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Dwayne Johnson, Guaranteed Hit-Maker No More?

After an unimpressive first weekend at the box office for ‘Skyscraper,’ audience fatigue for the Rock appears to be setting in

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson frowning Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For years it’s felt like the effervescent charm of Dwayne Johnson can turn anything into a box-office smash, but it appears even moviegoers are susceptible to some Rock fatigue. This weekend, Johnson’s latest blockbuster, Skyscraper, in which his character goes to war with a poor, innocent building, landed third at the box office with a paltry $25 million, behind the second weekend of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp ($29 million) and the strong debut of Sony Animation’s Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation ($44 million).

To get an idea of how poor Skyscraper’s opening is relative to Johnson’s other films, it’s not even among his 15 best domestic box-office debuts—forgettable flicks like G.I. Joe: Retaliation ($40 million) and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ($27 million) were more successful. Given Skyscraper’s $125 million budget—which doesn’t account for the marketing push that included a pricey Super Bowl ad—the film will need a stronger pull overseas. Though it opened in 57 international markets over the weekend to the tune of an additional $40 million, Skyscraper’s best bet to break even will come when it debuts in China on Friday. Following in the spirit of Legendary Pictures’ other recent releases like Warcraft, Kong: Skull Island, and Pacific Rim: Uprising, Skyscraper has been geared toward a Chinese audience, with producers going so far as to set the movie in the heart of Hong Kong.

However, regardless of how Skyscraper fairs in China, it’s the uninspiring domestic numbers that should cause concern for studios relying on Johnson. Since appearing in Fast Five and launching that franchise to new heights in 2011, the actor has frequently been box-office Viagra. While the Fast & Furious franchise is far and away Johnson’s biggest moneymaker, he’s shown he can lead a blockbuster to strong returns with the likes of 2015’s San Andreas and 2016’s Central Intelligence (while also branching out to do voice-over work with Disney’s Moana, which brought in $57 million in its first weekend). But Johnson’s power as a bankable star has been waning. The decline started with the 2017 flop of Baywatch. The success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle at the end of 2017 held off any concern, but the 2018 releases of Skyscraper and Rampage—replace a burning building with giant mutated animals, and you get the idea—have both seen tepid returns, making it clear that fatigue is setting in. All told, Skyscraper marked Johnson’s fifth movie in the past 15 months, which is almost as many movies as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (!) has released in the same span. The Rock is cooking up a ton of movies in a very short period of time, and it might be exhausting people.

Audience fatigue can happen with most genres. Hell, even Star Wars isn’t immune. The MCU, on the other hand, has deftly avoided audience fatigue by playing around with different genres within the context of its overarching comic book story. Johnson’s blockbusters, while being mindless fun, haven’t exactly been as diverse. Making a Dwayne Johnson blockbuster is such a repetitive exercise at this point that last week, five staffers at The Ringer made up plots for Johnson-led movies, and while they were patently ridiculous—a Ladybugs remake, an action movie based on SpongeBob SquarePants IP—it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to imagine the Rock starring in any of them. Johnson’s formula has worked for years, but it’s reached the point of parody and is in desperate need of a shakeup.

Granted, one thing that has always been able to ward off fatigue is quality—and the bottom line with Skyscraper is that it wasn’t very good. While it evoked the premises of critical darlings like The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, Skyscraper was far too cheesy and predictable, and even Johnson’s trademark one-liners didn’t pack the same punch. Blockbusters with familiar premises released in a short span of time are much easier to stomach if the movies are still good. However, Johnson’s recent efforts demonstrate that studios need to do more than pitting Johnson and his charm against [insert disaster scenario and/or terrorist plot here] if they want to avoid diminishing returns—especially if the movies aren’t based on familiar IP.

The good news—for Johnson, and for studios banking on him—is that moviegoers will now have a respite, as the actor doesn’t have anything else slated for the rest of 2018. When Johnson comes back to theaters, he’ll likely do so with better box-office numbers—because what better way to reinvigorate audiences and remind them of the actor’s inherent charisma in 2019 than with a Fast & Furious spinoff buddy movie costarring Jason Statham? Even if Hobbs & Shaw is just two hours of Johnson and Statham talking shit to each other in prison cells and using miscellaneous items as workout equipment, it’ll still be better than anything Johnson released in 2018. And once again, he may be referred to as Hollywood’s little blue pill.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson is one of moderation: Barring a genuinely great piece of blockbusting filmmaking (I will forever love Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), even Dwayne Johnson is best appreciated in moderation. (Please also keep this in mind when he runs for president in 2024.)