This weekend's box office results deliver a few unsettling revelations, not the least of which is that the summer movie season now officially starts while there is still some snow on the ground. The smashing success of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which set a new April record with its estimated debut of $96.2 million, means we'll have to look at a lot of things differently, including the month of April (which will forever after remain infested by summer movie season creep), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (truly, "The Avengers" has the longest and strongest coattails ever sewn), and Scarlett Johansson.
OK, ScarJo wasn't the top-billed star of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." (Then again, neither was Chris Evans. The star of these Marvel films is the Marvel universe.) Still, Johansson made her third successful appearance as Marvel's Black Widow. And she is a bigger star than Evans, with a longer track record.
Just how big? Well, if you go by per-screen averages, she had the top two films of the weekend -- and "Winter Soldier" was only No. 2. No. 1 was Johansson's new sci-fi horror film "Under the Skin," which opened in just four theaters but earned an average of $35,000 in each of them. ("Winter Soldier," which opened in 3,938 venues, averaged $24,429.) The movie is about an alien temptress who lures human men to their doom, something Johansson proved during filming that she could do in real life, as the movie shows her picking up random non-actors who didn't know they were being filmed.
These two movies are Johansson's third and fourth releases in the last six months. (She has a fifth movie, Jon Favreau's road comedy "Chef," opening a month from now, and a sixth, action thriller "Lucy," due in August.) Yet there's no sign that audiences are getting tired of her. Granted, no one actually saw her in "Her," a film in which she played the voice of an artificially intelligent computer operating system that has a bittersweet romance with user Joaquin Phoenix. Still, the movie earned $25.5 million in North America, pretty good for an independent movie with a weird premise, and surely better than the movie would have done if director Spike Jonze had kept his original leading lady, Samantha Morton. (Yes, Morton's an excellent actress, but she's not a box office draw, and her voice is certainly not as distinctive as Johansson's throaty rasp.)
Before "Her" was last September's "Don Jon," another oddball romance that earned $24.5 million domestically, again, largely on the strength of Johansson's casting opposite star/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Again, it's not as likely that the film would have been such a hit at Sundance and broken the $20 million ceiling of the indie-film box office if it featured a lesser-appeal female lead.
As expected, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," is already a worldwide hit, having opened in many overseas markets a week before it opened here. As a result, the movie already has a foreign gross of $207.1 million, for a global total of $303.3 million over the last 10 days. Surely Johansson deserves a chunk of the credit; after all, her movies tend to do even better overseas than they do here. Her 2005 sci-fi film "The Island" earned a so-so $35.8 million here but it made $127.1 million abroad. Her last Woody Allen film, 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," earned a decent $23.2 million domestically but a huge $73.2 million overseas. Even her signature movie, 2003's "Lost in Translation," earned $44.6 million here but $75.1 million everywhere else. And of course, her three Marvel movies to date have earned more than $1 billion here and more than $1.4 billion throughout the rest of the world.
Given that, you'd think an individual "Black Widow" spinoff movie was inevitable. And yet, while Marvel seems to have the next 14 years worth of movies on the drawing board, it's not clear that a showcase for Johansson's character is one of them. Maybe the studio is still stinging from the failure a decade ago of "Elektra" (the last time it centered a movie on a heroine), or maybe there are other reasons beyond lingering sexism. But it can't be because Johansson hasn't proven herself. As she demonstrates in three Marvel movies to date, as well as in "Under the Skin," you underestimate her at your peril.
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