Can Dwayne 'Franchise Viagra' Johnson save the DC movies universe?

Ben Bussey
UK Movies Writer
Dwayne Johnson on NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ in December 2016 (Credit: supplied by WENN.com)

Recent years have seen Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson go from being a wrestler-turned-actor managing a so-so leading man career, to becoming one of the most bankable stars in the business – and the go-to guy for any sequel in need of a boost.

Will Johnson work that same ‘Franchise Viagra’ effect on the DC Extended Universe? That certainly seems to be the plan, and public statements made by the star in recent days on social media suggest that Warner Bros/DC may be swallowing that big Johnson-shaped blue pill sooner than we thought. (Sorry, may have pushed the metaphor a bit far on that one.)

It has been known for some time that Johnson will be joining the DC franchise as Black Adam, shady anti-hero of ‘Shazam!’ – a film provisionally lined up for a 2019 release, to which Johnson has been basically the only name attached for several years, with still no word of who will direct or co-star.

Johnson took to Instagram on Thursday to fill fans in on a meeting with top brass at DC, which intriguingly would appear to have been about more than just ‘Shazam!’ The actor declares he was there to discuss “their entire universe,” and suggests “tonal shifts and developments coming in these future movies… Hope, optimism & FUN.”


Inevitably these remarks didn’t necessarily win over everyone on social media, given some DC devotees prefer the harsher tone of ‘Man of Steel,’ ‘Batman V Superman’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Suicide Squad’ – but Johnson diplomatically did his best to calm the waters, downplaying those old Marvel vs DC tensions in the process:



Given he’s now one of the busiest actors around, it’s easy to forget that Johnson’s acting career wasn’t plain sailing from the get-go. Following his breakthrough role in 2001’s ‘The Mummy Returns,’ expectations were high that the artist formerly known as The Rock would pick up the action superstar torch from Arnold Schwarzenegger, a sentiment endorsed by Schwarzenegger himself in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it passing of the torch moment in 2003’s ‘The Rundown’ (AKA ‘Welcome to the Jungle’).

However, things didn’t quite work out this way at first. Taste for 80s/90s-style action movies had perhaps understandably dulled in the wake of 9/11, and ‘The Rundown,’ ‘Walkin’ Tall’ and ‘Doom’ didn’t perform as well as hoped. Stepping into edgier territory with ‘Donnie Darko’ director Richard Kelly’s second movie ‘Southland Tales’ proved catastrophic, and subsequent moves into family film – ‘The Game Plan,’ ‘Race to Witch Mountain,’ ‘The Tooth Fairy’ – were hardly the best fit for Johnson (and led him to fire his agent).

Diesel vs Johnson in ‘Fast & Furious 5’ (credit: Universal)

But it was on 2011’s ‘Fast & Furious 5,’ when Johnson was enlisted to go toe-to-toe with Vin Diesel – another new action star for the 2000s whose career hadn’t quite gone as hoped up to that point – that the hulking star really embraced his inner beast (well, he’s pretty beastly on the outside too, to be fair), and broke into his stride as a movie star.

Two more sequels followed in 2012’s ‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’ (in which Johnson replaced Brendan Fraser) and 2013’s ‘GI Joe: Retaliation’ (in which he co-starred with a Channing Tatum who really didn’t want to be there), and as both films performed far better at the box office than their predecessors, the ‘Franchise Viagra’ label was born.

Can Johnson work that same musclebound magic on DC? Hopes will certainly be high. Before he joined ‘Fast & Furious,’ the existing four films in the series had grossed around $965 million at the global box office; no small sum, but one that pales next to the $2.93 billion grossed by the subsequent three, a figure which is sure to swell even further with the upcoming ‘Fast & Furious 8.’

But of course, it isn’t just about the money (no, really). ‘Fast & Furious’ upped the ante and drew a far larger audience by going unabashedly larger-than-life and cartoonish, which Johnson is pretty much the embodiment of; really, has there been a single more crowd-pleasing moment in recent years than the scene in ‘Fast & Furious 7’ when Hobbs breaks the cast on his arm by flexing?

Whilst the DC movies certainly don’t have a problem with scale – they’ve demolished entire cities in all three existing films after all – many before Johnson have expressed that same desire to see them embrace a more upbeat tone.

Given ‘Shazam!’ centres on a young boy who transforms into a superhero by uttering the magic word of the title, it would certainly seem a natural place to inject a bit more optimism into the DCEU. Further DC appearances for Johnson seem inevitable: the actor has long promised to battle Henry Cavill’s Superman on screen, and at Christmas both actors seemed to hint this might come sooner than we thought, again via an Instagram post.

Much as seeing Johnson fight Vin Diesel brought cinemagoers en masse to ‘Fast & Furious 5,’ it’s not hard to envisage a Black Adam/Superman face-off having a similar effect. Will this prove enough to bring the DCEU to, ahem, full engorgement…? We shall see.

‘Shazam!’ is expected in cinemas April 2019; look out for more updates as we get them. In the meantime, look out for Johnson in ‘Fast & Furious 8,’ ‘Baywatch’ and ‘Jumanji’ later in 2017.

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