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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Evolution from Hated Villain to Superstar

It can be said almost without question that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (known going forward in this article as “The Rock” or “Rocky”) is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, as well as an affable, kind person. People love him for so many different reasons, whether it’s his godlike presence on the big screen…

…his amazing comedic timing, as seen in this clip from Conan

…or his big heart, as seen on Instagram in the showcase of his genuine love for his fans. Sometimes, they can inspire him just as much as he inspires them:

A photo posted by therock (@therock) on

It’s safe to say that The Rock is definitely “one of the good guys.” He has earned the cheers and adoration he gets from his fans. That’s what makes his story so fascinating. For Rocky to achieve this massive success as a hero, he first had to live through being one of the most HATED characters on television. Let’s take a look at the history of “The Great One.”

Rocky Maivia

During the fall of 1996, the WWE was starting to transition from the less cartoon-like characters and the straightforward “good guy vs. bad guy” story lines. Wrestlers like the “All-American Hero” Hulk Hogan were replaced with superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, who swore up a storm and whose favorite hobby was beating up his own boss.

This “Attitude Era” had no room for goody two shoes. That’s why it was a little confusing when Rocky Maivia made his debut during the WWE’s November Pay-Per-View event, The Survivor Series. His character, whose name is an amalgam of his father (Rocky Johnson) and grandfather (High Chief Peter Maivia), was a legacy superstar “babyface” (wrestling talk for good guy) that wanted to make it on his own merits; this was the complete opposite of the direction the WWE was moving in. Here is an interview Rocky had six days before his debut:

Notice how quiet and monotone Rocky looks and sounds. Now, add some wrestling trunks and you have a character that, while having the wrestling skills, did not fit into the world of the WWE at the time. For almost a full year, Rocky Maivia came out with a smile on his face and always tried to do the right thing. His reward? Chants of “Die Rocky Die” and “Rocky Sucks.” All the while, the crowd would go insane with cheers every time Stone Cold Steve Austin stood up and gave them the finger.

The world of wrestling is exactly similar to comic books, video games, and movies. Fans go into to each of these with the understanding that it requires a certain suspension of disbelief.

While fans are willing to suspend some of their belief, the successful wrestlers, comics, video games, and movies anchor the fantasy world to reality with strong believable characters. There is a wrestler called the Undertaker who has been portraying the character of a dead man for 26 years, and the fans still can’t get enough.

This was because of the Undertaker’s total commitment to his character. The fans believe in this “Phenom” because they feel they are actually watching a real-life supernatural creature enter the wrestling ring. The Undertaker committed so much that, for years, he always hid from the public. After all, if the man were supposed to be from beyond the grave, why would he be shopping for soda at Kroeger’s? Over time, that awe from the fans turned into respect, and the Undertaker was able to evolve because of it. Rather than being a larger than life superhero, he became an unstoppable human.

Rocky Maivia was not only a character the fans didn’t believe in, but he was one Dwayne Johnson didn’t believe in. There was no opportunity for the Rock to show his actual personality with the Rocky Maivia character. Imagine if the young kid in that interview had the same charisma as the man from the Conan interview. Things probably would have gone a little different. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how big the smile, the fans wanted his head on a stake. A knee injury in mid 1997 put Rocky on the shelf for a few months. When he returned, everything changed.

The Rock

When Rocky returned from his knee injury, he became the villain the fans basically drove him to be. Instead of trying to fight through the boos, he embraced them and became “The Rock.” Only referring to himself in the third person, The Rock was a brash and arrogant “heel” (bad guy) that did nothing but badmouth his opponents and badmouth the crowd that had already hated him for so long. From fall of 1997 to fall of 1998, the Rock was the man everyone loved to hate. He even began referring to himself as the “People’s Champion” to get underneath people’s skin.

The Fall of 1998 was when things started to change. To draw a parallel: When asked who their favorite Marvel character is, there is a good portion of people who will say Loki, because he’s funny, smart, and witty. Tom Hiddleston’s charisma as the God of Mischief turned him from the villain in Thor and Avengers into one of the heroes in Thor: The Dark World. The same thing happened to the Rock. Between his hilarious promos to his catchphrases to his raising of that infamous eyebrow, people finally saw the character that they could believe in, who they could suspend disbelief for. And they ate it up like Ben and Jerry’s. You could also see it in The Rock himself. You could tell that he believed in this character and that he was putting himself into it 100%. Listen to the crowd reaction to this interview with a heel like the Rock, and see how much the crowd loved a man they were supposed to hate:

Dwayne Johnson

One month after this interview, in the spring of 1999, the Rock became a good guy again, though all the while maintaining this brash persona. The fans have never stopped cheering since. He went on the following year to his first of four SNL hosting stints, being asked again and again due to his amazing timing and comedic chops. By 2002, he had his first starring role in The Scorpion King. In 2004, he left wrestling full time for Hollywood, and for a while, he didn’t look back. He became an action star in movies like Walking Tall and showed his comedic chops in films like The Game Plan. His stock grew and grew. Since his starring role in Fast Five, he has become one of the main reasons the Fast and the Furious franchise is what it is today. He will continue to show that action hero/comedian balance with the release of this week’s Central Intelligence, co-starring Kevin Hart.

While wrestling and non-wrestling fans were loving him in Hollywood, people still missed him in the ring. Even seven years after leaving, the Rock never forgot where he came from, returning in 2011 to this ovation:

He would go on to wrestle in the main event of the WWE’s Super Bowl, Wrestlemania, for two straight years, and still makes appearances to the delight of fans everywhere.

In 2008’s The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent says “You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The Rock was able to change that up a bit. Same train, just different car. To become the hero everyone loves, he had to embrace the villain everyone wanted him to be, if you catch my drift… or should I say, if you smell what the Rock is cooking.

So what do you th—IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK! … But if you still want to talk about your favorite Rock moment, let me know on Twitter or sound off in the comments below.

Featured Image: Universal Pictures

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