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The Rock’s in a Hard Place

Dwayne Johnson has reached commercial heights most actors could only dream of, but his roles often mirror the generic, crowd-pleasing persona he’s cultivated off-screen. Will the rugged antihero of ‘Black Adam’ change things?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to hum along in its second decade, its biggest competitor, DC, has once again reached an inflection point. DC’s nearly completed Batgirl movie was scrapped amid a merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, and the the DC Extended Universe is in the midst of a leadership vacuum. In short: The DCEU is a mess in front of and behind the camera, and its troubles are only more glaring in comparison to the MCU’s ruthless efficiency. DC could really use a stabilizing force. Perhaps what they need is a proverbial rock to hold them down—more specifically, one lathered in baby oil going by the name of Dwayne Johnson.

While Johnson regularly tops annual lists of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, he has yet to star in a superhero property—unless you count when he lent his voice to Krypto the Superdog in July’s DC League of Super-Pets. (That said, his character in the Fast and Furious franchise, Luke Hobbs, executes many feats of superhero-like strength, including when he altered the trajectory of a submarine torpedo with his bare hands.) That will change on Friday with the arrival of Black Adam, the DCEU’s origin story of the antihero of the same name. The title role is one that Johnson has chased for years, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the studio or the actor. If all goes to plan, Black Adam will mark the dawn of a new era for the DCEU—as well as its star. For as ubiquitous as Johnson has been in the modern blockbuster era, there has yet to be a franchise he’s appeared in, or a character he’s played, that’s resonated quite like his time as a professional wrestler or the personal brand he’s built outside of his filmography.

When Johnson made his film debut in The Mummy Returns—a brief antagonistic role more memorable for horrendous CGI than the performance itself—the wrestler-to-actor pipeline was hardly considered illustrious. (The apex was probably Roddy Piper kicking ass after running out of bubble gum in John Carpenter’s They Live.) The industry consensus seemed to be that wrestlers could be relied on as imposing physical presences in movies, and little else. But while Johnson was definitely built like a tank—unsurprising, given he comes from wrestling royalty—his secret sauce during his WWE days was elite showmanship. Giving the Rock a microphone was akin to handing Thanos an Infinity Stone.

Unfortunately, the early years of Johnson’s Hollywood career rarely gave him the opportunity to showcase the charisma he channeled as a WWE star. The memorable performances—namely, playing an amnesiac action star in Richard Kelly’s beguiling Southland Tales—were overshadowed by roles in run-of-the-mill B-movies (Doom, Walking Tall) and generic family fare (The Game Plan, Tooth Fairy). Johnson’s life as an actor wasn’t necessarily a failure, but compared to his days in the ring, it was like going from being a franchise cornerstone to a reliable bench player.

In retrospect, Johnson was missing something all great wrestlers need: a worthy adversary. Enter Vin Diesel and the Fast & Furious franchise. (Does this make Diesel the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin of Tinseltown?) While the two stars have made numerous headlines for their IRL feud, it was Johnson’s electric debut in Fast Five that helped transform the franchise from a saga about street racers into globe-trotting capers with “proletariat superheroes.” Playing the swole federal agent Hobbs hellbent on apprehending Diesel’s Dominic Toretto in Brazil, Johnson was the perfect foil—someone whose swagger and physicality could match up with the sleeveless lord of Coronas himself. You could make a compelling argument that Fast & Furious peaked when Dom and Hobbs squared off in a glorious orgy of testosterone and baby oil. It was a no-brainer, then, for Hobbs to continue the franchise tradition of former foes becoming members of Dom’s [grumble voice] family—at least, until a certain someone was infamously called a “candy ass.”

After Fast Five provided a clear example of Johnson’s movie-star bona fides, he went on to headline several blockbusters in between Fast & Furious sequels, including G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Hercules, San Andreas, Rampage, and Skyscraper. It’s within this period that Johnson cemented himself as a box office draw, following a similar trajectory to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ’80s and ’90s. Of course, the crucial difference between Schwarzenegger and Johnson is that the former wasn’t just a commercially viable action star: He starred in genuinely great movies (The Terminator and its sequel; Total Recall; Predator) that had legitimate cultural impact. (We can safely say Skyscraper won’t end up in the Criterion Collection, and as great as Johnson is in the Fast & Furious, that franchise is still Diesel’s baby.)

While some of this disparity comes down to Schwarzenegger working with better filmmakers—you can’t go wrong hitching your wagon to James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven—many Johnson-led blockbusters also seem to misunderstand his appeal. There’s a sameness to several of Johnson’s projects and the characters he plays—can you name the protagonists of San Andreas, Rampage, or Skyscraper without looking them up?—that oddly mirrors his forgettable period as a WWE rookie. Before he was known as the Rock, Johnson originally debuted as Rocky Maivia, combining his father and grandfather’s ring names. As Rocky, Johnson was a “face,” a wrestler introduced with the intention of having the crowd pull for them. But Rocky was so corny that it had the adverse effect on wrestling fans: They would sooner chant “Die, Rocky, Die!” than offer their support. Johnson shed the Rocky Maivia gimmick when he returned from an injury, reinvented himself as the Rock, and the rest is history.

Instead of having the same cocky edge as his iconic wrestling persona, most of Johnson’s characters come across as bland, earnest, and bizarrely sexless. (In other words, the kind of qualities that made Rocky Maivia so forgettable.) As it happens, this is similar to the brand Johnson has cultivated for himself off-screen, where he boasts a huge social media following led by relentless positivity and even more relentless workouts. (And, most importantly, plenty of products to promote to the masses.) Johnson’s social media is about as carefully curated as any public figure’s outside of politicians, which, given his own potential political ambitions, isn’t entirely surprising. But this conservative, crowd-pleasing approach shouldn’t need to come at the expense of roles with the same arrogant charisma that made him a WWE star in the first place.

While Johnson’s characters in recent blockbusters aren’t completely one-note—he’s got an easy comedic rapport with frequent costar Kevin Hart, particularly in the rebooted Jumanji franchise—he hasn’t found a worthy successor to Luke Hobbs. On paper, at least, that’s where Black Adam comes in. In a theatrical landscape dominated by superheroes, Black Adam is a tinkering of the formula: a movie centered on a rugged antihero who has no qualms about killing. You can see why Johnson would be drawn to the role: Like the Rock, Black Adam gets to inhabit the qualities of a “heel” while still receiving the audience’s adoration.

So why doesn’t Black Adam work? The biggest problem with the film has nothing to do with Johnson’s reliably engaging performance, but rather an approach that sands off all the edges of a supposed antihero origin story. (For starters, it’s really not a big deal that Black Adam willingly murders nameless henchman when modern superhero movies repeatedly disregard the deadly consequences of their actions.) Seeing as the film comes from the same studio that gave us creative swings like The Batman, The Suicide Squad, and Joker, there is no reason for Black Adam to feel so risk-averse, especially when its title character is supposed to change the so-called hierarchy of power within the DCEU.

Considering Johnson’s intimate involvement with the making of the movie, it’s reasonable to place some of the blame on his own very broad shoulders. After all, when Johnson’s boldest outing over the past decade is arguably a Michael Bay movie about a gang of roided-up bodybuilders, it’s clear he doesn’t mind staying in his comfort zone while appealing to the widest possible audience. The fact that this level of caution extends to a project like Black Adam underlines that Johnson is content sticking with the status quo, even if critical acclaim (or more interesting roles) keeps eluding him.

At the same time, it’s hard to blame Johnson when he’s turned himself into one of Hollywood’s most lucrative actors: the increasingly rare breed of movie star who can sell a project just by slapping his name on the poster. But given the commercial heights to which Johnson has already soared, you can’t help but wonder what his career would look like if he took some genuine risks, or expanded his repertoire like fellow wrestling alums John Cena and Dave Bautista. Black Adam might not mark that turning point, but here’s hoping that, one day, we’ll smell the Rock cooking up some films that don’t play it safe.