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Dwayne Johnson says The Rock’s legendary heel turn inspired Black Adam

The hierarchy of jabroni power changes this month

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam, with a low camera angle catching his death stare as he stands strong in his black leather outfit with a lightning bolt on the front Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The way Dwayne Johnson puts it, bringing Black Adam to the big screen was a fight, from the beginning to the end. And one he couldn’t have done without the help of his heel-ready wrestling persona, The Rock.

The origins of Black Adam go back nearly as far as The Rock’s stint in the WWE, which ended on a third heel turn tinged by Hollywood fame. In 2007, Johnson began talks with New Line Cinema over a proposed Shazam movie. At that point, the wrestler turned actor had The Scorpion King, The Rundown, and the more family-friendly Gridiron Gang under his belt, and the film, which would tell the story of both Shazam (aka Captain Marvel) and Black Adam, was conceived to have a lighter tone under the eye of comedy director Peter Segal (who would go on to work with Johnson on Get Smart). Johnson was reportedly courted to play the Shazam character, but saw more potential in Black Adam. But the movie would languish in Development Hell for a decade. Johnson says the version we’re getting this October is “not at all” like the original plans for the character.

“The movie that was finally delivered after years and years of deliberation, of conversation, of fighting, was Shazam and Black Adam, in one movie, trying to tell both origin stories within 100 minutes,” Johnson tells Polygon. “And it felt like it was just thrown together. It didn’t feel like it had the priority and respect that both characters and both origin stories needed.”

Johnson says that despite all the back and forth, a script for the dual-lead film was only finished six or seven years ago. The draft prompted him to call Warner Bros. executives and challenge the entire notion of the project.

“I said, ‘I think we really have to go in another direction. I think we should split this up and make two movies,’” Johnson recalls. “[The script] was funnier, and that made it really tricky. The Black Adam that we saw on our side, the Seven Bucks [Johnson’s production company] side, was that Black Adam was brutal and was intense and was really fucking pissed. He lost his family, wiped away. That’s his rage. And that was hard when we’re trying to establish that [tone] and we have a whole other thing here — and with a lot of kids!”

Black Adam returns Johnson to a grittier wavelength. While his career is littered with PG blockbusters (Race to Witch Mountain, Tooth Fairy, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and for-all-audiences tentpoles (the Jumanji movies, Skyscraper, Red Notice), there’s detectable Rock DNA in his earlier movies. The gruff hero of his Walking Tall remake, the unhinged action star in Southland Tales, and even his early turns as Luke Hobbs in the Fast franchise all lean into a meaner streak that was tantamount to The Rock’s feather-ruffling ring persona. Bringing genuine rage to Black Adam, and a force that could (as Johnson has put it so often in the press) change “the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe,” might be the pinnacle of that.

When I ask Johnson if he looked back to his days as The Rock for inspiration, specifically to his legendary 1998 heel turn, which teamed him up with Vince McMahon and morphed his persona into the “Corporate Champion,” he cracks a bit. “Man, I love that you said that.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Johnson was in the wrestling biz full time, but his WWE character is still a role he finds worth reflecting on. “The Rock,” he says, played an important role in steering Black Adam away from what he could have been in 2007 — and, perhaps, closer to what fans of the DC universe and Johnson’s are truly looking for.

“When I was a heel, and when I made that heel turn... people may not have agreed with my ‘why,’ and they may not have agreed with the things that I would do. At that time, wrestling was a lot different. The Attitude Era was much more violent. We got away with a lot of shit that you could not get away with today. While people may not have agreed with the heel Rock, they all understood why he was doing what he was doing because I had the opportunity to talk about it — and talk shit in that way that The Rock did. So there were a lot of parallels there. The connection to Black Adam is that while you may not agree and you may interpret him as a supervillain, antihero, protector, even a superhero... you may not agree with his philosophy, but everyone understands.”

With Rock-like swagger, getting Black Adam to screen involved a combination of muscle and big talk. From the decision to make a stand-alone Black Adam movie in the first place, to the inclusion of the Justice Society and other recognizable DC Comics faces, Johnson says it took his team years to push their vision to screen.

“We fought for a long time, and we weren’t gonna take ‘no’ for an answer,” Johnson says. “And here we are.”

Black Adam will be released in theaters on Oct. 21.

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