But there is at least one man who subverts the trend: the larger than life Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Having started his career as a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) wrestler, he made the transition into films around the turn of the millennium. Since making his leading-man debut with 2002’s The Scorpion King, for which he was paid $5.5 million – a record for an actor in his first headline role – Johnson has become a bonafide superstar whose films have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide. As box-office specialist and Screen International editor Charles Gant says, these days “very few stars are considered bankable [and] Dwayne Johnson is at the top of that short list”. This is something Gant puts down to the fact that his “charisma, versatility, everyman appeal and credibility in action roles is a unique combination”. The latest tent-pole blockbuster to bet on Johnson for box-office gold is Disney’s comedy Jungle Cruise, which is released around the world this week, and is another rollicking family adventure to match previous Johnson hits such as the Jumanji films and Race to Witch Mountain. Inspired by the Disneyland ride, it is a period romp that sees Johnson play Frank Wolff, a hardnosed but noble captain of a steamboat in the early 20th Century transporting a British scientist (Emily Blunt) down the Amazon river on a quest for the mythical Tree of Life.
If Johnson has bucked trends, however, then he may also have started one – for now he is not the only former WWE superstar making waves in Tinseltown. Indeed, three of the most recognisable male actors in Hollywood at the moment used to dine out on powerbombs and bodyslams. Taking headline roles in two of the summer’s biggest blockbusters is Johnson’s one-time in-ring nemesis and successor as the face of WWE wrestling, John Cena: he played Vin Diesel’s villainous younger brother Jakob in the recent Fast & Furious 9, and this week will also be seen as the bloodthirsty anti-hero Peacemaker in DC comic-book movie The Suicide Squad. And completing the wrestler-turned-movie-star trio is the wisecracking slab of hard-edged tattooed muscle that is Dave Bautista. He was most recently seen as the lead in Netflix’s bombastic zombie heist extravaganza Army of the Dead, and is also one of the stars of the upcoming, long-awaited remake of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
So what is it about wrestlers that has made their currency so high in 21st-Century blockbuster cinema? Bryan Alvarez, pre-eminent wrestling journalist and editor of the Figure Four Weekly newsletter says certainly in the case of Cena and Johnson, there was a quality they had that always made them suited to Hollywood: “absolutely from day one, [they] came across as guys who could become gigantic superstars.”
The root of Johnson’s success
In his past wresting life, Johnson, then better known as The Rock, followed in the footsteps of his father, the pioneering Rocky Johnson, who along with partner Tony Atlas, was the first black champion in WWE history when the duo became tag team champs in 1983. His son then made his WWE debut in 1996 and stopped wrestling fulltime in 2004 as his movie career was taking off, though he continued to return intermittently. His last noteworthy match came against Cena at WrestleMania 29 before he announced his official retirement from the sport in 2019.
It was here, in the squared circle – as a member of the menagerie that is pro wrestling, wearing nothing but a pair of black speedos emblazoned with a bull on the bum – that he began his journey to being a global superstar. Apart from an early period as a rookie where he struggled to win WWE fans over, he was always a firm crowd favourite, eventually becoming the most popular star wrestling had ever seen, appearing in the most watched segment of all time alongside Mick Foley, and twice headlining record-breaking Pay-Per-View events.