2014 is far from over, but as the summer movie season kicks into gear, one star has already claimed it as her own. Scarlett Johansson arrived in theaters this past weekend in two wildly different vehicles—the preordained Marvel blockbuster Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the more challenging and daring indie Under the Skin—and, with grace and ease, proved herself equally adept at big-budget mayhem and art-house mystery. In these two polar-opposite efforts, Johansson exhibits a striking versatility, with the actress coming across as comfortable kicking ass in latex outfits as Avengers assassin Black Widow, and seductively roaming the Scottish countryside for human prey as a visiting alien in disguise. Couple those roles with her forthcoming August turn as a drug mule who acquires superhuman powers in Luc Besson’s Lucy, and it’s clear that Johansson has now firmly established herself as one of Hollywood’s most multifaceted A-listers.
Johansson—like similar sex symbol stars Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron—is a deft screen presence, alternately employing and subverting her erotic appeal in a variety of diverse, demanding projects.
That’s all the more impressive given that the most wildly praised facet of Johansson continues to be her looks—as reconfirmed by Anthony Lane’s recent, controversy-courting New Yorker article, discussions about the actress all too often devolve into outright drooling, with Johansson’s appearance overshadowing any clear-headed dissection of her work.
Such a focus on her exterior comes at the expense of recognizing that, for the past few years, she’s successfully straddled a line between CG spectacles and audacious, unconventional films that require her to be more than simply a pretty face. From her collaborations with Woody Allen (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to her underrated comedy in last year’s Don Jon and nuanced vocal performance in Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning Her, Johansson—like similar sex symbol stars Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron—is a deft screen presence, alternately employing and subverting her erotic appeal in a variety of diverse, demanding projects.
For Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Johansson is, on first blush, operating in prototypical sex-kitten mode, encased in a jumpsuit that would suffocate anyone else while carrying out feats of derring-do with sensuality and toughness. She’s a fanboy fantasy of feminine badass-ery—though rather than embodying her Black Widow as merely a bimbo defined by her body, Johansson exudes a no-nonsense take-charge attitude that renders her far more than merely token eye candy. Her role expanded significantly for this second Captain America outing; Johansson's imposing sexuality functions as an outward manifestation of her character’s formidable authority and might—as in August’s Lucy, the actress makes her extraordinary heroine a commanding vision of female independence and strength.
While The Winter Soldier finds Johansson exuding steely resolve and power, Under the Skin is the dark, beguiling flip-side companion piece to her superhero effort. In Jonathan Glazer’s masterful drama about an alien assuming Johansson’s sultry form to hunt men amidst Scotland’s city streets and windswept countryside, the actress wields her loveliness as a weapon, using her looks to lure eager guys back to her lair, where—while undressing—she walks silently away from them, thereby allowing them to sink into the abyss of her reflective, inky black floor. In her vacant stares, unusual comportment, and bewilderment and curiosity at the foreign land she traverses—staring at people like an entomologist might examine a newly discovered insect—she transforms her beauty into something strange, unnerving, unnatural.
Johansson’s turn in Under the Skin has a controlled peculiarity and modulating-rhythm eeriness that’s light years removed from her imposing charisma in The Winter Soldier, not to mention her funny and feisty sensuality in Don Jon and tender-but-detached vocal work in Her. For all the attention paid to her physical assets, these performances make plain that Johansson is a remarkably dexterous movie star, one capable of segueing between divergent roles without losing—and, frequently, by exploiting—the very sex-symbol allure that garners so much tabloid notice. In other words, she’s a gorgeous actress of arresting talent, and one whose supremacy over this summer seems like merely a prologue for further domination to come.
Written by Nick Schager (@nschager)