost anything else outside of WWE. Granted, there was New Japan Pro Wrestling, owned by Bushiroad, and the parent company of their collaborators Ring of Honor is Sinclair Broadcasting Group – but it turned out that “The Elite” had backing from sports analytics expert and businessman Tony Khan…son of billionaire Shahid Khan. After weeks of guerrilla marketing, largely utilising their hit web show “Being the Elite,” – provoking a buzz of speculation on a more dynamic, modern, and progressive alternative to WWE – on January 8th, 2019, “The Elite” and the Khans held a rally and press conference in Jacksonville, Florida (ironically the host city of a major WWE TV show the very same day) and formally announced “All Elite Wrestling” (or AEW).

At the rally, the key individuals representing AEW made some fairly bold statements of intent:

  • Cody’s wife Brandi Rhodes announced the first female signing, Dr Britt Baker, and stated that women would receive equal pay to the men when sharing the same status on the show (for example, opening match, mid-card, or main event).
  • Cody said they’d hold essentially a follow-up to All In with the backing of the Khans, this time under the AEW banner, on May 25th, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada, titled Double or Nothing, but then promised to return to that very spot to hold a show in Jacksonville, Florida, as well, with a significant portion of the proceeds going towards victims of gun violence.
  • Tony Khan himself said that while AEW won’t necessarily be tying all of their performers to exclusive contracts, those who are employees could expect to enjoy employee benefits – meaning that if the company had exclusive rights to talent, they had responsibilities to the talent, as well.

These themes do what WWE has failed to do: they tap into modern movements, from the Women’s March to March For Our Lives, and they change the dialogue on a pro wrestling company’s responsibilities to its talent.

In the 1980s, pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura almost naturally extended his superb speaking and performing abilities beyond the spectacle of pro wrestling into TV shows and movies, and found a breath of fresh air in the acting world, gaining worker rights as a member of the Screen Actors Guild. As has been discussed before, Vince McMahon’s mega-star Hulk Hogan was making more money than anyone else on the show and had no interest in Jesse Ventura’s attempts to transfer collective bargaining over into the pro wrestling world, instead helping boss McMahon strangle unionised pro wrestling in its crib, and exposing the industry to the abuses it would suffer for decades (many at the hands of McMahon himself). No surprise that Jesse went into politics after that.

Cody was able to make the transition from WWE to acting even easier given his younger years at the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles, California, and while playing supervillain Derek Sampson in the series Arrow, he became fully aware of the improved working conditions and rights of actors on-set compared to the performers in the ring, soon after calling for pro wrestlers to “band together.”

Cody is of course the son of Dusty Rhodes, known as a working class hero in pro wrestling who shot to popularity by being relateable to viewers, personified in a famous interview about the “hard times” faced by blue-collar workers in the South, home to the poor white farmers who co-opted the term “redneck” by wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies when fighting for their rights. A “common man” who, as his famous theme song claimed, always worked hard with his hands (in manual labour, or in the ring), Dusty Rhodes was called “The American Dream” due to his rags-to-riches journey as a plumber’s son from Texas who went on to become NWA World Heavyweight Champion – a title Cody would finally claim at the All In event itself.

Ironically, in 2012, Forbes magazine called Shahid Khan “The Face of the American Dream,” having come to the state of Illinois from Pakistan as a 16 year-old, taking a job washing dishes before completing his studies and going on to work his way up through manufacturing firm Flex-N-Gate, later taking over the company and expanding it into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, before branching out into sports ventures: Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Shahid’s son Tony Khan, who has been heavily involved in sports analytics at those teams, is a life-long pro wrestling fanatic who attended independent shows from a young age and became friends with fellow fan, the podcaster and convention organiser Conrad Thompson, who in turn helped nurture the connection with “The Elite.” Tony’s meeting with Cody and the Young Bucks after All In was clearly incredibly timely and their relationship is symbiotic: they want to offer a genuine alternative on a significant scale; he wants to get into the pro wrestling business, helping them realise their vision that he believes in. Tony’s father has the mass of wealth to pump into the project.

A saviour he may be, but this doesn’t mean Shahid “Shad” Khan is a saint for financing his son’s dream venture. Yes, he’s given away millions of dollars to the many places he stayed along his incredible journey – from his native Pakistan to the American universities he attended, and family programmes in Jacksonville itself – but charity, said former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, is a “cold, grey, loveless thing,” and “if a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” No, as a wise man recently told me on Twitter, no billionaire can possibly be a saint, since it is impossible for one person to actually “earn” a billion dollars; such wealth, after all, can only be created by the labour of a massive workforce.

At the same time, while bringing hundreds of jobs to Illinois and calling for a minimum wage of $20 an hour, Shad has repeated his belief that the root cause of civil unrest is a lack of good jobs: “We focus on 40-year-old and 50-year-old white guys that are unemployed, (but) these are minority kids in inner cities, and Trump has hit on this. That is a hot button issue for us (that) our politicians haven’t addressed.” Perhaps not entirely unrelated to such sentiments, Shad himself showed some support for Trump’s appeal to the American “rust-belt,” genuine or otherwise.

As a result, some have pointed out that Shad isn’t much better than WWE’s McMahons, since his vote and even his own money went towards Trump – indeed, he was one of many NFL franchise owners who agreed to contribute significant donations to the president’s inauguration committee (likely in attempts to get on his good side, if indeed Trump even has one). The Small Business Administration that once loaned a young Shahid Khan $50,000 to help him on his own American dream had now ironically appointed as its chief administrator one Linda McMahon – wife of WWE’s Vince McMahon who helped her husband ruthlessly run roughshod over competitors for decades to monopolise the pro wrestling business before pumping at least $7million in the direction of Trump.

But after Trump’s attack on the principle of black protest in the NFL, Shad immediately turned around and joined arms with black players Marcedes Lewis and Telvin Smith – linked with the rest of the team – in what at least appeared to be an act of defiance towards Trump, and was widely interpreted as such, until Shad himself confirmed it: “He has been elected President, where maybe a great goal he had in life – to own an NFL team – is not very likely,” he stated. “Here, it’s about…trying to soil a league or a brand that he’s jealous of.” Indeed, known for his petty personal vendettas, Trump had been unable to purchase NFL teams such as the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots, and like his friends the McMahons had tried and failed to create legitimate rival leagues to the NFL in the USFL and XFL, respectively – interestingly, since Trump’s attack on NFL protests, Vince McMahon has relaunched the XFL, vowing to prohibit protest throughout the league.

Citing the government’s policies while Trump is expressing outrage at black protest in the NFL, Shad went further: “Let’s get real. The attacks on Muslims, the attacks on minorities, the attacks on Jews – I think the NFL doesn’t even come close to that on the level of being offensive.” Asked if he regrets being a contributor to Trump’s inauguration fund, Shad replied, “I have no regrets in life (but) this ugly, toxic side sours the whole experience.” Perhaps in further response to Trump’s divisive and prejudiced policies, Khan’s Jaguars Foundation donated a thousand of their NFL tickets to local refugees and Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria.

So, while by no means a saint, Shahid Khan remains at least a ‘compassionate, vocal, free thinking’ businessman who promotes (and sometimes even actively encourages) the creation of inner-city jobs, a higher minimum wage, and more diversity in the workforce, and despite what are no doubt many cocktail parties and banquets surrounded by peers with staunch sentiments to the contrary, he is now in open opposition to the politics of Donald Trump, friend to the McMahons.

And for the McMahons and their ideology to be challenged – for themes and messages and stories and narratives, on a mass widespread scale, to reflect the heart and hopes of a population with diverse backgrounds and increasingly progressive perspectives – within this capitalist system we find ourselves a counter can only be provided by an entity with comparable wealth and power. History has proven this.

As an example, let’s look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or “MCU.” What began in 2008 with a Paramount Pictures film called Iron Man has become a global phenomenon. Yes, this is pop culture at its purest: Marvel Comics characters brought to life by Hollywood actors in action movies full of special effects and costumes. But just as even the most conservative parents often inadvertently teach their young children the socialist principles of sharing, and collectivism, so also have these films carried over the wholesome messages of the comic book source material that Marvel’s most famous writer Stan Lee talked about on his “soapbox” in the pages for all those years.

As a child, while I was fascinated by DC’s costumed crimefighter Batman (particularly after the 1989 movie redefined the character), I didn’t understand Marvel Comics and what seemed like a plethora of bizarre, complex characters with unique identities and outfits from across the universe itself; I couldn’t keep up with them and didn’t know where to begin to dive in as they weren’t simple or basic – they didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence. And intelligence was key: as a very creative but very different child who was also home-schooled, I was intrigued by the X-Men, as they were led by Professor Charles Xavier who, the story told us, took in these gifted freaks at his unique Institute for Higher Learning, but I didn’t give myself enough credit to pick up a copy of the latest issue and dive in at some point. Comic book historian Peter Sanderson pointed out that “(DC) had run into a creative drought…The Marvel of the 1960s was in its own way the counterpart of the French New Wave…Marvel was pioneering new methods of comics storytelling and characterisation, addressing more serious themes,” and this had carried on up until 1989’s Batman movie gave DC a brand-new lease of life.

But years later, the MCU have re-interpreted the Marvel mythos from scratch and also brought us The Avengers and an Agents of SHIELD television series spin-off where they’ve tackled the topics of fake news and “alternative facts,” and more recently the Oscar-nominated and wildly successful Black Panther, as well as Captain Marvel (to be released on International Women’s Day), and will likely tackle X-Men too, and yet MCU chiefs have promised even more diversity in their stories and productions – because they know these presentations are popular.

Disney – whose founder Walt Disney became widely regarded as a racist imperialist – have of course long since swallowed up both Marvel and the Star Wars brand, and now seek to launch Disney+, not least because their other Marvel shows such as Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones have been nixed by a Netflix in turn looking towards source material from more independent comics via the likes of Millarworld, IDW, and Image (whose Analog series of comics have been outstanding and seemingly perfect for the screen). But, again, Netflix have had their own controversies too, most recently happily pulling an episode of The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that was very rightly critical of WWE’s friends The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who had of course complained.

Nonetheless – as Netflix know all too well – the fact remains that long after 1989’s Batman, comic books have proven to be viable source material for television shows and movies – but especially when presented true to their core of being a voice for the voiceless. Modern, diverse audiences expect entertainment to at the very least reflect their communities and their values, and more than speak to them, even speak for them on large platforms. WWE has long since failed at this.

At its peak, Vince McMahon co-opted his increasing reputation for ruthless dictatorship in pro wrestling by putting himself in front of the cameras as a caricature of himself, juxtaposed against rebellious rising star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin – who, not coincidentally was a Texan former freight dock worker turned wrestler; their rivalry captured the imagination of a public tuning in week to week and living vicariously through a beer-drinking working class hero telling his boss to go to hell, giving him the finger, and even beating him up. But after this ran its course, Vince seemed to run out of ideas, and even today the McMahon family seem lost as to how to present even ready-made sports-like showdowns like Ronda Rousey versus Becky Lynch without inserting themselves into the storyline, either through ego, ignorance, or simply yet again trying to repeat the recipe for success by using the same formula, bereft of fresh approaches. Worse than that, stories are increasingly abandoned half-way through, character names and backstories are haphazardly re-written, and shows are planned minutes before airtime. One night, a match is made on the spot; the next, a contract signing is required for a fight to become official. A right-wing flat-earther is presented as a hero, and a “woke” warrior as the villain. For a multimillion dollar corporation, it’s certainly starting to show that the old man running the show itself is less a wise genius, and more of an out-of-touch carny promoter who got by on business brains but no heart – a member of the Mar-a-Lago elites, indeed.

Fortunately, “The Elite” of a different kind has arrived on the scene to offer an alternative – one that’s that’s long been clamoured for. Tony Khan’s background in sports analytics has meant he and “The Elite” are concocting plans for a pro wrestling programme where wins and losses actually matter, and suspension of disbelief is much easier with the matches presented as a sporting contest. After Cody’s talks of wrestlers needing to “band together,” there was conjecture about whether or not AEW would respect workers’ rights in the ways WWE had not, especially after Tony Khan’s first post-rally remarks about employee benefits. After this topic was seized upon by many reporters, Cody initially appeared to back-track in online comments about pro wrestling unions being apparently almost impossible due to the freelancing nature of the independent scene that he seemed to be suggesting would be threatened by the very existence of union laws. Of course, it’s tough to have collective bargaining when one performer is appearing on a show in Japan, and his tag team partner in Mexico, and each promotion has different resources and capabilities, booking each talent on a one-off basis without long-term contracts. But WWE has no excuse: it locks its stars into iron-clad contracts and even freezes them if they’re unfortunate enough to be injured, or simply disgruntled and refusing to work for them – performers can be held in for years and years, unable to appear on another show. A promotion the size of WWE has no rightful reason not to provide employee benefits to workers who are clearly employees. And, in fairness to Cody, he knows this. “With that said, we should be actively working towards some sort of body,” he clarified. “Whether that starts as a talent feedback system, or a players’ league, or some sort of body where there’s a complete, transparent communication between those in the office and those in the locker room…that’s massively important.” According to Conrad Thompson, the Khans know this too: “The Khan family is very familiar with (unions),” he explained. “That’s a foreign concept for the McMahons, but the Khans are very familiar with the NFL Players’ Union. They found a way to make that work, so I can’t imagine them not finding a way to make it work here.”

So there is now a real genuine alternative to the WWE, in both a behind-the-scenes sense, as well as a presentation sense, and that’s good news. How viable is this alternative? Well at their opening rally, long-time loyal WWE super-star Chris Jericho made a surprise appearance, announcing he was now “all in with All Elite Wrestling” (and later claiming it was the best deal he’d ever been made from a pro wrestling company). Former disgruntled WWE star Benjamin “Pac” Satterley – who had spent almost all of 2018 sat at home unable to ply his trade anywhere after walking out of a WWE who refused for so long to release him from his contract – also showed up at the rally, announced as part of AEW, no doubt giving him a sense of personal satisfaction. What’s more, the most sought-after free agent in the industry, and largely considered to be the greatest present-day performer in all of pro wrestling, Kenny Omega, has just joined as well, at their most recent rally last night in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of my old favourites, Jon Moxley – utterly wasted in WWE as the “Dean Ambrose” character – decided not to renew his contract with WWE (even for more than a million dollars a year), and Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson requested their release from WWE (having teased a match with the Young Bucks for a long time online), though reports that Mike and Maria Kanellis asked to be let go have been disputed by the couple (however, would make sense given they are outspoken anti-Trump democratic socialists). The momentum has begun. The very existence of an alternative has already given WWE performers a renewed sense of hope and confidence that they could still earn a damn good living without compromising their creativity or lowering their hard-earned status.

If that wasn’t enough, AEW have made additional signings of relative unknown rising stars whose addition make another bold statement of intent: Sonny Kiss is one of the few openly gay stars of the independent circuit, while Nyla Rose, a trans woman, has been added to the women’s division. AEW have made it crystal clear that they are eager to tap into the counterculture to WWE’s stale, outdated, and regressive offering. In short, they have recognised and embraced the demand for difference, and diversity; to tell interesting, modern stories and to conduct themselves as ethically as an entity can while fighting a billion-dollar battle on a massive scale.

Some have argued that, despite all this, AEW cannot offer a credible alternative since they lack the exposure needed to do so, as they have no platform other than their rallies and internet streaming right now, and that they can’t feasibly retain talent without justifying their contracts and wages with regular television programming or live shows. Ironically, this claim is made by some of the same people who accept WWE’s ratings decline explanation that television is less important these days, in an era of online streaming services. And yet, interestingly, AEW have trademarked “Tuesday Night Dynamite” while talking to several major telelevision networks anyway. “Yes, ratings are important,” conceded Conrad Thompson, “but if you get a television rights deal, that’s different…you’re getting paid either way.” None of these things are ultimately as important anyway with the way the Khans approach business, he added: “People are so hung up on house shows with WWE and how attendance and live events are down, but I think Tony is going to have a different approach because there are very valuable NFL properties that don’t have sell-outs at every game.”

Others have argued that there is a difference between an alternative and a threat; that WWE will never change or be challenged because it is too unrealistic – unfathomable, even – that anything could ever knock it from the top of the mountain. While he and the rest of “The Elite” have in the past dismissed claims they are trying to be anything other than an alternative, Cody has now admitted: ‘It sounds super romantic when you think about it. Dusty Rhodes feuded with Vince McMahon, and he lost, and here is his youngest son who is going to try and cut Vince’s head off.”

You may laugh. But remember: All those years ago, when Batman was enjoying success into the 1990s, Marvel were in a mess – literally filing for bankruptcy – as DC Comics dominated the news with sensational comic book stories featuring Batman being paralyzed by a dangerous new villain and Superman killed and reborn, while also successfully translating through adaptations in television and movies. There was no contest; it was the vengeful Justice League of DC over Marvel’s eccentric and complex X-Men and Avengers; one brand was a household name, the other barely existing, and it seemed difficult to imagine anything different to this dynamic.

Fast-forward to today, and DC are a disappointment on the screen, their comics series have been repeatedly rebooted, and Marvel are an often-emulated blockbuster smash hit, from Iron Man to Captain America, Black Panther to Captain Marvel, Infinity War and Endgame; former underdogs Marvel are now the undisputed winners, their brand itself an unstoppable global juggernaut – in recent years there has even been speculation that Marvel could buy DC.

There’s a lot to be said for the resilience of well-told stories, long-term planning, and fresh perspectives, with a sense of moral responsibility. As history has shown us, this approach truly cannot be underestimated; it can turn the tables quickly. And now, maybe more than ever, there is a demand for progressive pop culture presentations through mass media. That could, after all, be the key to longevity.

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