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The Rock Versus … What? The Scale of Villain Absurdity in Dwayne Johnson’s Movies.

From Jason Statham to systemic racism to giant mutant animals (in his latest, ‘Rampage’), Hollywood’s most bankable action star has felled a diverse range of foes

Ringer illustration

There are a lot of things that happen in 2002’s The Scorpion King, the first-ever movie that Dwayne Johnson was the star of. There’s a part where he makes love to a sorcerer, for example, which is an incredible thing to think about. (Johnson does a video series on his YouTube channel where he reacts to clips of things he’s done during his career. He has one where he rewatches scenes from The Scorpion King. When he gets to the making love part, he narrates it, referring to sex as “The Scorpion King Sting,” which is also incredible to think about.) There’s a part where he catches a killer ant with his tongue and then eats it. There’s a part where, during a very heavy fight with the guy from The Green Mile, he picks up a chicken and contemplates throwing it at him. On and on and on.

But only one of the things that happens in the movie is important right now: During the final showdown, Johnson, who plays a character named Mathayus, shoots the movie’s main bad guy, Memnon, in the chest with a single arrow.

That’s how he kills him. That’s how he defeats him.

Prior to Memnon’s death, there’s a whole big fight scene between his army and a group of revolters led by Mathayus, and Mathayus has been shot in the back with an arrow. Memnon thinks Mathayus is going to die (or at least that he’s not a threat anymore), but then Mathayus gets up, takes the arrow out of his own back, loads it into his bow, and gets ready to shoot Memnon.

Memnon, who is a bit of a showboat, decides that rather than kill Mathayus while he’s injured and moving slowly (or even rather than try to dodge the arrow), he’ll use two swords to try to chop the arrow out of the air during its flight.

(This, for some reason, is a thing Memnon likes to do. There’s a part earlier in the movie where he stands in front of a bunch of people and, as a show of skill, allows a guy to try to shoot him in the chest with an arrow from about 30 yards away. When the guy shoots the arrow, Memnon catches it between his hands just inches before it pierces his sternum.)

(As far as Bad Guy Special Skills go, being able to catch an arrow after you tell someone to shoot it at you and then take a few seconds to prepare for it is kind of weak as fuck.)

(Especially when it turns out that you’re actually not that good at it, which we find out happens to be the case when he tries to catch Mathayus’s arrow, because Mathayus’s arrow hits him dead center in the chest, knocking him off the wall of his castle, killing him.)

So that’s the point here.

Memnon was who I thought about this weekend while I watched Rampage, Johnson’s newest movie.

In Rampage, Johnson plays a primatologist named Davis Okoye. He is friends with an albino gorilla named George who knows sign language and also is, somehow, a jokester. (George’s no. 1 gag is reaching his gorilla fist out to fist-bump Okoye and then, when Okoye puts his fist out there to bump it back, sticking up his middle finger and laughing.) Without getting all the way into the plot of the movie (it’s so bad), it ends with Okoye having to fight a giant mutant wolf and an even more giant mutant crocodile in downtown Chicago. (And to be clear, I do not think it was a bad idea to have Dwayne Johnson in a movie with giant mutant animals. In fact, he’s probably the only person on the planet who could make a thing like that work, and I was genuinely excited to watch it. It’s just that the exposition in the movie is really, truly not good.)

George, who has also become a giant, is on Okoye’s team.

It’s a two-on-two match, essentially.

It’s:

  1. The 30-foot-tall giant mutant wolf (HE CAN FLY! AND HE CAN SHOOT QUILLS OUT OF HIS TAIL LIKE A PORCUPINE!).
  2. The even more giant mutant crocodile (ONE PART CROCODILE! ONE PART ANKYLOSAURUS! ONE PART FRILLED DRAGON!).

Versus

  1. George (A VERY BIG GORILLA WITH AN ADVANCED SENSE OF HUMOR).
  2. Okoye (a big human, sure, but in comparison to the wolf and the crocodile, he’s a sugar ant).

That’s why I thought about Memnon during the end of Rampage. In a little over 15 years, Johnson’s all-caps POWER OF PERSONALITY has grown so much and so big that he’s had to transition from fighting a single regular human with a single regular arrow in a movie to fighting multiple giant mutant animals, lest it seem unfair. That’s a big jump, really. But you can walk through his filmography and see it happening; you can see his sort of scale of villain absurdity grow grander and more towering each year.

After The Scorpion King, he moved on to fighting murderously corrupt businessmen (The Rundown in 2003; Walking Tall in 2004). In 2005, he leveled up to fighting alien monsters in Doom. (He also became one, which is probably the closest we’ve come to getting to see him as a true bad guy.) (Johnson was also the villain in 2008’s Get Smart, but he was the villain the same way Robert De Niro was the villain in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) (Johnson is the closest we’ve come to ever getting another version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he’s never found his Terminator role, which is one of the main things keeping him from actually getting eye-level with Arnie.) (Also: Johnson has always emoted a little too much to make for a good Terminator, but it’d still be neat to see him give it a shot.)

In 2006, he took on systemic racism and gang-member loyalties in Gridiron Gang. (Still one of his toughest fights yet.) In 2007, he battled parenting in The Game Plan. (A quick thing: One of the first things that Johnson’s character, Joe Kingman, does after he finds out that he has a daughter is he accidentally leaves her at a restaurant. I did a smaller version of that same thing the first time my wife and I took our newborn sons out to eat after they came home from the hospital. After two or three straight days inside, we decided that we needed to get some time away from the house so we loaded them up in the car and went to a nearby restaurant. We were carrying both the boys in their car seats and so I set them on the table and was there waiting for my wife as she got her drink at the soda fountain machine. I realized she’d not grabbed my cup so I picked it up and then walked to get my drink. When I got there, she was like, “Ummm, where are the kids?” I said, “What do you mean?” Then, literally as I was ending the word “mean,” I realized that I’d left our two-week-old babies at the table by themselves. I said, “OHHHHH FUCK!” and then I turned around and sprinted off back to the table. It was so bad. I felt like such an ass. It took me less than an hour of having my children out in the world on my own before I put their lives in danger. Being a parent is hard, is what I’m saying. I don’t fault Kingman, is what I’m saying.)

In 2009, Johnson fought a race of aliens who were looking to take over Earth (Race to Witch Mountain). In 2010, he was in a children’s movie about the Tooth Fairy (Tooth Fairy) and a revenge movie called Faster and I think it was right around here that everyone realized that he was going to need to fight bigger and bigger things if his career was going to advance to the super movie star level.

After Faster, he was in Fast Five, where he fought Dominic Toretto and the rest of the Fast and the Furious gang. (The Dom-vs.–Agent Hobbs fight in Fast Five remains the punch-for-punch best, most violent, most visceral fight scene that Johnson has ever been in. It’s real art. Meaty, massive art. It’s like watching two rhinos in sleeveless shirts fight.) In 2012, Johnson had his first fight against oversized animals and bugs (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). In 2013, he fought a drug cartel and the United States government at the same time (Snitch), a very good impressionist (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Mark Wahlberg’s whisper-talk (Pain & Gain), Thor’s brother (Empire State), and a group of highly trained special ops soldiers (Fast & Furious 6). (Two things: In Snitch, Johnson plays the father of a son who gets tricked into letting his friend mail him drugs, leading to the son getting arrested. As a way to get his son out of prison, Johnson ends up having to bring down a Mexican drug cartel kingpin, which seems like not a fair trade to me. Second, Pain & Gain is a wonderful, incredibly advanced movie. I might argue that it’s the best Dwayne Johnson performance we’ve ever gotten.)

By 2014, Johnson had gone the way of deities (Hercules), and then, in 2015, he had to fight Jason Statham (Furious 7) and an earthquake (San Andreas), which is the Jason Statham of natural disasters. In 2016, he fought body dysmorphia (Central Intelligence) and the literal ocean (Moana), and then, in 2017, he fought Dominic Toretto again (The Fate of the Furious), Zac Efron’s abs (Baywatch), and a mystic, magical, deadly board game (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and if I had to pick a two-year stretch from his career to best show the wide, wide range of things that Dwayne Johnson is capable of fighting in movies, it’d be 2016 and 2017.

Later this year, Johnson will fight an actual, real building (Skyscraper, a movie where Johnson’s family gets trapped in the biggest building ever built, and as a way to make things a little more fair—because Dwayne Johnson vs. Building is a fight that tilts too far toward Johnson—he’ll have a prosthetic leg in it).

I’m honestly not sure where he can go from here.

I just know it’s going to be big.

Big, bigger, biggest.