The ties that bind superheroes and the WWE

We investigate how the world of comic book heroes connects with the WWE

Tobey Maguire in wrestling costume in Spider-Man (2002)
Photo: Sony Pictures

Picture for a moment a highly popular form of entertainment built around long-running and complicated stories, bombastic characters and amazing plot twists – one that has kept fans coming back decade after decade.

Depending on your preferences, you might be thinking about superhero comics or wrestling, which is interesting, as the two share not only many similarities but have been influencing and crossing over with each other for a very long time. With the release of 2K Games’ WWE 2K20 on 22 October, we’re embarking on a deep dive into the many connections between superheroes and the stars of the WWE.

From year one

This connection goes back to the very beginning of the superhero phenomenon. 1938 saw the debut of Superman, kicking off a craze for superhumans in tight-fitting costumes that would endure for the next eight decades (and counting).

The uninitiated have often wondered just why Clark Kent’s alter ego wears his pants on the outside of his costume. Weird huh? Well, not so much if you understand his creators’ Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s particular influences.

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Shuster had a fascination with bodybuilding, and drew on the distinctive costumes of circus strongmen, boxers and, yes, wrestlers. Spandex and sparkly pants remain a much-loved staple of WWE costumes – as is clear to see in WWE 2K20‘s massive, star-studded lineup – just as Superman’s iconic look (despite the New 52’s brief obsession with mandarin collars) has seen those same underwear-on-the-outside details repeated on costumes from Batman to the X-Men and most superheroes in between at one point or another.

Another key superhero has a link to wrestling – none other than Spider-Man. His origin story – first told back in 1962 – involves Peter Parker initially using his new abilities to make money in the ring, and only after the death of his uncle coming to properly understand that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Spider-Man’s costume – recognised the world over – was initially designed to be worn in wrestling matches.

Storytelling style

Arguably, the popularity of WWE and superhero comics comes down to a shared storytelling formula that rewards fans who are heavily invested and have been engaging with these characters and their adventures over a number of years.

A prime comics example is Chris Claremont’s beloved 16-year run on Uncanny X-Men, in which he not only introduced many enduring characters (Mystique, Rogue, Gambit and Kitty Pryde to name but a few) but built complex, interweaving plots that in some cases only paid off years down the line. WWE boasts storytelling that’s every bit as intricate – whether it’s The Undertaker and his rivalry with his long-presumed-dead half-brother Kane (not to mention his 21-undefeated-victory streak at WrestleMania) or Stone Cold Steve Austin’s feud with WWE chief Vince McMahon.

The traditional superhero/supervillain axis is also mirrored by wrestling’s faces and heels – for every Superman there’s a John Cena; for every Lex Luthor a Ric Flair. And in both cases, there is a fine tradition of switching sides (known as heel/face turns in the wrestling business). The X-Men’s original big bad Magneto has joined the team on numerous occasions, and many an Avenger – including Black Widow, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch – began life as a villain. And who can forget Stephanie McMahon pretending that she had been kidnapped, drugged and forcibly married by Triple H – all just to get one over on her dad?

Mad storylines are par for the course in WWE and comics. If you thought that Final Crisis was utterly baffling, let us cast our minds back to 2000, when the then 77-year-old wrestler Mae Young gave birth to one-time world’s strongest man Mark Henry’s ‘son’, a disembodied hand. Your move, Grant Morrison.

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WWE and superhero crossovers

The sartorial inspiration didn’t end with Superman. Over the years, superhero style has also fed back into wrestling. Finn Balor’s look as ‘The Demon’ is clearly inspired by the monstrous Venom, and you’d know Gregory ‘The Hurricane’ Helms had been reading Green Lantern even before you saw the symbol tattooed on his arm. WWE costumes regularly reference superheroes, whether subtly or explicitly.

The strong connections between wrestling and superheroes are well-established, and have only become stronger with the rising popularity of comic book adaptations on TV and film. Hulk Hogan had a 20-year deal with Marvel where he essentially paid to license the name of Bruce Banner’s famous alter ego. There have been numerous licensed WWE comics published, and several wrestlers have even turned their hand to writing funnybooks, including Kevin Nash, The Ultimate Warrior and CM Punk, who was co-writer with Cullen Bunn on Marvel’s Drax series, and also provided stories for a Thor Annual and an issue of Master Of Kung Fu. WWE 2K20 cover star Becky Lynch was a member of The Four Horsewomen, an influential superhero-style ensemble team comparable to DC’s Birds of Prey and Marvel’s all-female A-Force – and who are also the stars of WWE 2K20‘s 2K Showcase mode.

Things got even weirder when Arrow star Stephen Amell – a long-time wrestling fan – entered into an on-screen feud with Cody Rhodes that led to him stepping into the ring for a tag team match – and winning. He’s returned several times since, and Rhodes has featured on Arrow. (Rhodes, incidentally, had one Stardust costume that was very clearly influenced by X-Men villain Mister Sinister.)

Wrestling has even crossed over into the biggest superhero movies. WWE alumnus Dave Bautista plays Drax in the MCU, even making an appearance in Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing movie of all time. Dwayne Johnson is lined up to make his debut too, when he eventually shows up as DC’s Black Adam, the nemesis of Shazam.

With the strong similarities and ties between superheroes and wrestling, it’s no wonder that the bonds keep getting tighter and more intricate. While the two continue to thrive, they’re bound to grow closer than ever before.

WWE 2K20 is available to buy on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One from 22 October.