The Scorpion King: Both Films Launched Their Marketing Campaigns

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.)

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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.

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