Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is probably our biggest movie star right now. He was Hercules in "Hercules," the dad in "Taken" with earthquakes (otherwise known as "San Andreas") and now he's going to fight a gorilla and other stuff in "Rampage." Between "Furious 7" becoming one of the highest-grossing film of all time, the possible remake of "Big Trouble in Little China" and his HBO show, "Ballers," he's seemingly become ubiquitous in a matter of months. The movies are getting bigger and bigger, and The Rock is rising in tandem with the ever-bloating megahits, crushing each blockbuster like its Triple H in this YouTube video of a WWE fight. He is a hero of the Internet, a tanned and ripped metaphor for American consumerism.
To really look at the rise of The Rock, we need to go back to the days when he was Dewey Johnson, a newly signed University of Miami Football player, raising his eyebrow at the camera (and probably thinking: "Just wait until I am Hollywood's biggest star approximately 25 years from now!") He branded it as "The People's Eyebrow" once he moved on to WWE, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before his football career ended with ruptured disks and he moved onto wrestling, the man who would become our Rock always knew how to command an audience.
It wasn't until 1996 that Johnson made his WWE debut. Then he was known as Rocky Maivia and, as he had put it, those early days were an "epic failure." What he needed to find his success was a rebranding.
He reinvented his character with a self-awareness that let fans immerse themselves in the theater of wrestling while also having a keen sense of its inherent camp. Being able to keep a pro-wrestling figure grounded is also what makes "Taken"-plus-earthquakes Dad and Hercules work. There's a glimmer of sarcasm always flitting in his eyes. "It's all going to be alright," he seems to comfort us. "I know it's absurd that I am battling a weather disaster/mythical creature/gorilla right now."
Then came "The Mummy Returns." His time onscreen as The Scorpion King back in 2001 laid the groundwork for his ascent to the Blockbuster King he has become a decade and a half later. It was clear then that he had the kind of magnetism we require of our movie stars, that charisma you can't make up or learn. And instead of trying to move into a new Serious Actor space with that role, he was doing it in tandem with the job that awarded him fame in the first place, embracing his presence as an oily body in belted underwear rather than dispelling it.
At some point, between "The Other Guys" and "Fast & Furious 6," The Rock's aggressively simplistic readings gave way to an onscreen presence that is (likely unintentionally) a commentary on itself. In the age of the disposable action hero, The Rock is a breath of unserious fresh air. It's as if by being onscreen, he's poking a constant elbow at the genre most accurately identified as Bigger & Better Action Crap. He's evolved into the perfect combination of intensity and absurdity, making us feel like we're in on the joke. His gift to us is just enough self-awareness to genuinely enjoy films with less intellectual value than a box of Yodels.
The state of movies right now is some combination of daunting and this picture of a dumpster. It is a massive heap of garbage nonsense, engineered seemingly in a lab. And yet, as The Rock smiles at the camera and raises The People's Eyebrow, he makes us feel like, if only for approximately two hours and seven minutes, that's okay. He may not be the hero we need right now, but he's definitely the one we deserve.
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Correction: A previous version of this piece identified "Furious 7" as the highest grossing film of all time," which, LOL, is only slightly less absurd than the fact that it is the third highest grossing film of all time.