In The Rock’s attempt to position himself at the center of the Universe, he vetoed a post-credits scene featuring Zachary Levi’s character, insiders say
The underwhelming $65 million worldwide debut of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is another black mark for the DC Universe, the second-string superhero stable. But there’s another villain, insiders told TheWrap: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering to boost another DC property — “Black Adam,” in which he starred — may well end up tanking both franchises, they said.
To be clear, DC has a host of problems that aren’t Johnson’s fault, which is why Warner Bros. Discovery is attempting a reboot under James Gunn and Peter Safran. But in trying to shape “Black Adam” as the new center of the DC Universe — a strategy that failed to bolster “Black Adam” and undercut the once-promising “Shazam” franchise — Johnson may have kneecapped both, painting a portrait of a celebrity who put his own brand before the work.
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Johnson did plenty of work in public to undermine “Shazam,” chiefly by promoting a face-off between Black Adam and Superman instead of the more canonical link between the hero Zachary Levi played and the former pro wrestler’s own character. Privately, he vetoed a planned post-credits scene in “Black Adam,” which would have seen Shazam recruited by Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman, and other costumed heroes, into the Justice Society of America, TheWrap can report exclusively, thanks to disclosures by two high-level Hollywood insiders.
There’s plenty to blame for the underwhelming grosses for “Black Adam” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” including middling reviews and the mixed message sent by the DC Studios revamp. Like “The Lego Movie,” “Shazam 2” might be another example of a movie where the audience saw the original as family-friendly fare but perceived the sequel as a kid flick with limited appeal. Still, Johnson’s public and private actions seemed to play an undeniable role.
A representative for Johnson didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. Reps for Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema declined to comment.
Problems cooking with “The Rock”
“Dwayne tries to sell himself as bigger than the movie,” said a high-ranking Hollywood executive who asked for anonymity in order to discuss talent matters frankly while speaking to TheWrap. “He’s one of the few people who always thinks he’s the most important person in any situation or room.”
That plays into the kind of franchises that Johnson usually spearheads, like the movie based on the “Rampage” video game, a remake of the cinematic adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel “The Mysterious Island,” or “Jumanji.” Problems arose when Johnson entered a franchise that was bigger than him, like the “Fast & Furious” series, where he clashed with franchise architect Vin Diesel, or “Baywatch,” where his star power couldn’t save an expensive film built on weak IP.
A superheroic fight
Johnson spent much of the weeks before the release of “Black Adam” touting not the movie itself or his character’s in-universe connection to Shazam but instead on a theoretical clash of the titans between himself and Henry Cavill’s Superman. Then-DC Films head Walter Hamada vetoed a cameo by the star of the divisively received “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League,” but Johnson went over his head and got approval from Warner Bros. Film Group co-CEOs Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy.
“Instead of making a movie, he wants to extend his brand and make a brand centered on himself,” said the Hollywood executive who criticized Johnson. An Instagram post in which he declared that “the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change” was an implicit statement that Johnson’s Black Adam should be the new focal point of the universe. That meant positioning himself to go up against Henry Cavill’s Superman, not Zachary Levi’s goofy Shazam.
The actor failed to learn the lesson of Universal’s Dark Universe
As the architects of Universal’s canceled Dark Universe or Warner Bros.’ “King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword” might tell you, you don’t promise a cinematic universe before you have a hit like Marvel did with “Iron Man.”
Johnson spiked plans in the mid-2010s to make a film featuring both Shazam and Black Adam in favor of two separate films. That worked out well for Levi’s acclaimed and successful first “Shazam” movie. As a dark, violent and unapologetically rock ‘em-sock ‘em actioner, it was the right call for “Black Adam” as well. The issue came with Johnson going rogue and implicitly maligning the “Shazam” franchise without checking to see if anyone wanted to see a “Black Adam vs. Superman” movie.
Maybe Johnson mistook the online conversation about Cavill’s run as Kal-El for real-world interest, or he didn’t realize that online discourse about Zack Snyder’s first three DC films was partially a bot-driven vocal minority. Perhaps he didn’t care.
Either way, the actor-producer spent September and October selling the notion that bringing back Henry Cavill as the Last Son of Krypton was what “the fans wanted.” The narrative was framed in a way as to further fan the flames of an ongoing civil war between those in the so-called SnyderVerse and the mainstream DCU.
New DC Studios co-chief and “Shazam” producer Peter Safran resurfaced a version of the post-credits sequence Johnson vetoed, and it now exists as a mid-credits cookie in “Fury of the Gods.” But Johnson nixed the use of “Black Adam” actors and the scene now plays out with Jennifer Holland and Steve Agee from “Suicide Squad” and “Peacemaker.”
“By alienating the established property that his character was born out of, and refusing to integrate with other established characters, [Johnson] systematically crippled two franchises, and has harmed DC in the process,” another Hollywood insider told TheWrap.
A refusal to concede failure
“Black Adam” underperformed relative to its cost, earning $168 million domestically and $393 million worldwide on a COVID-affected $230 million budget. That global total is right between “G.I Joe: Retaliation” ($375 million in 2013) and “Rampage” ($430 million in 2018), but those films -– along with both “Jumanji” sequels, “Journey 2: The Incredible Island” and “San Andreas” — cost between $80 million and $130 million.
“Johnson was a big reason why [“Black Adam”] was able to perform above the level it likely would have without him,” said Boxoffice Pro Chief Analyst Shawn Robbins. In a pre-pandemic environment, the movie likely would have added an extra $125 million-$175 million from Russia and China, giving it a good-enough $550 million global total. But the other problem might be underestimating the overlap between the audience for a DC cape flick and a Dwayne Johnson action fantasy.
Johnson, meanwhile, touted a profit projection for “Black Adam” and compared its worldwide gross to the first “Captain America.” In terms of painting its star as unwilling to concede to commercial reality, the cover-up was worse than the crime. At least Jared Leto didn’t spend last April swearing that “Morbius” was a hit.
“Franchise Viagra” no more
Ten years ago, the release of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Johnson as new protagonist Roadblock, was seen as evidence he could juice an existing theatrical franchise. His supporting role in the acclaimed and $620 million-grossing “Fast Five” helped turn the franchise into an A-level action series, and “Journey 2: The Incredible Island” earned more ($335 million) than Brendan Fraser’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” ($244 million). The narrative stuck even while “Retaliation” earned less domestically ($122 million) than Stephen Sommers’ “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” ($150 million).
Warner Bros. Discovery is making like Walt Disney and pledging to keep moving forward, expressing extreme confidence in both “The Flash” and the soft reboot plans hatched by Peter Safran and James Gunn beginning with “Superman: Legacy” in 2025.
Yet Gunn and Safran have a talent challenge in their reboot: A key star damaged the once-promising “Shazam” franchise while strangling another, “Black Adam,” in its crib. Johnson’s public pandering to an online vocal minority and refusal to concede box-office defeat has likewise hurt his franchise-saving reputation.
Johnson tried to remold the DC Universe in his image, and in doing so he not only failed to save the franchise but actively contributed to its downfall. What’s the opposite of franchise Viagra?
Before joining The Wrap, Scott Mendelson got his industry start in 2008 with a self-piloted film blog titled "Mendelson's Memos." In 2013, he was recruited to write for Forbes.com where he wrote almost exclusively for nearly a decade. In that time he published copious in-depth analytical and editorialized entertainment industry articles specializing in (but not exclusively focused upon) theatrical box office. A well-known industry pundit, Mendelson has appeared on numerous podcasts and been featured as a talking head on NPR, CNN, Fox and BBC.
Umberto has been covering the fanboy beat & breaking scoops for 20 years with numerous Hollywood trade, newspaper, & magazine mentions to his credit. Umberto has been profiled in such publications as The Washington Post, Variety and Grantland.