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How The Rock became Rockules: Dwayne Johnson’s star text in HERCULES (2014)

Monica Cyrino

University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Audiences and critics agreed that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s robustly charismatic performance as the titular ancient hero in Brett Ratner’s revisionist adventure epic HERCULES (2014) was by far the best part of an otherwise average movie. Scott Foundas of Variety declared the movie’s “strongest asset is surely Johnson, who continues to foster one of the most affable, guileless screen personas in movies today” (variety.com, 7.23.14). Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News stated about the movie that “the effects are impressive, but there are none bigger than the star Dwayne Johnson’s massive powerful physique, which perfectly suited the character and the large-scale movie” (nydailynews.com, 7.25.14). Industry analysts credited the movie’s opening-weekend financial success directly to Johnson’s brawny appeal: “The fact that Hercules got close to $30 million is a testament to The Rock’s ability to mobilize his massive fanbase” (Ray Subers, boxofficemojo.com, 7.28.14). Johnson’s colossal popularity and genial charisma drove the movie to a total of $250 million in worldwide box-office grosses.

This presentation explores the dynamic lead performance of Johnson as the mythological strongman Hercules in terms of his celebrity ‘star text’ that is interpreted or read by the audience watching him on screen. As originally framed by Richard Dyer in his influential book Stars (BFI: 1979), an actor’s distinct star image can both affect the production of meaning in a film and also manipulate the arousal of emotions and expectations in viewers. That is, when a well-known actor or celebrity takes on a role, they bring one or more previous roles or identities to the new performance; thus their star text powerfully influences how an audience engages with their previous roles within the new performance. First, this presentation considers Johnson’s popular status as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time (1996-2004), who has won multiple WWF champion titles, and how this mainstream fame as an athlete-entertainer informs his success in playing the cinematic hero Hercules. Next, Johnson’s first lead film role as the ancient warrior Mathayus in THE SCORPION KING (2002) gave him the opportunity to embody an epic-style character in protodynastic Egypt, a role that later influences his performance as the ancient hero Hercules. Then, Johnson invigorated THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS action-movie franchise by appearing in the last four installments (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017) as formidable government agent Luke Hobbs: since these movies straddle his Hercules appearance, they both support his heroic persona and tireless work ethic in the eyes of audiences while informing his star text moving forward into other parts. Finally, this presentation asks whether Johnson’s performance as Hercules affects his subsequent roles: as the dedicated but flawed sports agent Spencer Strasmore in the television series BALLERS (2015-current); as the shape-shifting Polynesian demigod Maui in the Disney animated hit MOANA (2016); as the videogame avatar/archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone in JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017); or even as the object of an attempt to draft him to run for political office (“Run the Rock 2020,” thehill.com, 7.10.17). Just as Johnson’s compelling star text as a hard-working and heroic competitor shaped his portrayal of Hercules in the blockbuster movie, his now established Herculean identity may lead to Olympian aspirations as an elected official and, in turn, influence how the Hercules figure is imagined in the future.

Session/Panel Title

Re-evaluating Herakles-Hercules in the Twenty-first Century

Session/Paper Number

21.5

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