As vaccination spring turns into post-COVID summer—or so we all hope—Scarlett Johansson is Hollywood’s canary in a coal mine. Like the James Bond movie in waiting, Johansson’s presumed blockbuster Black Widow has been rescheduled twice now, not for reasons having to do with the picture itself but because, of course, movie theaters have been largely shut down, and Black Widow has too much box-office potential to relegate to the streaming obscurity that met the likes of Tenet and Mulan.
Apart from the whole Marvel Universe rigmarole that fanboys obsess over, no small part of Widow’s potential lies with Johansson herself. Is it possible she’s only 36? She’s been a star going on 20 years, since so many of us found her such a revelation in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, when Johansson was 18; little did most people realize that by then she already had made a dozen movies, her first at the age of nine (Rob Reiner’s North).
I confess I spent the decade after Translation trying to figure out whether Johansson was really any good. Hollywood didn’t make it easy, shuttling her into whatever sex-bomb role it could persuade her to accept; that she was the perennial hottest-babe-in-Hollywood designee of men’s magazines only obscured not just her talent but her brains, on clear display in interviews that revealed her as eloquent, literate, and intellectually fluent. Woody Allen didn’t make matters easier either, adopting her as his pet obsession with a string of lackluster efforts only one of which, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was notable.
Johansson’s breakthrough year bridged 2013 and 2014 when, in three science-fiction films, she played characters existing out of time and space. In Luc Besson’s Lucy, Johansson was an unwilling drug mule whose abuse by men transformed her into the embodiment of an evolutionary lurch, existing in the present, past, and future all at once. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, she was an extraterrestrial for whom the face and often-naked body of “Scarlett Johansson” constituted a disguise donned at the movie’s beginning and shed at the end, and for whom the attraction of men was a crucial function of the enigmatic narrative. By contrast, in Her, she wasn’t onscreen at all. She was a digital voice with which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love, a conceit admittedly made more plausible by the fact the audience knows that voice belongs to the hottest babe in Hollywood. In any case, all three roles allowed Johansson to mobilize the persona represented by her physicality, turning it into an instrument at once not human and beyond human. While, ironically, as the computer in Her, she was most human of all, evoking a connection with Phoenix’s lonely lover.
Johansson’s other key year came in 2019. She was all over the place in roles more earthbound, if you consider Avengers: Endgame earthbound, where the filmmakers trusted her to carry much of whatever emotional weight the movie offered. As well as burnishing her acting bona fides playing Maggie the Cat on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Johansson was the best thing about Marriage Story, a wildly overrated movie that even she couldn’t save, playing an actress struggling to salvage a marriage, career, and love for L.A. that the movie’s New York writer-director implicitly regarded as grounds for divorce. Better was Jojo Rabbit, a satire of Nazi Germany haunted by Johansson’s free-spirited mother to the film’s titular boy. In a movie filled with caricatures, Johansson sidestepped the temptation to play the not-so-secretly-anti-fascist Rosie as one, and while it would be an overstatement to suggest the movie never quite recovers from her departure, it certainly feels her absence once she’s gone.
With both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit, Johansson scored the coup of two Academy Award nominations at once, and few doubt that somewhere in the future is an Oscar with her name on it. If it’s too much to count on Black Widow to take full advantage of Johansson having come into her own as an actor, the fact that it’s as much a spy thriller as yet another superhero picture, and a buddy movie on top of it, promises heart as well as heroics—a blockbuster that’s worthy of her. For the sake of not just the movies but a world struggling to return to normal, let’s hope she’s the rare canary who flies back out of the coal mine alive, shaking the soot from her wings.