Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: the man, the myth, the mineral. Born into a family of professional wrestlers in 1972, he would go on to fame under his nickname in the WWE before moving into film, creating a box office juggernaut. Where does Dwayne Johnson fall in terms of movies though? Muscled action star, tough funny guy, or just some generic in-between?
The Character Begins
Sure The Rock was a character from the start, being made for the WWE just like all their other performers, but there always seemed to be a sense of genuineness underneath the exterior. A performer that loved what he did, and loved controlling a crowd by either trash talk, badassery, or some form of the two.
There’s an easy argument to be made for typecasting, of course. Name any Dwayne Johnson movie that isn’t an action blockbuster. The Tooth Fairy, The Game Plan, and Pain & Gain are the only three that immediately spring to mind. Not many when considering the ratio to his other types of roles.
It’s not like it’s been a career-long thing though. No, Johnson started with an interest and passion for acting, that’s obvious enough. Not to mention he had an installed fan base from his WWE career, which very quickly bled into Hollywood thanks to Brendan Fraser’s 2001 masterpiece The Mummy Returns.
Pro Wrestling Is Just Painful Acting
The man was box office dynamite. Almost anything he starred in drew numbers, no matter how overwhelmingly terrible it could be. My mother watched Southland Tales because The Rock was on the poster. Honestly, her reaction to the movie was better than the movie itself (though it has some bright spots). The movie still underperformed, but that was more due to a marketing issue than anything.
There’s a trend starting around the early 2010s where Dwayne Johnson was taking more varied roles, things that were out of the action tough guy wheelhouse. The Game Plan showed he could have a softer, dramatic side and was a safe bet for a family comedy. Gridiron Gang went for tough drama, and Johnson gave a good performance, though it’s obvious he was still learning.
Hell, the man even seemed self-aware of the stereotype he had with The Other Guys, playing a parody of the badass Lethal Weapon-style tough guys he could have easily been typecast as in what’s probably Adam McKay’s funniest film. So why, why did he become such a caricature of himself?
Fast Five marked the start, but there’s more to it than that. While Johnson clashed with co-star Vin Diesel on set, there was obviously a lot of growth and change in his life happening as well. He had returned to the WWE intermittently, was trying to break out of his kids’ film streak of the past few years, and attempting to establish himself as someone other than The Rock. It was a tough undertaking, all things considered.
Play the Game
Which is where he learned the Hollywood game. He had success at the box office as an actor, so naturally moved into the producer role. Eventually, he would make the kind of money that would allow him to bypass studio greenlights, but not get put straight to the start of the production line. That should have allowed him to get his passion projects made sooner, right?
Big brain conspiracy: he made a Ben Affleck-style deal with the devil for fame and fortune, rendering him dead inside and incapable of true joy. Real answer: You have to make the money films to make the passion projects, and Dwayne Johnson became a burnt-out parody while trying to attain his own.
That passion project he’s been working towards? Black Adam. The prologue is over, welcome to…
The Tragedy of Dwayne Johnson
Johnson has been campaigning to play Black Adam for over a decade, stating multiple times it’s the role he wants to play and that he had spoken to producers about a movie. He would talk up the project anywhere, anytime during press tours, interviews, and random questions on the red carpet, the man wanted to play Black Adam so goddamn badly.
Black Adam, for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet, isn’t Black Adam. The movie we got at this point is Dwayne Johnson: Superhero. Instead of taking a dramatic, antagonistic take on the ancient god, we got a boilerplate smoldering tough guy.
Despite not wanting to be known as a character by The Rock, he’s typecast as the character Dwayne Johnson, the badass, muscle-bound tough guy that cracks charismatic jokes and looks good in a tight shirt. It’s not like we didn’t see this coming either, since it’s been going on for the last ten years at least.
That “Top of the Rollercoaster” Feeling
Hercules was where he peaked, passion-wise. He was on top of the world and got to play up some comedy in Pain & Gain, plus things were going well in the Fast series, with Fast and Furious 6 making gangbusters at the box office. Now he just had to do enough to convince Warner Bros. to make Black Adam.
This is where you can see the transition in character, with the brand becoming a priority over the actual person. He became a walking, wise-cracking protein shake while bragging about humbleness, determination, and his struggle.
He churned out nothing but action-adjacent movies for the next decade, whether it was the Fast series, some Kevin Hart bullshit, or an outing with other big-name stars his character never changes. It’s like an IRL version of Tugg Speedman from Tropic Thunder.
The Action Movie Trap
He made the cosmic mistake of breakout action stars: branch out. Think about Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, both known for being huge action stars in the 80s and 90s. They kept varying their roles, still managing to play a bulked-up strong man but using it to their advantage in drama or comedy without resorting to the same tired action tropes and character.
Not only that, but they went beyond their comfort zones. Arnold took risks when it came to his career. Terminator was James Cameron’s second feature-directing effort. His first was Piranha 2: The Spawning. Tell me that seems like a safe choice. Kindergarten Cop was even released the same year as Total Recall. Variety, baby.
Take Stallone. although he was more varied from the start, he still made sure to take time between testosterone-fueled action like Rambo or Cobra to direct personal dramas like… Stayin’ Alive. Yeah, that’s it. Man’s been on top of the world, yet remains more humble than most of Hollywood.
Hell, even fellow wrestlers turned actors John Cena and Dave Bautista have ventured into unknown territory. Cena showed more range than a Lady Gaga vocal warm-up in Peacemaker, and Bautista has branched his roles out beyond Marvel with Blade Runner 2049 and A Knock at the Cabin, most recently.
Look, by all accounts, Dwayne Johnson is still there and a genuinely nice guy. It just seems that in pursuing his dream role so hard for the past decade, he forgot why he was doing it in the first place. It’s Flanderization made real, someone who devoted so much of their time to grinding out the capitalist system that they forget how to function otherwise.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has fourteen projects in development currently as an actor, producer, or both. Seriously dude, it’s okay to take a step back and find yourself. You’ve shown dramatic chops. The roles are out there. You can take off the mask for a second and venture outside your established brand. Hell, I’ve got a screenplay if you’re interested in playing an antagonist. Shoot your shot and all.
Don’t work yourselves too hard, find your priorities, and make the world a better place.