Will Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Hercules’ Face Sword and Sandal Fatigue?

Actor's star status will be tested as three gladiator films, plus 'Noah,' create a potential 'White House Down' situation


Dwayne Johnson has helped boost the box office brawn of the “The Fast and the Furious” and “G.I. Joe” franchises, but his star power really will be put to the test when he toplines “Hercules” in July.

While casting the action star formerly known as the Rock in the role of the iconic Greek demigod seems like a sure bet, the $100 million-plus pic is one of several similarly themed strongman releases hitting theaters this year.

In January, Lionsgate invaded with “The Legend of Hercules,” while Sony Pictures’ TriStar unit releases “Pompeii” on Feb. 21, and Warner Bros. follows with “300: Rise of an Empire” on March 7. In each film, the lead muscle-bound warrior is clad in essentially the same leather-strapped outfit, stands in the same heroic pose and fights similar foes. Even Paramount’s campaign for Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” also due out next month, has borrowed from the 2000 best pic Oscar winner “Gladiator,” starring Russell Crowe, featuring that same actor in a warrior-like stance — albeit rain-soaked — on the film’s posters.

All of this creates a potential problem for Johnson’s “Hercules”: sword and sandal fatigue among audiences.

The film’s backers, Paramount and MGM, must be hoping they don’t suffer a similar fate to Sony Pictures’ last summer when its costly “White House Down” was largely rejected by U.S. moviegoers who four months earlier had flocked to FilmDistrict’s lower-budgeted, similarly plotted “Olympus Has Fallen.” Despite having Channing Tatum as its hero, “White House Down,” which cost $150 million to produce, earned just $73 million domestically. “Olympus,” made for $70 million and starring Gerard Butler, earned $99 million Stateside. A sequel set in London is now in the works, while there are no further franchise plans for Tatum.

Paramount has yet to start promoting “Hercules,” which debuts July 25. The studio didn’t buy a pricey Super Bowl spot. It hasn’t even released a teaser poster or trailer yet (WB sent out a teaser trailer for its “300” sequel nine months before its release). Only Johnson has done any promotion — posting photos on Twitter and Facebook from the set in Hungary that teased the look of his character. Timing of the campaign’s official launch is still being worked out. Paramount and MGM declined to comment for this story.

The lack of any ads for such a major summer tentpole just months before its release is unusual. That’s especially true given that Paramount and MGM are hoping to launch a new franchise around Johnson. But more promotional breathing room may work for Paramount’s marketing team. Johnson is a far bigger star than Kellan Lutz, Kit Harington or Sullivan Stapleton, who headline the earlier actioners, and Johnson is one of Hollywood’s best self-promoters.

But as Paramount focuses much of its marketing efforts around “Noah” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (due out June 27), the studio could find itself having to do some heavy lifting to get “Hercules” noticed by moviegoers bombarded by ads for an action-packed summer that includes Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”; Disney/Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”; Disney’s “Maleficent”; WB’s “Godzilla” and “Edge of Tomorrow”; and Fox’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Paramount’s marketing team must also communicate the message to audiences that its “Hercules” is a different take on the legend’s tale.

Based on Radical Studios’ graphic novel, the film’s described as a revisionist take on the classic myth, set in a grounded world where the supernatural does not exist. “Everyone knows the legend of Hercules and his 12 labors,” the studio has said of the project that turns the Greek strongman into a mercenary who must defeat a warlord. “Our story begins after the labors, and after the legend.”

Still, removing the elements that fans like about the Hercules story could be a risky move — and Paramount must convince moviegoers it’s the right one.

So far there hasn’t been much interest in the early sword-and-sandal releases. “The Legend of Hercules” earned just $18 million domestically. And early tracking for “Pompeii” has the film opening at $15 million. The “300” sequel is outpacing the swords-and-sandals-pack in terms of social-media buzz, according to research group Moviepilot. The buzz on Paramount’s “Hercules?” Crickets.

“It does seem unusual that such a big movie hasn’t really started to build any presence yet, especially as ‘300’ dropped a teaser so far out and already had a massive Facebook fanbase,” says Moviepilot’s Phil Walden. “However ‘Pompeii’ and ‘Legend of Hercules’ only started to build on Facebook and push the trailer three months out from release, so ‘Hercules’ still has time on its side, and seems likely to rely on Dwayne Johnson to drive its social presence.”

And that’s a fine rock to build on.

Watch the trailers for all of the films below: