Anyone who fell into a boredom-induced coma watching “Black Adam” and woke up on March 15, 2024 would have been in for a shock when they turned on “WWE Friday Night Smackdown.” Dwayne Johnson, dressed in one of the ridiculous Versace shirts that have become his wrestling trademark, opened the show with a raunchy musical number. Accompanied by a two-piece blues band, he launched into a melodic diatribe about everything from ungrateful fans who don’t appreciate him enough to his belief that his latest wrestling rival Cody Rhodes was the result of an unplanned pregnancy — the crowd roared as he hit the line “drugs and cheap condoms are a bad combination!” with a bluesy wail.

The scene was just one of many batshit crazy moments from Johnson’s recent return to wrestling, which has resulted in some of the best creative work of his entire career. After joining the board of TKO — the new company operating both UFC and WWE that was spun off from Endeavor following its acquisition of the latter — in January, he quickly teased plans to wrestle in a high profile match against his cousin, longtime champion Roman Reigns. The news was met by instant outrage from fans, who saw the move as undermining a two year story arc that they felt should have ended with popular babyface (wrestling jargon for hero) Cody Rhodes ending Reigns’ three year championship run.

What appeared to be an unprecedented clusterfuck was quickly salvaged by a brilliant decision from Johnson and WWE Chief Content Officer Paul “Triple H” Levesque. The company, which scripts the outcome of every match in advance, opted to lean into the outrage, presenting Johnson as a meddling corporate interloper who was willing to abuse his status at TKO to ruin the storyline and take Rhodes’ moment in the spotlight for himself. But when Rhodes dramatically interrupted him and insisted on a title match in a scripted sequence at the company’s WrestleMania kickoff event in February, The Rock responded by forging an alliance with Reigns.

Johnson might have initially conceived his return to wrestling as a triumphant victory lap. But when it became apparent that nobody liked his plans, he pivoted by stepping into a villainous persona — to use the industry terminology, he “turned heel.” Johnson has embraced the evil role with gusto, criss-crossing the country to appear on wrestling shows while crowds gleefully boo his every word. He refers to his new wrestling character as “The Final Boss,” a clever play on words that combines video game slang with the fact that he outranks all of his wrestling foes in the corporate hierarchy. The storyline has seen Johnson slapping and beating his foes into a pulp while insulting fans in every city to nudge them toward supporting the company’s babyfaces. In Utah, he made deliberately tasteless jokes about Mormon polygamy. In Arizona, he could barely hide his glimmering smile as he reminded a crowd of rowdy fans that Phoenix leads the country in crack and cocaine usage.

The three month storyline is expected to reach an epic conclusion at this weekend’s two-night WrestleMania festivities. Tomorrow, The Rock will team up with Roman Reigns in a tag-team match against babyfaces Rhodes and Seth Rollins that will determine the rules of Saturday night’s bout for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship. If Rhodes and Rollins win, Rhodes’ one-on-one match with Reigns will be free from interference. But if Rock and Reigns win — as everyone expects they will — Johnson and Reigns’ stable of nefarious sidekicks known as The Bloodline will be able to cheat as much as they like in their quest to keep the belt on Roman.

Regardless of how the outlandish matches play out, or how involved Johnson stays in future WWE storylines, Hollywood could learn a lot from The Rock’s latest heel turn. Johnson has spent much of the past two decades building himself into Hollywood’s biggest one-man brand, but it’s been years since he was in a great movie. His talent is undeniable, but bland efforts like “Red Notice” and “Black Adam” left many audiences with the overwhelming sense that The Rock had become safe. His workout gear and tequila might be selling like hotcakes, but human billboards seldom make for interesting art.

If Johnson’s past decade of filmmaking was an exercise in safety, his return to WWE has been anything but. His retreat into the warm embrace of the fanbase that put him on the map might have been strategic, but anyone who has spent five minutes watching wrestling this year could tell you that The Rock is having the time of his life. He’s taking creative risks, zigging when fans expect him to zag, and showcasing the multitude of talents that made him one of his generation’s highest paid performers. As Johnson embarks on what he has claimed will be a new artistic chapter — starting with his starring role in Benny Safdie’s upcoming Mark Kerr biopic “The Smashing Machine” — filmmakers and studios should look to his latest wrestling arc for four lessons about how to use him more effectively.

You Don’t Have to Please Everyone

The legacy of The Rock’s 2024 WWE resurgence will be defined by his willingness to break from his mainstream Hollywood persona and take on a more divisive character. The “Final Boss” is vulgar, arrogant, and generally abrasive — but he serves a perfect narrative purpose in the current WWE landscape.

Johnson has spent the bulk of his acting career demonstrating his bona fides as a leading man. But now that his status as a Hollywood babyface is unimpeachable, he could benefit from taking a bolder approach to the movie roles he selects. From ultra-violent action flicks and R-rated studio comedies to genre-bending indie opportunities (we haven’t forgotten “Southland Tales!”), there’s likely a litany of film opportunities waiting for “The Rock” if he’s bold enough to break from his everyman persona. He’s done some of the best acting of his career over the past two months, so Hollywood should feel compelled to offer him some bolder roles that reflect his talent. If Johnson is smart, he’ll accept a few of them.

The Rock Can Be Downright Terrifying

Last week’s “Friday Night Smackdown” ended with one of the most cinematic conclusions in recent memory when The Rock pulled Cody Rhodes into a back alley behind the venue and beat him within an inch of his life — while threatening to inflict even more damage at WrestleMania. The pouring rain was a serendipitous addition to the menacing aura of the scene, which ended with Cody Rhodes covering his face with blood through a classic wrestling trick known as “blading,” in which a performer covertly slices his forehead open with a razor blade to accentuate the perceived physical toll of a match.

Johnson has spent most of his acting career trying to soften his image to widen his potential customer base, but the sequence was evidence that he might be better served by going in the other direction. His unflinching brutality was enough to scare even the most seasoned wrestling fans. If he ever decides to tackle a horror movie or play a truly menacing dramatic villain, the sky could be the limit for him.

There’s No Shame in Putting Someone Else Over

The Rock’s 2024 WWE appearances have become the most popular topic in the wrestling world, but he’s still playing a supporting role in the company’s biggest storylines. The bulk of his comically exaggerated ire has been aimed at Cody Rhodes, who many fans expect to emerge from WrestleMania as the Undisputed WWE Universal Champion.

It appears to be a common wrestling practice known as “putting someone over,” in which a veteran wrestler torments a younger one before dramatically losing their match in order to help the newcomer build his own resume. Johnson has benefitted from the tradition on multiple occasions, most notably when a villainous Hulk Hogan lost to him in an iconic match at WrestleMania 18 in 2002. He seems content to return the favor this time around, which could turn Rhodes into one of the most beloved heroes in the history of professional wrestling.

Considering how well the plan to put Rhodes over is working, it’s fair to wonder what could happen if Johnson took a similar approach in his acting career. He might have been Hollywood’s most coveted leading man in the 2010s, but his WWE run has proved that he’s equally competent in supporting roles. Taking half a step out of the spotlight and focusing on putting the next generation of actors over could reap massive rewards if Johnson is humble enough to take the risk. Based on his recent WWE success, there’s no reason for Hollywood executives to assume he wouldn’t be.

Don’t Hide from the Phenomenon of The Rock — Lean Into It!

With the possible exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnson’s acting career might be singularly burdened by his larger-than-life status. His instantly recognizable physique and omnipresent face ensures that his odds of ever vanishing into an unrecognizable character are effectively zero. Unless his character’s name is in the title of the movie, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever remember it. (And even then, ask yourself if you feel confident guessing whether he played Hobbs or Shaw without looking it up.) No matter what he’s in, he’s always playing The Rock.

And you know what? That’s okay! WWE has leaned into his status as “the most electrifying man in entertainment” (to use the company’s preferred nomenclature) throughout his latest run, and the results speak for themselves. He’s crafted a crowd-pleasing villain persona by flaunting his wealth and power, boasting about his Hollywood connections, and even making the occasional self-deprecating jab about “Baywatch.” Much like Taylor Swift, he’s in an era where acknowledging his many eras can be an art form in and of itself.

The Rock’s popularity ensures that every audience member who encounters him is going to bring their own preconceived opinions about him to the table. WWE has proven that he’s equally capable of subverting and validating those expectations to great dramatic and comedic effect. There’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t do the same thing in a new slate of hit movies. The Rock’s days as Hollywood’s preferred family-friendly hero might be numbered, but reckoning with the drawbacks of his own status as a pop culture demigod could give him the kind of third act that most movie stars only dream of.

“WrestleMania 40” streams on Peacock at 7pm ET on April 6 and 7.

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