That million-dollar smile. That raised eyebrow. That bullet-shaped head. All those gifs he inspired. Few actors radiate movie-star charisma like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Even fewer can match his knack for self-promotion. There isn’t a platform he doesn’t frequently dominate. Not a hand he won’t shake. Not a baby he won’t kiss in the build-up to his latest release. Watch any junket interview for any one of his many projects. It’s impossible not to be won over by Johnson’s sheer likeability. Who on this planet doesn’t know who Dwayne Johnson is?
That said, the fact is that Johnson isn’t the butts-in-seats movie star we all act like he is, and outside of the Fast & Furious and Jumanji franchises, the numbers support that sobering reality.
With each passing project, Johnson’s undeniable charm has had the edges sanded off. In trying to be everything to everyone, Johnson has sacrificed his own identity in service of his brand — an image carefully crafted to his and his Seven Bucks Productions partners Dany Garcia and Hiram Garcia‘s specifications. Anything that could upset Johnson’s four-quadrant brand is vetoed — which explains his odd lack of R-rated projects — and thus, mediocrity triumphs, something that general audiences have surely noticed, hence his box office numbers as of late. The original action movie Skyscraper ($308 million worldwide) outgrossed branded IP such as DC League of Super-Pets ($203 million) and Disney’s Jungle Cruise ($220 million), and even when you combine the global totals of those two movies, it’s less than Rampage ($428 million), which also outgrossed Black Adam ($391 million).
Yes, box office is down across the board, and family films in particular have been hit hard as parents have been trained to simply wait for movies to begin streaming on Disney+ or HBO Max, but clearly, there has been some slippage, to the point where a Black Adam sequel is now in doubt at DC Studios under the newly-installed leadership of James Gunn and Peter Safran. To that end, it has been awful quiet on both Jumanji 3 and Red Notice 2, in case you haven’t noticed.
Like our op-ed pieces on Henry Cavill, Clint Eastwood, and Quentin Tarantino, we’re not coming from an antagonistic angle. We’re fans. We care, and it’s because we care that — to paraphrase from The Godfather Part II, we intend to speak very frankly. So with that in mind, allow me to ask the question everyone else is afraid to:
What the hell is Dwayne Johnson thinking?
The fact is that he has surrounded himself with a team that is either too afraid to tell him the cold, hard truth or — even worse — too ignorant to know better.
For example, who in their right mind would approve an Instagram video of Johnson “crashing” a Black Adam test screening, whereupon those in attendance are not only star-struck — that much we get — but openly kissing his ass, or shoehorning in a post-credits scene in DC League of Super-Pets where he voices three different characters who all talk about how cool Black Adam is, as a means to promote Johnson’s then-upcoming movie about the antihero.
As much as we all hate to admit it, we all need that person with the courage to tell us what we need to hear — not what we want to hear — and who will say “No” when appropriate.
Johnson badly needs to find his Paula Wagner, who long served as Tom Cruise‘s agent before becoming his producing partner. She helped build the “image” of Cruise that we know and love, and oftentimes constructed that crucial wall between the Hollywood god and us mere mortals, who aren’t necessarily supposed to be in constant contact via social media.
Therein lies the problem. Johnson has made a strategic choice to be all things to all people — a politician, if you will — not just a movie star, a TV star (the NBC comedy Young Rock), a social media star (see Instagram/TikTok/Twitter), and an occasional WWE star who graces the wrestling ring with his electric presence every few years.
But this omnipresent strategy has — and will always be — a massive miscalculation.
How can you sell yourself as a big-screen icon whose movies I have to pay to see on opening weekend when I can already get my fix of you on a weekly television series and countless videos that I can watch for free on social media? I also fear that Johnson loses some of his everyman relatability when we constantly see his lavish lifestyle. It’s not that we don’t know he’s filthy rich — that’s fine, he’s earned it — it’s that we aren’t meant to see it every day. There must always be that distance. You can’t have it both ways and position yourself as a man of the people while living like the 1 percent. You have to pick a lane.
And since there’s no nice way of putting this, I’m just going to say this head-on:
Johnson has come across as an egomaniac and an insufferable bully as of late.
On several occasions — both before and after Black Adam opened — he has gone out of his way to a) present the narrative that he — and he alone — was the reason why Henry Cavill’s much-hyped Superman cameo happened, and b) openly badmouth Warner Bros. executives Toby Emmerich and Walter Hamada, who opposed Cavill’s return. All — to quote Seinfeld‘s George Costanza — for the glorification of his massive ego, and to rile up fans to go see Black Adam.
While Black Adam has done OK, though certainly not in line with expectations when it was first greenlit, the fallout from recent headlines surrounding its release has done irreparable damage to Johnson’s brand. I mean, talk about a PR debacle. It seems that when you try to take all the credit for yourself, you can wind up with all the blame sometimes as well.
And all this over a 10-second cameo in a forgettable comic book movie. What a shame…
Yet no one within his inner circle said “No, Dwayne.”
If I were a studio executive watching Johnson make these claims again and again while throwing the prior WB regime under the bus — even after Black Adam flatlined commercially — I would never do business with him again. And believe me, there are high-ranking executives in this town who feel this way, which explains why Johnson keeps bouncing around from one studio/streamer to the next. It all depends on how you look at it — is he a hard-working guy who has relationships all over town or a guy who is stretched so thin that the industry feels he’s no longer worth the trouble?
But beyond the box office, Johnson isn’t doing himself any favors with the media, and some of his biggest cheerleaders have even joined the pile-on of late, as Johnson has exhibited a level of denial that borders on Trumpian. The recent dust-up in the trades over his openly disputing a Variety report that called Black Adam what it is, a money loser, was a bad look all around, but kudos to him for bullying Deadline — a well-oiled machine run by sharp industry writers — into following his talking points to the tee (as first theorized by Puck News), no doubt promising future scoops and access down the line.
Is Black Adam really the hill that Johnson wants to die on!? This is the very definition of a celebrity who has grown out of touch with reality and surrounded himself with spineless “Yes” People. Just take the hit and move on, man. You can’t win ’em all.
And yet, once again, not one person within his inner circle said “No” and took away his cell phone.
In the wake of Black Adam joining the ranks of Hobbs & Shaw, Jungle Cruise, and Red Notice as stillborn franchise starters, one would think his team would be wise enough to regroup and restrategize. On the contrary, he’s currently shooting the franchise hopeful Red One for Prime Video with no indication he has learned any lessons whatsoever from thinking “franchise” first.
Respectfully, if he and his team at Seven Bucks think they can continue down this path, they are greatly mistaken. Stars of yesteryear came and went for the same reason. General audiences burned out and they moved on.
Again, I’m coming at this as a fan of Dwayne Johnson. But I have to call it like I see it. If the saying goes “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking,” then it’s about time he changes the ingredients to the recipe, or, better yet, cooks a new dish altogether. Otherwise, audiences will opt to dine out elsewhere.