Scarlett Johansson’s commanding performance in Black Widow shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — she’s done it her whole career. By Paul Whitington
After more than a year of Covid-induced delays, Black Widow was released in cinemas and on Disney+ yesterday. In what could be one of the biggest hits of the year, Scarlett Johansson reprises the role of Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, a former Russian spy who became a key Avenger and must now confront her troubled past.
In previous Avengers outings, Natasha has hinted at troubles in her past, and Black Widow paints a bleak picture of a tough childhood which begins in Ohio, where she’s part of a family that turns out to be fake. Her “parents” are Russian spies and have to leave the US in a hurry when S.H.I.E.L.D. finds out about them.
After that, Natasha and her sister Yelena are sent to a brutal state programme aimed at turning the toughest girls into ruthless assassins. Florence Pugh plays the adult Yelena and she and Johansson form quite the double act in a film that combines action and humour to commendable effect, resulting in one of the best Marvel adventures yet.
In Black Widow, a good decade after she joined the franchise, Johansson gets to front up a Marvel film for the first time. It’s a sign of how far things have shifted in Hollywood, something Johansson made pointed reference to in a recent interview.
Speaking at a roundtable event, the actress recalled her time on her first Marvel film, Iron Man 2. She said while “it had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualised, you know?”
In it, Natasha is first introduced posing as Tony Stark’s new assistant. At this remove, Johansson feels that Natasha was “talked about like she’s a... possession, or a thing, or whatever — like a piece of ass really”.
In the early Iron Man films, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark behaved like a 70s nightclub creep, wearing open-neck shirts and ogling after every female in sight. In Iron Man 2, he looks at a photo of Natasha in lingerie and says, “I want one”. He wouldn’t get away with doing so now.
Looking back, Johansson is philosophical. “Maybe at the time that actually felt like a compliment, you know what I mean? Because my thinking was different. My own self-worth was probably measured against that type of comment... like a lot of young women, you come into your own and you understand your own self-worth.”
Johansson’s career is instructive in terms of how times have changed because, in any other era, she would have been defined and constrained by what she looked like.
In golden age Hollywood, Scarlett’s prettiness and physique would have condemned her to a life playing ditsy blondes and gangsters’ molls, and she might have ended up in a gilded cage like Marilyn Monroe, an actress to whom she was initially compared.
But she resisted early attempts to objectify her and has increasingly taken control of her professional destiny. She’s even survived her association with Marvel.
Since joining the franchise in 2006, Downey Jr has made himself a fortune, but while once he was considered a very talented screen actor, he hasn’t made a serious drama in years. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans have also found it hard to shake the superhero associations, but Johansson has interspersed Marvel extravaganzas with well chosen indie films which showcase her considerable range.
Johannson was born in Manhattan on November 22, 1984. Her father, Karsten Johansson, is a Danish architect, her mother, Melanie Sloan, a New York Jewish producer and film buff who encouraged her daughter’s early interest in drama.
“Thirteen going on 30” was how Robert Redford described Johansson when he cast her in his 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer, which dramatically raised her profile. But the transition from child star to adult actor is a leap few performers successfully manage. With the advice of her mother, Johansson did so by landing roles in two significant films.
Peter Weber’s 2003 period drama Girl in a Pearl Earring explored Rembrandt’s supposed obsession with a young maid who enters his household and becomes an unhealthy muse. Scarlett had only a passing likeness to the rather ill-looking girl in the actual 1665 painting, but was poised and enigmatic as the beautiful Griet.
Released the same year, Lost in Translation would make her a star. Despite the fact that it was written and directed by a woman (Sofia Coppola), there are reasons to wonder whether Lost in Translation would ever have seen the light of day in this era.
Scarlett is Charlotte, a recently married 19-year-old left to wander the corridors of a high-rise Japanese hotel, while her feckless husband pursues his photography career. In the hotel bar she meets Bob Harris, a laconic movie actor in town to shoot a whiskey ad, who’s experiencing an existential crisis.
A flirtatious friendship seems bound for something more serious, this despite the fact that Bob is at least 30 years her senior. Somehow, at the time at any rate, Coppola managed to dance her way through a potentially creepy plot line and Scarlett won a Bafta, was nominated for a Golden Globe and, though not yet 20, now had her pick of dramatic roles.
She chose wisely in the main and in three films made in the mid-2000s with a then-resurgent Woody Allen, got to prove that comedy was among her talents. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), in which she co-starred with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, was particularly effective, and in spite of all that’s happened since, Johansson has never wavered in her support for Allen.
In 2013, when she could have continued comfortably coasting the blockbuster wave Avengers Assemble had created for her, she came to Scotland to play an alien succubus who lures Glaswegians to their doom in Jonathan Glazer’s remarkable low-budget horror, Under the Skin.
The same year, she was compelling as the voice of an AI computer program in Spike Jonze’s Her, with Joaquin Phoenix playing a poor fool who falls in love with her. And in 2019, on the back of three Marvel blockbusters in a row, she joined Adam Driver on the set of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a jarring and raw account of a relationship’s painful dissolution.
At the end of 2019, she played a German mother who hides a Jewish girl in her attic in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, an edgy black comedy set in Third Reich Germany.
Black Widow, meanwhile, has been getting strong reviews and is among the wittiest Marvel adventures yet. In it, Johansson reprises the role she’s made her own, but almost didn’t get.
In 2009, when Jon Favreau was casting for Iron Man 2, he met with her to discuss the part. “I loved him,” she has since said, and was very excited about the idea of playing the high-kicking villain. Then they called and said they’d chosen Emily Blunt instead.
But fate intervened: Blunt had a scheduling conflict and Favreau came back to Johansson. “I’m not one to hold a grudge or anything,” she said later.
Johansson took the part — and Marvel are very lucky that she did.