Just six months in, and the year 2017 has already been particularly unkind to Scarlett Johansson, at least as far as box office returns are concerned. The four-time Golden Globe nominee has already bowed two (very different) movies this year, the much-hyped “Ghost in the Shell” live-action feature and the raunchy female-centric comedy “Rough Night,” both of which flopped at the box office. It’s hardly the sort of financial reception the actress is used to getting, as she’s long excelled at making massive box office bucks.
Just last year, Johansson emerged as the only actress on a newly generated list of the highest-grossing actors of all-time, which also includes names like Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and Johnny Depp. According to that running list from Box Office Mojo, first released last June, Johansson ranked in the top 10 with a total gross of $3.3 billion and counting, which put her ahead of Gary Oldman, Robin Williams, and Bruce Willis. (As of this writing, Johansson is still high on the list — in eighth place — above Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, and yes, now Depp. The next highest actress is Emma Watson, bolstered mightily by the success of “Beauty and the Beast.”)
Two flops in a row? Bad enough. Two flops in a row that both unquestionably star Johansson (this isn’t a “Hail, Caesar!” thing or a “Spirit” redux)? Not great.
While Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell,” a controversial take on the popular manga of the same name, has made fair money overseas — it’s pulled in just under $170 million total, $129 million of that from international territories — the film was made for an estimated $110 million, not including marketing and promotional costs, indicating that it’s still far from being profitable. The film was the subject of intense outcry over its white-washing of Johansson’s character, the synthetic super-soldier Major Motoko Kusanagi, to the point that even Paramount execs blamed that (and, oh yeah, lots of bad reviews) for its poor reception at the box office.
Johansson’s chops as an action star are unparalleled — from her turns as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the awesome money-making power of “Lucy,” she’s made tons of money and earned big accolades when she’s stepped into starry, ass-kicking roles — and setting her as the lead of such an action-driven property clearly seemed like a good idea at the time. But flat ticket sales and uniformly lackluster reviews (the film sits at a 45% Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes) told a different story.
Which is why the performance of Johansson’s other big 2017 release is even more unnerving. As the biggest, most bankable name in Lucia Aniello’s feature directorial debut, “Rough Night,” Johansson seemed poised to finally get a raunchy new outlet for her burgeoning comedic chops. The film is funny and frisky — the sort of “Broad City”-adjacent offering that should have pulled in plenty of audiences looking for something different at a crowded summer box office. With just over $8 million in opening weekend domestic returns, the film barely cracked the top 10, though it will likely earn back its $20 million budget with ease.
The financial fallout stings a little, but that such a refreshing film couldn’t find an audience — and, conversely, that Johansson’s “SNL”-approved comedic stylings couldn’t pull in a crowd — is the real gut punch. The actress is working on a new comedy with director and co-writer Aniello and her partner Paul W. Downs, so here’s hoping that Johansson will get another chance to show off the more light-hearted sides of her talent.
Johansson’s box office dominance will likely be just fine, especially come next year, when she’ll co-star in the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War,” but the actress is still in need of a topline role in another massive moneymaker, all the better to bounce back from two flops in a row. It’s time for a change, and Johansson already has the key (or, at least, the role) to fight her way back to the top of the box office heap.
Rumors of a “Black Widow” MCU spinoff have persisted for years, and Johansson still seems game for such a film. Last year, when asked about the possibility of a standalone feature, she told Variety, “I would like for it to happen under the right circumstances. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to mine that story line. She’s got a really rich origins story. There’s a lot of places you can go.” Still, she admitted that there is a bit of a ticking clock in place, adding, “If I did it, I’d have to do it while I still actually wanted to wear a skin-tight catsuit. I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be.”
Johansson knows her way around an action movie (again, “Lucy”), and she more than understands the complexities and strengths of Black Widow (she’s only played her in five movies, and she’ll appear in at least two more MCU movies in the coming years). And making a “Black Widow” feature would solve not just Johansson’s low-simmering flop problem, but it would also help push Marvel even further into a post-“Wonder Woman” world.
While the studio is forging ahead with its Brie Larson-starring “Captain Marvel” feature, the massive success of the DCEU’s first female-centric superhero movie proves that audiences are hungry for these kinds of films, and they’ve long been asking to see Natasha Romanoff get her very own feature. Give it to her.