In the opening sequence of The Scorpion King, a Bronze Age barbarian camp celebrates the capture of Jesup (Branscombe Richmond), one of the last survivors of the rival Akkadian tribe. Flagons are hoisted. Filthy, battle-hardened men cheer. Half-nude women pose like they’re sitting for Frank Frazetta portraits. Just before the barbarian chieftain can execute his prisoner, an interloper crashes into the scene, setting up the film’s first big action setpiece. The intruder is Jesup’s half-brother, Mathayus (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose chiseled, 6-foot-5 frame is lit and framed for maximum ogling potential. His first line, given to a roomful of startled warriors and their party guests: “Boo.” A melee ensues, a star is born — and so is the modern blockbuster. No one knew it at the time, but The Scorpion King was strangely prescient. Seen today, it looks like an early example of the movies dominating the box office.
Twenty years ago, when The Scorpion King hit theaters, Johnson was perhaps the most recognizable professional wrestler in the world, a multi-time WWF champion with enough mainstream star power to host Saturday Night Live. But he wasn’t a movie actor yet. His first film role was as Mathayus in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, where he gives a wordless performance that’s mostly buried under layers of hideous, PlayStation 2-cutscene-style CGI. In The Scorpion King, he reprises that role. But except for a few clumsy bits of dialogue about how “the blood of the scorpion will always flow in his veins,” this version of Mathayus stands alone.
“The Rock has the authority to play the role and the fortitude to keep a straight face,” Roger Ebert wrote in his three-star review of the film. “I expect him to become a durable action star.” The fruition of Ebert’s prophecy, as Johnson rose to become one of the most recognizable and bankable action-movie stars in America, is just one of several ways The Scorpion King anticipated the next two decades of blockbuster movies.
The occasional dodgy bit of CGI aside, The Scorpion King is an appealingly old-school piece of filmmaking. Helmed by veteran director Chuck Russell, it sits in a lineage that includes the Technicolor Biblical epics of the ’50s and ’60s and the pulpy sword-and-sorcery flicks of the ’80s. The story is flimsy and comfortingly familiar — a noble warrior is tasked with killing a sorceress whose magic aids a tyrant, but they fall in love instead, teaming up to usurp the throne.
Russell shoots it with scenery-chewing delight, with only minimal breaks for expository dialogue between its bouts of swordplay and derring-do. The film it most resembles is John Milius’ 1982 adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. Like Johnson, Schwarzenegger wasn’t cast for his acting chops so much as the way his bodybuilder’s physique looked on celluloid. But both men delivered striking performances that lit a path forward for them in Hollywood.
The fact that Johnson was still primarily known as a wrestler is used as an in-joke in The Scorpion King’s script. In an early scene where Mathayus arrives in the harem of the despotic Memnon (Steven Brand), the tyrant’s concubines stealthily steal his weapons, so when the palace guards enter, he has to wrestle them. In a later battle between Mathayus and Nubian warrior Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan), their swords immediately shatter on impact, forcing the men to grapple and suplex one another for several sweaty minutes.
At times, Mathayus just wrestles dudes because he wants to, even with his bow and sword at his back. Russell’s camera in these scenes is kinetic without being frantic, and the moments when The Scorpion King turns into what the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink called “wrestling pictures” are among the best things about the movie.
But the movie did help expand the opportunities available for wrestlers-turned-actors like Dave Bautista and John Cena, men who were once cast for their brawny bodies, but now work consistently in major movies, crossing genre lines in the process. (Both have developed into better actors than Johnson, but his pure movie-star charisma still outshines theirs.) The act of casting a wrestler in a movie used to feel like a reflexive gag — think Andre the Giant playing a giant in 1987’s The Princess Bride, or Roddy Piper in 1988’s They Live taking time out from uncovering an alien plot to wrestle Keith David for nearly 10 minutes. Today, this kind of career crossover just feels normal.
The Scorpion King’s place in the cultural firmament seemed unremarkable in 2002. It was a low-stakes spinoff of a successful action series, with a charismatic lead actor and a breezy screenplay that played to his strengths. Studios made a dozen of these movies every year, most of which found audiences big enough to keep them coming. The Scorpion King made $180 million against a $60 million budget. It was a tidy profit for Universal, and proof that the gamble of making Johnson the highest-paid actor in a debut lead role paid off. Three weeks after the film’s release, everything changed.
On May 3, 2002, Sam Raimi launched his superhero trilogy with Spider-Man, an uneasy companion piece to The Scorpion King. Both films handed the keys of PG-13 popcorn franchises to directors who’d made their names with ’80s horror films. (Russell directed the well-regarded third installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as well as the 1988 remake of The Blob. Raimi was the lo-fi wizard behind the Evil Dead films.) Both films launched their marketing campaigns with extremely-of-their-time alt-rock songs, with The Scorpion King tapping Godsmack for “I Stand Alone,” and members of Nickelback and Saliva teaming up to write “Hero” for Spider-Man.
And both walked the line of taking inherently ridiculous material seriously and knowing when to inject a laugh. Unlike The Scorpion King, though, Spider-Man redefined the business of movies, making $825 million and helping set the stage for the all-consuming Marvel Cinematic Universe that launched in earnest six years later. (The way The Scorpion King was immediately overshadowed by a superhero movie is perhaps the one way it was most ahead of its time as a blockbuster movie.)
Before long, the burgeoning superhero genre all but pushed movies like The Scorpion King out of cinemas. Once it was apparent that there was more money to be made in exploiting familiar IP than in introducing audiences to new characters, the writing was on the wall for Mathayus and his ilk. The Scorpion King spawned a handful of direct-to-video sequels, none starring Johnson. In 2021, five of the top six domestic box office hauls were for Marvel adaptations. The sixth was F9: The Fast Saga, the latest installment in a franchise that until recently included Dwayne Johnson. The style of filmmaking that helped make Johnson a movie star was going extinct — but he found a way to transcend it.
By 2005, Johnson had shed “The Rock” from his stage name, rightly assuming that name recognition for his movies was quickly outpacing his wrestling fame. He joined the cast of the Fast & Furious series, headlined his own franchise with Jumanji, led films like Pain & Gain and Skyscraper, and even became an unlikely Disney star with his voice work in the animated feature Moana and the Indiana Jones throwback Jungle Cruise. The most reliable film franchises outside of the MCU and Star Wars might be “movies with Dwayne Johnson in them.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Dwayne Johnson would become a star, but somebody had to give him his first lead role. Though The Scorpion King came at the end of one epoch in blockbuster filmmaking and the dawning of another, it certainly looks prophetic in its big casting gamble. It also predicted modern cinema’s mania for interconnected worlds, prequel spinoffs, and the tendency to take even vanishingly minor characters from successful franchises and build entire universes around them.
Mathayus didn’t end up anchoring a cinematic Mummy-verse, but in retrospect, the guiding principles behind The Scorpion King look a lot like the logic that led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to Disney Plus’ hugely popular MCU and Star Wars spinoff shows. (Who is Hawkeye if not the Mathayus of the Avengers?) The Scorpion King is also a perfectly enjoyable movie on its own merits, a brisk 92-minute adventure romp with rich settings, memorable characters, and sharp fight choreography.
It’s no masterpiece, but it’s the kind of movie that we used to take for granted, until it became an endangered species. Multiplexes today are purveyors of too-big-to-fail spectacles, with marathon runtimes, hulking lead actors, and universe-enveloping stakes. The Scorpion King seems quaint by comparison. But while it belongs to an earlier era of blockbuster filmmaking, it helped plant the seeds for the one we live in now.
The Scorpion King is streaming on HBO Max and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.