Standing at a towering 6'5" and dwarfing the proverbial brick shithouse, Dwayne Johnson seems to be the man to call in a crisis. If you need someone to save you from a cataclysmic earthquake, giant monsters, or a cursed board game, he’s the leading man of choice. The majority of his films are big-budget comedies or even bigger-budget action blockbusters; his central and ongoing role in The Fast and Furious franchise has made him as ubiquitous as he is wealthy. And if there’s any hint that audiences are still as in thrall to larger-than-life movie stars as they were a century ago, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s box-office figures seem to confirm that this is the case.
What Johnson’s film work has in audience appeal it does tend to lose in subtlety; you might uncharitably call his persona slightly cartoonish. His masculinity is traditional—all chiseled jaw and broad shoulders—yet oddly neutered. But that’s a perfect distillation of the muscle-man of professional wrestling, and what made him so skilled at it. Both as a ‘babyface’ and a ‘heel,’ The Rock was perfect at fulfilling the role. He was charismatic, funny, and impressive at coming up with soundbites. Both WWE and the classic Hollywood studio keep firm control over their talent, meticulously cultivate personas, and build on stereotype to create fresh shadings therein. It could almost be said that the most successful pro wrestlers are as performative as A-picture stars of years gone by, and The Rock mastered the art. Perhaps this is why his more colorful departures from the typical action-hero path are so memorable. In Pain & Gain (2013), his pitiful ex-drug addict who clings to positive self-talk is a good approximation of American manliness gone to waste, particularly notable in that he’s been rendered impotent by his steroid problem.
By aesthetic standards, Dwayne Johnson should probably be a sex symbol. But his overall appeal is not as a heartthrob; admiring the gargantuan proportions of his body is more like admiring the familiar, mighty lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. Johnson is stalwart, wholesome; his physicality seems designed to reassure you of his capability rather than to seduce. His heroism is a direct result of the apparent moral certitude of that body. This, it seems to say, is not a man easily swayed from the righteous path.
As a result, it’s been a long time since that physical power has been coded as villainous. He turned from antagonist to protagonist in the Fast and Furious films, and more generally, Johnson seems like a fundamentally good guy: an everyday joe in a super-sized frame. If you look at Johnson’s social media pages, this earnest image is one he reflects in real life. Even his most recent film ventures have felt improbably old-fashioned: natural disaster and monster movies, à la San Andreas (2015) and Rampage, hark back to decades previous.
If all of this sounds vanilla, well: yes, that’s at least partially the point. Wide swaths of Americans pay to see Dwayne Johnson because—as they came generations before to see Johnny Weissmuller play Tarzan—they know what they are getting. Yet Johnson is in many ways also atypical, unlike the macho men of times past.
Ascribing personality traits based on body shape is neither intellectually sound nor very fashionable; but it is a cornerstone of movie acting, for good or ill. Skinny, hunched shoulders imply untrustworthiness; chubby men are deemed underachieving and immature; and giant muscle-bound types are perhaps not bright, but they’re usually decent all-American guys. The 2018 version of this is a shade more self-aware, but only just: brawny heroism combined with a dose of self-deprecating humor seems to win the day with moviegoers.
Take the comic roles of super-hunk Channing Tatum or the string of jokey supporting roles that fellow WWE star John Cena has appeared in over recent years. In a reversal of the hard-bodied macho performers of years past, self-seriousness is out. Cena parodied his meathead vibe in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and vied for paternal affection in Daddy’s Home.
Dwayne Johnson seems to straddle a line between contemporaries like Cena and the Schwarzenegger or Stallone mode of leading man. In comedy roles, like Central Intelligence (2016), he’s not afraid to laugh at himself or subvert the tough-guy stereotype, sporting a fanny pack and a comically sensitive side; in Furious 7, he busts a cast open by flexing his bicep, which is both tongue-in-cheek and placed in a thoroughly sincere action flick. This paradox is one that differentiates him from other comic action heroes: not only can he flexibly carry a variety of blockbuster films with leading man panache and likeability, he can make you laugh even while he’s being totally earnest. When Dwayne Johnson is at his most fundamentally serious, his performances can be taken in the most literal, dunderheaded sense. But it’s still hard not to find something amusing about him.
He is one of the top three highest-paid actors in Hollywood, sometimes cited at the top of the list, and his mixed-race background—half Samoan and half black—makes him one of the few non-white leading men in such a high pay bracket.
This makes it interesting that Johnson did play the villain earlier in his career; in his first film, The Scorpion King (2002), his exoticized role harked back to his ‘heel’ days in wrestling. Black machismo rarely plays the way white machismo does: it’s often perceived and positioned as threatening. This couldn’t be more literal than when The Rock became the leader of WWE bad guys Nation of Domination, who were modeled after a black militant group. Yet Johnson continued to transcend those roles and expectations. His popularity has a lot to tell us about current public values, and of how we regard maleness. In some ways, the physical bulk Johnson represents symbolizes the American propensity for action-hero silliness, over-the-top blockbusters, brainless and bloodless violence. But he is also amusingly self-aware and flexible in his persona. He’s also a black actor who has shattered stereotype and whose overt, confident masculinity is coded as good rather than evil.
With his oak-tree solidity and quizzical mien, Johnson is both a man who’s in control (as a primatologist in Rampage or a veteran lifeguard in Baywatch), but also one who’s happy to admit when he’s out of his depth. The result is a fascinating and often telling hybrid of contemporary film stardom—and in the meantime: boy, is he fun to watch.