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'Black Adam' and The Rock — when really bad movies happen to good actors

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “Black Adam.” Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / TNS

Bad movies happen to good people. If you’ve read any of the reviews of “Black Adam,” you know that one of those bad movies recently happened to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

In its first week in theaters nationwide, the DC superhero movie earned 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a limp 41 score on Metacritic. Those are horrible numbers, especially after you factor in that some critics go easy on popular blockbusters out of fear of alienating readers or seeming out of touch.

Yet despite horrible reviews, the movie is making a ton of money, and viewers are enjoying it — the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is at 90%. All these I find disappointing, though maybe not for the reasons you’d expect.

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Actor Dwayne Johnson poses with fans at the “Black Adam” premiere at Cine Capitol on Oct. 19 in Madrid. Photo: Beatriz Velasco/Getty Images

For example, it doesn’t bother me that critics have had no influence here, because I never worry about the influence of critics. I also don’t care in any sort of moral sense — the idea that it’s some catastrophe if people make money they didn’t deserve to make. If people want to pay to watch a film, the people who made the film deserve the money, just as audiences deserve to get what they pay for, for better and worse.

This is my one concern: It’s never good for artists to be rewarded for their worst work. It gives them the wrong signal, telling them, “Keep going in this direction” when they really need to hear, “Stop that!”

I’m still wondering how many years it will take Kristen Stewart to recover from the catastrophe that was “Spencer.” And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about the catastrophe of her performance as Princess Diana, which was one of the worst of 2021, but the catastrophe of its rapturous reception, including an Academy Award nomination. For artists, who work on instinct and intuition, nothing gums up the internal mechanism like praise or success for failed work. It’s like getting a government license to print counterfeit money.

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Kristen Stewart in a scene from “Spencer.” Photo: Pablo Larrain/Associated Press

Since leaving the WWE ring to become a full-fledged actor more than two decades ago, Johnson has been a welcome presence in pictures. He appeared in a number of movies in small and medium parts, but I first really noticed him in “The Scorpion King” (2002), his first starring role.

“The Rock is big and beefy, and onscreen he is mainly about his undeniable physical presence,” I wrote in my review of that film. “Yet if the Rock looks mean in still photos, he seems like a reasonable fellow the moment he starts talking. … He sounds as helpful and ingratiating as an insurance agent. This disconnect between the way the Rock looks and sounds will either make him or break him as a film star. I think it will make him.”

In other words, this guy’s got something, and what he’s got isn’t just a distinct look but a winning personality and a sense of humor. These have come in handy in everything he’s done ever since, allowing him to excel in such action comedies as “Central Intelligence” (2016), “Hobbs & Shaw” (2019) and “Red Notice” (2021).

But none of his appeal is present in “Black Adam.”

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in “Hobbs & Shaw.” Photo: Universal

Johnson also has scale — not just bigness in size, but a bigness in aura — that allows him not to get lost in an epic landscape and to hold his own in an ensemble, as in the various “Fast & Furious” movies. But “Black Adam” is so huge and so crushing of any human element that it dwarfs him.

Finally, he has always been a much better actor than he needs to be.

As I wrote in 2015 about his performance in “San Andreas” (2015), “Johnson is the kind of actor who needs a mission. Tell him his character’s purpose is to save his family, and that’s what he plays — every second he’s onscreen.” In contrast, he does no acting in “Black Adam,” just scowls and kills people.

“Black Adam” was reportedly a dream project for Johnson, something that he wanted to make for years. If that’s the case, it’s just further proof that actors are notoriously bad at coming up with their own projects.

Fortunately, at least according to IMDb, Johnson has other movies in the works that will, I hope, take precedence over any “Black Adam” sequel. Of these, the one I most want to see is “San Andreas 2.”

Dwayne Johnson (left) as Ray, and Alexandra Daddario as Blake, in a scene from the action thriller, “San Andreas.” Photo: Jasin Boland/Associated Press

I know. “san andreas 2?” Remember what happened in the last one? There was nothing left for an earthquake to knock down. By the end, downtown San Francisco looked like Venice—not Venice, California, but the one in Italy. Johnson had to take a boat just to go from one building to the next.

But hey, that’s just fine. A “San Andreas 2” might be funny, or a little funny, as most of Johnson’s movies are, And it will give him a chance to save people rather than play just another boring, superhero homicidal maniac.