Let’s rock! Why Dwayne Johnson is the new Schwarzenegger
The action hero dominates the box office, with his new film Skyscraper set to soar. From his apolitical attitude to his everyman heritage, we explore the magic behind the muscle
On 24 June , Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted the following to his 109 million Instagram followers: “Starting off my Sat by reviewing new TV spots for SKYSCRAPER. Note pad and pen at the ready and diggin’ in to my pre-workout breakfast of egg whites and flank steak aka dead cow. Bowl of cream of wheat mixed with pineapple and papaya.
It was accompanied by a video of the trailer to his new movie playing on a laptop on a dining room table, notepad to one side, breakfast in front of him, children’s playthings visible in another room beyond.
Just this one post already tells you a great deal about how Johnson has come to be the biggest movie star on the planet. Even on a Saturday morning, he’s working harder than you, promoting his movie then going off to maintain his awesome physique before you’re even out of bed. #HardestWorkingDudeInShowbiz.
Skyscraper review – The Rock towers over an inferno of cliches
3 out of 5 stars.
At the same time, it tells you Johnson is a regular, relatable family guy. An earlier Instagram image showed him kneeling and feeding his wife pasta while she breastfed their baby daughter: “So much respect to her and all mamas out there holding it down and running things.” (He has two daughters, aged two and two months, with his second wife, Lauren Hashian, plus a 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage.)
Even Johnson’s breakfast covers all the bases: steak for breakfast = red-blooded alpha bro! Fruit and wholegrains = healthy and responsible! And in classic Johnson style, it’s washed down with freshly squeezed self-deprecation, just in case anyone hates him for being such a
But no one does hate Dwayne Johnson, do they? Is such a thing even possible? You suspect if there was one person on the planet who expressed mild dislike towards him, Johnson would go round to their house and make them a stack of pancakes, or simply send them gifs of him raising his world-famous right eyebrow until they succumbed.
Every era has had its reigning movie star, and Johnson is undoubtedly ours. He bestrides the box office like a meat-sculpted colossus. He topped Forbes’s list of highest-paid actors in 2016 (earning £48.7m) and he probably will again for 2018, considering he’s on his third blockbuster this year and we’ve barely even hit summer. (2017’s highest earner was Mark Wahlberg, but he’s only got a measly 9.4 million Instagram followers). Johnson’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released last December, made nearly a billion dollars globally. His monster movie Rampage, released this April, took more than £320m. There’s some theoretical scenario in which his new action thriller Skyscraper could be a flop but, at this stage in Johnson’s career, you can’t see it happening. He’s just too popular.
However, Johnson’s ascent comes at a time when the very concept of movie stars is under serious renegotiation. In blockbuster-skewed modern Hollywood franchises rule, not actors. You can cast one of a number of fresh-faced young dudes in Spider-Man, for example, and people will still flock to see it because it’s a Spider-Man movie. Likewise any other comic-book movie, Star Wars movie, Jurassic Park movie, whatever. Johnson, too, benefited from his affiliation with the Fast and Furious crew, and over the course of his four appearances, he has performed such heroic feats as bringing down a drone by driving an ambulance into it and diverting a torpedo with his bare hands.
But how many movie stars can get a hit without a franchise? Tom Cruise? His Mission: Impossible movies are still huge, but when he tries to launch something new, such as last year’s Mummy reboot, it falls flat. As have many other star-led efforts, such as Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell or pretty much anything Robert Downey Jr does where he’s not Iron Man. Not to mention Fast and Furious’s erstwhile leader Vin Diesel, whose only other notable contribution to the culture has arguably been I Am Groot.
But Johnson is different. Johnson can open a big movie by himself. Rampage was a case in point: a middling effects movie based on an old video game, it didn’t have brand recognition or a star-packed cast. All it had, and all it needed, was Johnson. Same with Skyscraper: there’s only his name above the title. Now everything Johnson makes looks like the beginning of a franchise (well, maybe not Baywatch). That’s a movie star.
“People want to see him right now,” says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety and seasoned Hollywood star-watcher. “I’m delighted Johnson is doing so well because he’s proof that people still go to the movies to see someone they identify with, someone they like, they admire, they find thrilling, funny, heroic, engaging. Clearly this guy has it. You can’t fake this.”
World Wrestling Federation’s The Rock in June 2000 in Los Angeles
World Wrestling Federation’s The Rock in June 2000 in Los Angeles
The ready comparison, Gaydos suggests, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Schwarzenegger, Johnson’s ticket into the movies was his physique, which had already brought him celebrity on the wrestling circuit, and whose very buffness attested to a certain go-getting self-discipline. But also like Schwarzenegger, Johnson surprised people once he got on to the screen.
“He shrewdly understood that being typecast as this big action guy who knocks people down and runs through burning buildings and stuff is not the way to run a career,” says Gaydos. “And his comedic chops are tremendous, as Arnold’s were. It’s like he’s saying: ‘You think I’m a bonehead from the world of wrestling and I’m going to prove you wrong. And every time I prove you wrong, my stock-in-trade is going to go up.’”
Johnson also has commonalities with another latter-day box-office king: Will Smith. In the early 90s, Smith sat down with his manager and worked out what type of movies he needed to make in order to become the biggest star in the world. They came up with a very basic formula: special effects, creatures, a love story. And it worked. You could imagine Team Johnson making a similar set of calculations. After an inauspicious debut as a bad CGI monster in The Mummy Returns, he’s tried a number of avenues: sword-and-sandals fantasy (The Scorpion King, Hercules), family movies (Race to Witch Mountain, Tooth Fairy), edgy bit parts (Southland Tales, Be Cool). He learned from his mistakes, kept on working, and honed his distinct persona. If you had to break it down, Johnson’s “formula” would include: special effects, family to protect, superhuman physical feats to perform, heavy machinery to operate, cool head in a crisis. Pretty much his Instagram persona.
Social media is one way that Johnson’s celebrity differs from that of his action-hero predecessors. Another, so obvious it’s barely remarked upon, is the fact that Johnson is not white. Nor is he conspicuously black. Few people know or care what he actually is. Technically, Johnson’s father is black Canadian and his mother is of Samoan descent, which puts him into a category that makes up less than 0.1% of Americans. He was born in California, grew up in Hawaii. But Johnson could easily pass for anything from Latino to Native American to Mediterranean to Pacific Islander to simply Very Tanned White Guy. He’s a multicultural everyman. In today’s global movie marketplace, that’s a great asset.
“For the most part, his success is because he’s a really charming, friendly, authentic guy but that persona resonates with people because we can all claim him,” says Myra Washington, associate professor at the University of New Mexico. “Everyone is like: ‘The Rock is just like us’; or ‘He’s like my cousin’ or whatever. That just increases the buy-in.”
Washington’s speciality is racially mixed people and cultures, especially “Blasians” (as in Black + Asian) such as Johnson. She notes how he plays up the diverse aspects of his heritage to appeal to different audiences. He talks about his tribal “pe’a” chest-and-arm tattoo, invoking his Samoan ancestry and his “warrior spirit”. He often uses the Hawaiian “mahalo” to hail people on social media. For the benefit of black fans, he’ll Instagram old photos of his father (who was also a pro wrestler – part of a duo called the Soul Patrol) or himself as a boy, back when he had more conspicuously afro hair. Johnson is also very much American and a patriot. He has relatives in the military and has organised fundraising concerts for the troops.
“I don’t know if it’s transcending race; maybe weaponising race?” says Washington. “He’s like: ‘Here are all the things I’m going to do to force you to reconceptualise what blackness looks like, or what it means to be a Pacific Islander. Here are all of these things that I am and so in order to like me, you’re going to at least have to recognise these things, even if it’s on a superficial level.’”
Now he’s got the whole world in his hands, what’s next? Johnson has enough to keep him in those “highest paid” lists for the next few years. Jumanji 2 next year. A Fast and Furious spin-off, led by Johnson and Jason Statham, is also in the works (Johnson and Diesel famously didn’t get along during last year’s Fate of the Furious). He’s doing a movie based on Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride, an action-comedy with Gal Gadot (Red Notice), a family wrestling movie directed by Stephen Merchant, and is set to enter the DC Comics universe as antihero Black Adam.
After that, he’ll be pushing 50 and doubtless weighing up his career options. They tend to be limited for ex-movie titans. It’s difficult to see Johnson taking up directing or moving into serious drama like, say, Clint Eastwood. He is too level-headed to spin out into megalomaniac excess or religious mania, like Tom Cruise. Given his career to date, he’s more likely to retire from movies undefeated than accept a slow decline into irrelevance.
The signs all point towards politics. When he was asked recently if he might one day run for president, he dismissed reports that he might stand in 2020, but told Variety: “I have so much respect for the position. It’s something that I seriously considered. What I need is time to go out and learn.”
During the 2016 elections, both Republicans and Democrats sought Johnson’s endorsement. He turned them both down and says he did not vote. Hosting Saturday Night Live shortly after, Johnson joked: “In the past, I never would’ve considered running for president. I didn’t think I was qualified at all, but now I’m actually worried that I’m too qualified.” Pundits agreed Johnson could really win an election, even though nobody knows what his politics are.
Being the biggest movie star in the world also comes with its job requirements, such as being studiously apolitical and taking no extreme position on anything that’s likely to alienate some crucial demographic. Is it possible to be all things to all people? By standing for everything, does Johnson actually stand for nothing? He has taken positions on some issues. He opposed Trump’s Muslim ban. He supported the anti-gun violence March for Our Lives protests, and the NFL players who knelt during the national anthem. He has declared himself a feminist. Then again, he was once a registered Republican, has Republican friends, and is capable of making a movie such as 2004’s Walking Tall, in which he plays a soldier who returns from combat to find his home town starved of jobs and overrun with crime, and sets about singlehandedly Making America Great Again with a piece of two-by-four.
Maybe Johnson is already bigger than politics. When he posts an Instagram of himself feeding his wife as she breastfeeds, he’s already changing the world. It’s not in Johnson’s nature to take sides, but maybe that is taking a side. In an ever-polarising political landscape that seems to be heading towards disaster-movie scenarios, Johnson is on the side of inclusion, compromise, diversity, plurality, being nice to absolutely everyone. He’s on the side of the centre. Maybe he actually is the centre: the last action hero, rock-solid nucleus of popular culture, whose flexing biceps are all that’s holding civilisation – or at least Hollywood – together.
Skyscraper is out now