A People’s History of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

A People’s History of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Movie stars at the top of their game can often feel invincible, but there was something about Dwayne Johnson’s 2000s climb from wrestler to bankable Hollywood star that seemed uniquely bulletproof. Possessing an endless supply of charm and an aggressive careerist streak, “The Rock” seemed to will his way to the top of the wrestling world and then the box office, managing the tricky maneuver of being ever-present — on the big screen, in random TV appearances, on Instagram — yet not suffocating.

That era, impossibly, seems to be over. Johnson remains busy, but smelling what The Rock is cooking has never been more difficult. These days, Johnson is more likely to make headlines for publicity missteps and alleged scandals — like speculation over a rightward political turn, or behind-the-scenes drama over how his behavior may have contributed to delays and overspending on Red One, his forthcoming Prime Video Christmas movie with Chris Evans.

For the first time in a long time, public opinion might be shifting against Johnson, as he risks becoming the one thing he has carefully avoided his entire career: unlikable. What happened?

Presented here in brief is a people’s history of the rise and fall of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one written while fully aware that The Rock may rise once more. Only time will tell which version of the man we’ll get next.

2001: Out of the ring, into the box (office)

The Rock, in a funny sci-fi harness and alien makeup, stands in a ring opposite Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager Image: Paramount Television/Everett Collection

After duking it out for five years as a face and heel in WWE (then the WWF), and a handful of TV appearances in Star Trek: Voyager and That ’70s Show, The Rock was ready to make his feature debut. Dwayne Johnson’s role as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns was much publicized but ultimately a bit of a letdown; he only appeared in the film’s prologue and then again as a CG monstrosity that was hilarious for a long time and might have looped back around to become terrifying. The silver lining: You can’t let down anyone who wasn’t pumped to begin with. Less of an upside: his starring role in 2002’s Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King.

2003: Upon this Rock

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stands in a dirty T-shirt and khakis in front of a small bush plane in the film The Rundown. Image: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Director Peter Berg’s The Rundown is a fascinating movie to consider 20 years later for a lot of reasons, from its still-impressive action set-pieces to its now-rare action-adventure flavor, but for the purposes of this timeline, it’s the first movie that made audiences sit up and consider that there might be more to Dwayne Johnson than The Rock. Like a lot of early-career wrestlers-turned-actors, Johnson had spent a lot of time up to this point simply playing a Big Man, and he’d do plenty more of that in the years to come. But The Rundown lets him flesh out a character: a reluctant bounty hunter who hates guns and aspires to open a restaurant, and is forced to retrieve the most annoying man on Earth (Sean William Scott) from the clutches of a ruthless miner (Christopher Walken) in Brazil.

A box-office flop, The Rundown mostly served to open creative doors for Johnson, giving him the chance to take on meatier action roles like Walking Tall and weirder small parts in movies like Southland Tales. This is arguably the start of the most interesting phase of his career, the moment he showed the world that he had the juice to do all sorts of things outside the ring.

2007: Call him Dwayne

Dwayne Johnson plays a football player at a press conference next to his daughter, in a matching jersey and cap, in the film The Game Plan Image: Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

While his 2003-2007 run — which also included everyone’s favorite video game movie, Doom — proved The Rock could cook on a movie set, he was not yet reliably starring in box office hits. A shift in strategy was necessary to be a king at the level of his WWE career. A wrestler becoming an aspiring action star wouldn’t turn heads, but one who could charm in family films just as easily? That’s a stepping stone to four-quadrant appeal. 2007’s The Game Plan, about a star quarterback who reconnects with the daughter he didn’t know he had, was the start of that shift, one where he would fully abandon his ring name to strike out solely as Dwayne Johnson in movie credits.

It’s easy to consider this next stretch Johnson’s lost years, as he cast about in family-friendly fare like Race to Witch Mountain and Tooth Fairy. This, however, would be crucial in widening his box office appeal — and Vin Diesel’s 2005 comedy The Pacifier made family films for action stars a less risky bet — but truly interesting roles for Johnson were few and far between during this period, with the lean-and-mean revenge movie Faster and a brief but memorable appearance in The Other Guys being notable exceptions.

2011: Franchise Viagra

Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs in Fast Five Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

It’s still incredible how Johnson explodes into the Fast and Furious series in Fast Five. He doesn’t single-handedly turn the directionless franchise around, but he does become a vital part of the Fast Formula over the next few years — so much so that his temporary exit from the franchise saps its seemingly unstoppable energy. This is also the movie that would complete Johnson’s ascendance to box office king, earning him the industry nickname of “Franchise Viagra” for his knack for giving long-in-the-tooth series a shot in the arm. (He would later slow jam about this moniker in a 2015 SNL monologue.)

[embedded content]

Johnson would spend the next decade effectively invincible, but the kinds of characters he would play would start to dramatically contract.

2013: The short-lived auteur

Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson observe a kidnapped Tony Shalhoub in Pain & Gain. Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures

Michael Bay’s absurd crime caper Pain & Gain might not be the ceiling for Johnson’s growth as an actor, but it’s the last time he reaches for artistic merit. As Paul Doyle, a born-again Christian struggling with a coke addiction, Johnson brings a manic comic energy to Bay’s chronicle of gym-rats-turned-criminals. It’s the sort of role that reminds viewers of the potential shown off 10 years earlier in The Rundown. Anyone looking for more of that would have to turn their attention to the small screen for his tenure on HBO’s Ballers.

2016: The Candy Ass Saga begins

Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel square off in a scene from Fast Five Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

In the mid-2010s, Johnson is in empire-building mode. He’s having a second, more successful run at family films as the voice of Maui in Moana; starring in one-off actioners like San Andreas and Skyscraper; and lending his likability to comedies like Central Intelligence. But as any former wrestler knows, real heroes are made by the quality of their enemies, and for this, Johnson set his sights on his Fast & Furious co-star Vin Diesel.

A stray Instagram post from Johnson calling one of his male co-stars a “candy ass” ignites weeks of speculation over trouble in turbocharged paradise, as onlookers wonder who said candy ass might be. This ultimately results in actual franchise trouble, as Johnson departs the series after Furious 7 to star in the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw with Jason Statham — notably not a candy ass — and turns his energy elsewhere until the post-credits scene of Fast X. For reasons we’ll get to.

2017: Dwayne Johnson for president

Dwayne Johnson mischievously peers over the shoulder at a laptop Kevin Hart is working on in the film Central Intelligence Photo: Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures/Everett Collection

A background joke for a couple of years at this point becomes a GQ magazine cover in the early days of the Trump presidency: Dwayne Johnson, POTUS. The seriousness of the idea doesn’t really matter here. Johnson is a born showman, and The Man Who Should Run for President was as good a ring name as any. For his part, Johnson doesn’t lean too hard into the idea, seeming to recognize that articulating policy runs the risk of alienating people — the one thing Dwayne Johnson does not want to do. “I think that’s a real possibility,” journalist Caity Weaver recorded him saying “solemnly.” Beyond continuing to tease this “possibility,” Johnson kind of leaves it at that whenever the Oval Office comes up.

What matters about this is that the moment had found a Rock to rest on: a resolutely centrist hunk of charisma with a megawatt smile and a commitment to never being visibly unlikable. In the hyper-polarized Trump era, Dwayne Johnson found his best role: The Man We Could All Agree On. (Interesting bit of trivia: The sitcom Young Rock would use a Dwayne Johnson presidential run as a frame story for its narrative.)

But times change, and left, right, and center all change with them. Rocks, unfortunately, are famously not flexible.

2022: The hierarchy of power in the Dwayne Johnson universe

Dwayne Johnson strides toward the camera in a form-fitting black suit with a glowing lightning bolt on the chest as the title character in Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Dwayne Johnson’s downward slide starts gradually. As the COVID-19 pandemic throws everyone’s life into chaos, Johnson’s talent for being an affable hitmaker can’t find a foothold. His Netflix action movie Red Notice doesn’t move the needle in a year when everyone is launching a streaming service and each one is looking for a hit. His TV series Young Rock makes little to no impression. And Ballers, Elizabeth Warren’s favorite show, has just wrapped. Times are tough, and even Johnson needs a win.

What makes Black Adam such a definitive turning point for Johnson isn’t simply that it was a bad movie. The quality didn’t help, sure, but the bigger blow was clout. Johnson had made it his mission to wrest control over a corner of the struggling DC movie universe post-Snyder Cut, to stake his reputation as a hitmaker on delivering a sensational movie that he would oversee personally. The catchphrase “the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change” didn’t go viral simply because it was awkward and belabored, but because Johnson seemed like he meant it.

He was right, though. The hierarchy did change. Just not the way he wanted it to.

2024: The final boss of wrestling

The Rock stands in the ring in branded trunks and a finger raised in the air at WrestleMania 40 Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

It’s ironic that, in returning to his ring name for a saga that would climax with April’s WrestleMania 40, The Rock would be dubbed The Final Boss of Wrestling. Once again, he was a heel — hearkening back to his late-’90s Attitude Era ascent to popularity. In some ways, this was a retreat to safety: WWE was the only place he could definitely make a huge splash while he licked his box office wounds and began to rebuild.

As the ultimate heel, the man once again calling himself “The Rock” could win with a loss, joining defending champion Roman Reigns (who would ultimately fall to Cody Rhodes), but haunting every promo as a boogeyman that wrestling fans (and crucially, The Rock fans) would be electrified to see. How well it worked remains to be seen — fan demand notoriously caused WWE to shift plans from a Rock-centric championship to one squarely focused on Reigns and Rhodes, with Johnson playing a supporting role.

Heel turns don’t necessarily work the same way outside of the ring. (There’s a Batman movie quote about this.) But if anyone could make a pivot to being The Guy Everyone Loves to Hate, it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Beyond: A24 Rock?

Dwayne Johnson wearing gray Under Armour gear in Fighting With My Family Photo: Robert Viglasky/MGM/Everett Collection

If Johnson’s return to the ring feels like a retreat to safety, his upcoming movie slate underlines it. His next projects are dominated by sequels: Moana 2 (and the Moana live-action remake), Fast X Part 2, Red Notice 2, Jungle Cruise 2, San Andreas 2 — the man is cashing the many franchise checks he wrote in his boom years. It’s a nice cushion, but it’s not all guaranteed to happen; the Moana films, Red One, and Fast X Part 2 are the only ones far enough along to have release windows between now and 2026.

One notable exception is The Smashing Machine, the A24-produced solo directorial debut from Benny Safdie. The film, about real-life UFC champion Mark Kerr and his relationship with his wife, Dawn (rumored to be played by Emily Blunt), seems like a tentative step forward for Johnson’s career. If it’s a critical and box office darling — two wins that Johnson has rarely managed to align in the same film — it might herald the start of a new phase of his career, one where he commits more seriously to buzzier, more prestigious films in between his franchise mainstays. It worked for Adam Sandler.

Dwayne Johnson became a movie star during a time where conventional wisdom held that no new movie stars were being minted, and franchises were king. He got around that by becoming a franchise himself, sometimes with an intellectual property attached, but none bigger than the Dwayne Johnson Brand. But franchises have peaks and valleys, and sometimes they crash and burn. To avoid that, Johnson might have to give up on being a brand, and finally become an actor.