In Hollywood’s superhero era thus far, there has been one particularly conspicuous absence: While a parade of big-name actors have taken their turns donning various spandex suits, Dwayne Johnson — arguably the biggest movie star in the world — has, until now, sat out the trend.
The Rock didn’t really need a cape to prove his powers. The 6-foot-5 260-pound actor was, in many respects, already a superhero in his own right: a skyscraper-climbing hulk, a shape-shifting demi-god, even a bulked-up tooth fairy.
“I was always ready and open to playing a superhero,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “But it had to be right and it had to feel right. I had been approached before in the past about playing a few superheroes that, ultimately, I ended up passing on. They ended up going to the right actors to play them. I just waited.”
The fates have finally aligned in “Black Adam,” a debut so seamless that it could be called redundant. When Johnson was first trying on Black Adam’s suit, he had the muscle padding removed.
Johnson’s entry to the superhero business comes at a crucial juncture for the DC Extended Universe, which has been plagued of late by scandal and misfires. Ezra Miller, star of the upcoming “The Flash,” has been arrested twice this year amid reports of troubling behavior (in August, Miller sought treatment for what he described as mental health issues ). “Batgirl,” a $90 million movie completed for HBO Max, was summarily axed, prompting an outcry over its atypical cancellation.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has promised a “reset” to the studio’s DC operations in an overhaul to implement a more Marvel-like 10-year structure and improve quality. At the fulcrum of these two eras sits “Black Adam,” which opens in theaters Thursday.
Amid such turmoil, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be welcoming in a movie star as popular as Johnson, who has 341 million followers on Instagram and is often forced to deflect questions about a possible presidential run. But just how much stability can The Rock bring to DC?
“I think the timing is actually perfect. What an opportunity we have,” Johnson said. “I have been saying for almost years now that the hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change.”
Before Johnson, not many saw Black Adam as such an axis-tilting force. The character, an ancient Egyptian created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, first appeared in a 1945 issue of Fawcett Comics’ “In DC Comics” and has generally been portrayed as a supervillain and foe to Captain Marvel (not the Brie Larson one).
More recent treatments have pushed Black Adam more toward antihero status, something the film, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”), extends. Black Adam, summoned to modern day, is depicted as a reluctant hero who fears his own powers.
In one telling scene, Black Adam stops for a moment to watch a television with Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name — an antihero model for Black Adam.
“He has been my inspiration from day one. My favorite actor and certainly one of my favorite directors,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to call Clint a buddy. That was my way of paying homage to him.”
How Black Adam would be introduced to movie audiences wasn’t always clear. Initially, Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam, and Black Adam were to debut in a movie together. After the scripting stage, Johnson and others felt the combined launch did a disservice to Black Adam.
“We did have a template for a really good idea, but ultimately both characters required so much space to properly launch them,” said producer Hiram Garcia. “We were just struggling in terms of bandwidth that the script could hold and in terms of tone, as well. Inherently, as you saw with how the ‘Shazam’ movie came out, that movie is just so differently tonally from how ‘Black Adam’ is.”
“Shazam!” starring Zachary Levi, was a goofy, well-received body-swap hit, grossing $366 million worldwide in 2019 (a sequel is due out in March). The ambitions for “Black Adam” are larger.
The film, made with a budget roughly twice that of “Shazam!” also introduces the Justice Society of America, a superhero team of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell).
“I always felt like it was a matter of convincing our studio partners to try to look beyond the Justice League,” Johnson said. “I love the Justice League. But when you look past them, you open up the DC bible. There are so many cool characters you can tap into.”
It’s been a long haul to develop the film, tailor the part to Johnson and shoot the movie around COVID-19 delays. Johnson was first announced to play Black Adam way back in 2014.
“Easy and this process have not gone together,” Garcia said.
But the filmmakers were committed to giving Black Adam the proper launch.
“If Dwayne Johnson’s going to do a superhero, the powers better be A-plus,” said producer Beau Flynn.
Superhero films aren’t often described as a “passion project” but it’s how Johnson talks about “Black Adam.” He speaks about the character’s previously low profile like an underdog.
“No one gave him a shot,” he said. Unlike many of the best-known comic-book characters, Johnson is not taking on this role secondhand.
“No other actors had stepped into the boots of Black Adam,” said Johnson who professes a deep connection with the character. “I’m a very direct talker. Black Adam is very direct with his thoughts, too. The difference is: Black Adam will slap some people around. I might slap some people around but I’ll do it with a smile.”
As of this summer, Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy are running Warner Bros.’ revamped film division, though no new DC leader has yet been appointed. Zaslav has been seeking his studio’s answer to Marvel’s Kevin Feige to take the reigns. For Johnson, “Black Adam” is part of that new chapter for DC.
“I think you’re feeling this sense of urgency and the sense of excitement,” said Johnson. “This has been a great convergence of ‘Black Adam’ coming out and new leadership.”
Tracking reports have suggested that Johnson, 50, could be headed for his biggest opening weekend ever at the box office with “Black Adam.” But sounding a little like his WWE wrestler, Johnson is also eyeing his next opponent. Black Adam, he believes, is a lesser power to no superhero. He’s gunning for Superman.
“For five years, the most powerful and unstoppable force in the entire superhero universe has been idle on the sidelines. All that had to come to a new end,” says Johnson. “This is what I mean with this new era in the DC universe. Let’s get that hero off the sidelines and on the big screen.”
—Jake Coyle, The Associated Press