The upcoming Hulk Hogan biopic is not short of talent. Chris Hemsworth is in the title role, while Oscar nominee Todd Phillips will be helming the project. Following the form of Joker, Phillips finds himself in charge of another controversial piece, albeit one that will not cause the same moral panic as his previous film.
While Joker was a dark take on an iconic character, his upcoming Hulk Hogan is an examination of a real man. Although when Hogan is involved, the lines between the character and the person are frequently blurred. Professional wrestling is not dissimilar from the film industry. It is an ongoing battle of Good vs. Evil; everyone has a character and a unique costume. The stories are told through spectacular action, while the presence of a live crowd creates a sporting atmosphere.
On paper, the glitz and glamour of professional wrestling goes hand in hand with Hollywood. Given that Hulk Hogan is the largest icon the sport has ever seen, it makes logical sense to tell his story. Unfortunately, this idea gets murky when you dig into the history of the man behind the yellow bandana.
Even if you are not a fan of wrestling, you will have a rough idea of who Hulk Hogan is. He played a key part in the industry’s global expansion in the 1980s. The World Wrestling Federation (WWF), as it was known back then, grew from a regional New York promotion to a pro-wrestling monopoly. Company owner Vince McMahon broke a gentlemen’s agreement between promotors, running his shows in enemy territory and putting his competitors out of business.
Terry Bollea – the man we now know as Hulk Hogan – had worked for WWF previously, but he left to join the American Wrestling Association in 1981. After filming his part as Thunderlips in Rocky III, Hogan was in high demand. Couple his massive physique with an all-American image and you have the shot in the arm that pro-wrestling needed. The Cold War was at its apex, Vince McMahon saw a hero that people could rally behind.
Hulk Hogan’s popularity exploded when he returned to the WWF in 1983. Hulkamania ran wild with record merchandise sales, TV ratings and event attendance. Using “The Hulkster” as his top star, McMahon ran everyone else out of business, cornering the market for himself. The foundations they laid down paved the way for the likes of Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and John Cena to rise to the top of the industry.
Yes, everybody loved Hulk Hogan. However, the bright lights that shone on Hogan’s brand of Americana masked a career of controversy. Alongside the highly publicised 2015 racism scandal, Hogan’s reputation backstage is far from sacred. Wrestling legend Jesse Ventura has publicly stated Hogan was the reason he gave up on forming a wrestler’s union, with Vince McMahon revealing in a deposition how Hogan had told him about the union, thus allowing McMahon to stamp out the idea before it even conceptualised. This lines up with multiple stories of Hogan’s obsession around protecting his spot as wrestling’s top star.
His political exploits are the stuff of legend, as is his frequent unwillingness to give young talent a win over him. Hogan famously refused to lose to emerging star Bret Hart in the early 1990s, believing Bret to be undersized and not credible enough to win. There is a long-standing tradition in wrestling that the previous generation’s stars lose to the new ones, yet Hulk Hogan does not abide by this philosophy. His last match for the now-WWE was at SummerSlam 2006, where the 53-year-old Hogan defeated a 26-year-old Randy Orton. Orton was being pushed as one of the company’s top stars at the time, and yet he lost to someone double his age who would never wrestle for the company again. Such actions stall the momentum of new wrestlers, while people like Hogan do not benefit at all as their reputation is already established.
This cycle of selfishness and the protection of ego does not fit a story of heroism. The tone of a Hulk Hogan biopic cannot be honest if it remains positive. An ideal approach would be a character study of how a demanding profession can eat away at a person; a bleak, dour examination of clinging onto past glories.
If that sounds familiar, it is because The Wrestler already explored these subjects. Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 masterpiece captures the unforgiving nature of the wrestling industry with startling accuracy. The late, great Roddy Piper – who appears in the film – said it reduced him to tears. Mickey Rourke’s gruff yet sensitive portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is some of the most moving acting ever seen in a sports drama.
Can a Hulk Hogan biopic achieve a similar level of artistic integrity? The wrestling industry in the 1980s was a toxic landscape. Drugs, alcohol, steroid abuse, racism, sexism, and bullying are just the tip of the iceberg. Todd Phillips is not averse to tacking controversial figures, his work on War Dogs and Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies demonstrates that. Given how protective Hulk Hogan is of his ego and persona, are we going to see that well-needed darker side of him? Hogan is held up in the cultural canon is an American hero, but he has not been a beloved figure in the wrestling community for some time.
A film about Hogan’s life and career is a rare opportunity. There is the potential for a bold piece, one that dissects a flawed, controversial figure. There is an irony to Joker being criticised as derivative of Scorsese, as this movie could be Phillips’ Raging Bull. Unfortunately, Hogan allowing his story to be told in a blunt fashion isn’t just unlikely, it is borderline impossible.
This begs the question: is such a film necessary? In a time where people are looking at how we treat each other and how unfair the system is, the glorification of a man embroiled in scandal and derision is ill-advised. Will Todd Phillips and Chris Hemsworth produce their very own Jake LaMotta story, or will it steer towards a P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman level of over-glorification? Only time will tell.