Within the past twelve months, Scarlett Johansson has been an alluring and rapidly expanding artificial intelligence in Her; a seductively murderous extraterrestrial in Under the Skin; and now, in Lucy, a superintelligent, post-sexual, sometimes deadly freak of evolution. For a woman who is two inches shorter than Woody Allen, this is some résumé. It’s obvious that the game but vulnerable waif of 2003’s Lost in Translation did not just grow up but has gone on to transcend the merely human, and in record time. Why this should have happened isn’t so clear.
Given the disparities in financing and distribution among the films I’ve just mentioned—which vary from the artisanal to the mega-industrial—as well as the differences among them in style and tone, it would be a mug’s game to rush into defining Johansson’s new screen persona, let alone to speculate about the wishes and anxieties floating about in the culture that might have coalesced to create it. As a mug, though, I will observe that the change began in 2010, when Johansson first played the comic-book character Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers cycles.
Although Johansson has served as little more than an incidental attraction in these movies—much as the Black Widow herself has been mostly a supporting player in the Marvel Comics universe—these interlocked series enabled her to do something that Vicky Cristina Barcelona could not: reach a large enough percentage of the world’s population to register sociologically.
Thanks to the Black Widow role, the public for the first time entertained the possibilities of a Johansson who could not be measured precisely, there being, almost by definition, no such thing as a five-foot-three superhero. Her manner was now almost flippantly imperturbable, as befits someone who knows she can take time out for a cell-phone call while being interrogated and threatened with torture—this actually happened in The Avengers—and then, as if tired of the game, single-handedly squash her half-dozen captors. Perhaps most important of all, Johansson’s attitude toward her body changed. As the Black Widow, she treated her catalog of sexpot features as if they were so many pieces of the superhero costume: items that identified her but were something to have and use, rather than be. To the millions of fans versed in Marvel mythology, this aloofness from her own seductiveness was explicable not as the trait of a traditional femme fatale but as a consequence of bioengineering. The Black Widow’s strength, speed, endurance and longevity had been injected into her in a Soviet laboratory.
Once this image of Johansson was established—$1.5 billion in worldwide theater revenues for The Avengers did a lot of establishing—it was not improbable for other filmmakers to extend and complicate the fantasy she had come to incarnate. In Her, Johansson was unimaginably superior to the man with whom she’d been paired and ultimately felt a little bad about it; in Under the Skin, she preyed at will on the male humans around her and came to feel troubled by the practice; but in both films, she maintained the sound and appearance of an attractive woman only because that’s what men were looking for.
As the title character in Lucy, Johansson at least starts out as a female human being—one who enjoys her sexuality, too, to judge from the presence at the beginning of a boyfriend who is cute in a hulking way, though morally dubious and blatantly casual. What Johansson becomes, though, in her first starring role in a blockbuster, is the Black Widow in metamorphosis. She struggles through a violent new episode of bioengineering to attain perfect knowledge, or godhead, or maybe the ultimate hands-off romance, but at least a really nifty revenge.