On The Weekly Planet’s episode about Black Adam (spoiler: Mason thought it was fun, James thought it was thoroughly mediocre), they raised a question that I’ve wondered about a few times over the years: where is Dwayne Johnson’s Terminator, or Die Hard, or Rocky/Creed, or even The Chronicles of Riddick?
He’s a hugely profitable action movie star with seemingly limitless charisma, and even when he’s in an unambitious or outright bad movie, he’s usually the best thing in it. But unlike other action movie stars, he hasn’t been in a breakout hit that rises above the standard action movie template. Is he just too big a star now to be cast in movies that aren’t 100% driven by movie studio stakeholders? Or are the movies he’s in exactly the kinds of movies he wants to be making?
After seeing — and being pleasantly surprised by — Black Adam, I’m inclined it’s the latter. As with most movies starring The Rock, even without the disappointing track record of the DCEU involved, I went in with the lowest of expectations. But it turned out to be pretty solid and a lot of fun, always precisely aware of what it is and what it wants to do, but shifting or recasting the formula just enough to stay engaging.
To me, it seemed like what you’d get if you made a movie out of The Rock. Not just a movie starring The Rock, but if you somehow got the essence of his entire public persona, and transmuted it into a blockbuster superhero feature film.
It’s pretty well known that this has been a pet project of Johnson’s for over a decade. He was a fan of the character, he was cast way way back in the early days of the DC movies, and the project has been waiting for the timing to be right (by which I’m assuming: for the Shazam movie to come out, and for Zack Snyder’s dominance over the DCEU to fade) to finally get made. Even if you weren’t aware of that, though, the entire project feels like something that either he was closely involved in, or was specifically crafted around him.
It checks off all the items that I would imagine are required for a movie starring The Rock:
- He gets to play the antihero with a heart of gold: a big guy with a gruff exterior and a tortured past who could destroy you without a second thought, but will somehow always come through and do the right thing.
- He’s got a no-nonsense, tough guy rival (Aldis Hodge as Hawkman) who’s almost — but not quite — enough to take him on one-on-one, and their initial fights will eventually grow into a mutual respect.
- It’s adjacent to the Shazam family, meaning it stays friendly to the audience of teenage boys who loved watching the WWE. Much of the story centers around a teenager who rides a skateboard and loves his mom and does sick kick flips.
- The Rock gets to be a champion of the underdogs and the oppressed, even if he’s an unwilling one.
- The Rock is ultimately more powerful than any foe; his greatest enemy is his own self-doubt.
- There is an ever-present sense of humor — not just hipster deconstructionism or tiresome lampshading, but more like the tone of people who understand kayfabe down to the atomic level.
That last one is the bit that stood out to me. Having characters making wisecracks in dire situations is just table stakes for superhero movies these days, so that’s not enough to make something stand out. But the overall tone here is subtly different. In The Avengers, for instance, everyone is trying to out-wry each other, so the end result feels like an attempt to elevate the inherent corniness of comic books while still keeping it grounded. In Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, there’s an acknowledgement that all of it is completely absurd, so why not lean completely into the absurdity. And Ant-Man and Doctor Strange feel like action comedies: the comedy and the action coexist without really feeding off of each other.
But The Rock — and Black Adam by extension — has this unique ability to so thoroughly embrace and inhabit the corniness that he uses every single drop of it and comes out the other side unscathed. There’s not even the barest hint of self-mockery, because there’s no sense that he needs anyone to know that he’s above the material or aware of how silly it is. He’s The Rock; he doesn’t need to care what anyone thinks.
Case in point: my fiancé and I were swayed by Universal Studios’s seemingly constant advertisements for the Fast and Furious addition to the Studios’ movie tram tour in Hollywood. The “main event” turned out to be a rather forgettable sequence at the end of the tour, in which the characters — I mean, family — drag the tram on a dangerous, high-speed tour through Los Angeles. But the tour up to that point had an overlay to foreshadow that final sequence, which had characters from the movies appearing in scenes throughout on the different sets1All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors. Johnson’s character was at Universal Studios trying to track down the iconic car of Vin Diesel’s character, trying to bring him to justice once and for all2At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them..
Several of the franchise’s actors were on hand to play their characters, but none of them really felt like they were putting in more effort than the barest minimum required for a theme park overlay. Ludacris came the closest, but there was still an odd sense that he wasn’t 100% aware of what the attraction was going to be or how the footage was going to be used. The Rock, on the other hand, nailed it. He swaggered into every scene, called people “stinkpickle” with a famously raised eyebrow, pointed directly at the camera, and generally seemed to be having a blast. And more importantly: understanding completely the tone not just of the Fast and Furious franchise, but of the Universal Studios backlot tour, which has its own peculiar flavor of thoroughly-embraced corniness.
I’m also reminded of the Jungle Cruise movie, which I thought remained in the realm of “thoroughly adequate.” So much of the movie relied on Dwayne Johnson’s charisma (and Emily Blunt’s, obviously), but it never felt quite like it understood how his charisma works. It checked off the boxes of “gruff antihero with a heart of gold and a mysterious past with a twist leading into act 3,” just like Black Adam, but it kept putting him in scenes that felt as if they were written by someone else with a vague idea of “action movie star” in mind.
I don’t think it’s any insult at all to Johnson’s acting ability to point out that he’s not at his best when he’s trying to inhabit a character.3At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it. I feel more like his entire public persona is a character. The projects that best use his talents are the ones that let him meld an existing character completely with his own, like in the teleportation device from The Fly. The Rock is a character that he’s been working on and perfecting for decades; why would you throw all that work away and instead ask him to play a diminished version?
So I got the feeling that Black Adam was exactly the movie that Dwayne Johnson wanted to make. It’s unpretentious, sentimental, corny, often nonsensical or repetitive, occasionally predictable, and above all fun and appealing more often than not. Somehow, it comes across as both shrewdly and carefully constructed, but also heartfelt. It frequently winks at the camera, but it never feels like it’s ashamed of its corniness, or that it has to make excuses for it. In other words, it feels like The Rock.
- 1All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors
- 2At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them.
- 3At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it.