In terms of both bankability and musculature, Dwayne Johnson has become inextricably linked in the public imagination with a certain gigantism. The 270-pound former WWE superstar has reigned as Hollywood’s highest-paid actor for two years and counting — commanding $23.5 million for an above-the-marquee turn in the upcoming Netflix thriller Red Notice, and earning a whopping $87.5 million between June 2019 and June 2020. Johnson’s last ten movies have combined to gross over $7.3 billion, with nine of those titles claiming the box office’s top spot over their respective opening weekends (the outlier: 2017’s Baywatch reboot), with his Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle squashing Spider-Man as Sony’s top-grossing film ever.
And in addition to Johnson’s renown as an MTV Generation Award winner and holder of the Guinness World Records title for most selfies taken in a three-minute period, a recent poll indicated at least 46 percent of Americans would support the star running for president. “I don’t think our Founding Fathers EVER envisioned a six-four, bald, tattooed, half-Black, half-Samoan, tequila-drinking, pickup-driving, fanny pack wearing guy joining their club,” Johnson said in an Instagram post that has been liked over 5.7 million times.
In an era when franchise power and superhero IP — with their forever loops of reboots, interconnected universes, and prequelization — have eclipsed individual performers as Hollywood’s most lucrative box-office draw, Johnson is one of the last of a dying breed: a star who can “open” a movie on the basis of name recognition alone. But that bulletproof box-office reputation will be put to the test this weekend with Johnson’s latest star vehicle, Jungle Cruise. Set to arrive in more than 4,200 theaters Friday (while bowing simultaneously on Disney+ for a supplemental $30 rental on top of subscription fees), the $200 million family-friendly action-fantasy will demonstrate whether The Rock’s star power can withstand the general diminishment of theatrical moviegoing associated with COVID-19.
At a moment when the Delta variant is causing a spike in infection rates across the country and around 15 percent of North American cinemas remain shuttered, Jungle Cruise is widely expected to claim the No. 1 spot over the July 30–August 1 release corridor. But whether its grosses surpass Disney’s conservative projection of $25 million domestically (and $40 million overseas) or challenge the pandemic-era box-office record currently held by Black Widow will almost singularly come down to Johnson’s ability to put butts in seats.
“He’s not only one of the last action heroes, he’s one of the last stars with his name above the title of a film,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “If Dwayne Johnson is in it, his name deserves to be in front of the title because the title isn’t as important as the man himself being in the film. You’re talking about a guy who could be president down the line.”
An old-fashioned two-hander, Jungle Cruise showcases Johnson as a debt-ridden, dad-joke-spouting riverboat captain enjoined by Emily Blunt’s intrepid British scientist character for a journey into the deepest wilds of some unnamed Latin American jungle in pursuit of the mythical Tree of Life. Loosely plotted around one of Disneyland’s hoariest theme-park rides (which, even after recent updates, still teems with faux savagery and denatured exoticism), however, the film is being positioned to follow in the global blockbuster-juggernaut footsteps of Pirates of the Caribbean. Never mind that just about every other Disneyland theme-park attraction turned movie — 2003’s Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears, and Tomorrowland (2015) among them — flopped upon release.
“People are making movies based on board games, Tetris, Magic 8 Ball,” Bock says. “Anything that has IP value right now is going to be considered for a Hollywood film. Jungle Cruise has been around for a long time at Disneyland and it’s not really based on anything. So this is a chance for Disney to continue on the path they started with Pirates of the Caribbean — which is to sell merch, right?”
Ascending to Hollywood’s A-list in 2011 after a decade of middling success with his debut appearance as hard-charging special agent Luke Hobbs in Fast Five, Johnson has groomed his superstardom through tireless social-media outreach. The actor-producer currently has more than 300 million followers across YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, and Twitter (with 257 million on Instagram alone), and in May won a Webby Award for using his platforms to “connect with people, amplify important issues, and provide inspiration, motivation, and exclusive content.” As part of a reported $1 million “social-media fee” that is baked into his deals nowadays, Johnson has been relentlessly promoting Jungle Cruise across his socials for weeks.
Some industry observers say that internet interface could be the film’s secret weapon. “More than just star power, Jungle Cruise’s success could come down to his social-media presence,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “He’s extraordinarily activated. So I think it’s more of a stress test of, Does that social-media complement translate into a bigger box office?”
But according to another influential analyst who spoke to Vulture on condition of anonymity, Johnson’s vast Instagram outreach will matter for little if Jungle Cruise fails to connect with viewers on a visceral level. “In terms of correlation between a movie’s success and social media, it’s hit or miss,” the person says. “People think there are slam dunks. And then we’ve seen movies where the ensemble cast was off the charts with their social-media activity. But if the movie didn’t resonate, it didn’t do that well. I don’t think social media alone will put [Jungle Cruise] over the top. It’s an old-fashioned-looking movie. The Rock and Emily Blunt doing cute repartee and they’re falling through roofs.”
More immediately, though, Jungle Cruise’s opening-weekend ticket sales will be measured against such recent hits as Godzilla vs. Kong, A Quiet Place Part 2, F9, and Black Widow, each of which toppled successive pandemic box-office records over the past four months. Like Jungle Cruise, Marvel Studios’ Black Widow arrived in multiplexes — where it took in a strong $158.8 million worldwide, despite the concerns of certain lawsuits — and on Disney+ for streaming rental on the same day. The upshot of that success: Disney made the rare disclosure that the superhero prequel had grossed $60 million via PVOD. Now the studio is under pressure to publicly announce streaming revenues for Jungle Cruise, whether the film is a hit or a miss.
“If they don’t, it sends the message that the numbers weren’t that good,” says Bock.