How Scarlett Johansson Became Today’s Sole A-List Action Heroine

Hint: she's awesome.

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In the realm of action movies, there are several male stars who have made a name for themselves as A-listers in the genre. Whether it’s Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham, or Matt Damon, a big budget action film with a male lead can have any a number of performers headlining the film. When it comes to female-led films in the same category, however, there’s one who’s risen to the top in recent years - Scarlett Johansson.

Johansson’s success hasn’t been due to lack of competition. Many women have found fleeting success in the action genre in recent years. Ex-MMA star turned performer Gina Carano made her presence known in 2011 with Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which was followed up by roles in both Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool. Emily Blunt followed up a role in Rian Johnson’s Looper with key roles in Edge of Tomorrow and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, both of which established her as more than capable in the genre. Sofia Boutella also became a famous figure amongst action audiences with a scene-stealing turn in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was followed up with roles in Star Trek Beyond and this year’s upcoming Atomic Blonde and The Mummy. And then there’s Charlize Theron, star of the aforementioned Atomic Blonde, who has also established herself in the genre with roles in both Snow White and The Huntsman and its sequel, as well as George Miller’s acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet, despite all these numerous performers, Johansson remains the only A-lister in the genre so far, the go-to choice when producers need a single name to sell a big budget action film, as her casting in Ghost in the Shell proves.

Since 2010, Johansson has appeared in numerous action films, nearly averaging one a year between numerous appearances as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, as well as roles in Lucy and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell. However, she hasn’t been limited to action films, having also appeared in We Bought A Zoo, Under The Skin, Don Jon, Chef, and Hail, Caesar! in that time frame, while also lending her voice to Spike Jonze’s Her and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Regular appearances on the big screen appear to be a key part of her success.

Obviously her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is of most importance here. It’s not a stretch to say that playing Black Widow has been a key part of her success in the action genre, as it offers her an opportunity to regularly display her capabilities when given such a role. However, other female action stars who have garnered franchises have not fared as well. Take, for example, the comparably successful Fast and Furious franchise. The series has had three women in key supporting roles that have spanned multiple films in the form of Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and Gal Gadot. Of the trio, only the latter has found success as a headlining A-lister, and even that has been for only one film, the upcoming Wonder Woman. Neither Brewster nor Rodriguez have been able to parlay their involvement in the franchise into larger success, and even Gadot has had to either play second fiddle in other action movies, such as in Criminal, or be part of an ensemble, such as in Keeping Up With The Joneses. Her work in Wonder Woman may or may not vault her into equal footing with Johansson, but even if it does, she'll have required the help of two franchises to do what Johansson did with one. Milla Jovovich stands as a starker example, unable to cross the bridge to A-list stardom in the action genre despite leading the Resident Evil film franchise since 2002.

There are a few factors at play here. For one, Johansson has been in more movies in the MCU franchise than either Rodriguez or Gadot have been in the Fast and Furious franchise. Jordana Brewster rivals Johansson, with five appearances herself, but her role has been diminished as the series has continued. Johansson, on the other hand, has seen her character take on progressively more important roles with every appearance.

Which leads to Milla Jovovich. As the lead of her own action franchise, Jovovich should have been able to ascend to A-list stardom in the action genre the way Johansson has. The release of this year's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter means Jovovich has headlined six movies in the franchise, but those films just aren't as popular. The Resident Evil series, which began in 2002, has amassed a total of $271.26 million domestic gross to date. By comparison, the five MCU films Johansson has appeared in have a total domestic gross of $2.06 billion. The pattern appears to be clear; more people have seen Johansson in a supporting action role than have seen Jovovich in a leading action role, in addition to having seen Johansson more frequently in the past few years than Jovovich. It also points out something else; it's not just Johansson's presence in any franchise that has vaulted her to headlining status in the action genre, it's her presence specifically as Black Widow in the MCU. The commercial success of these films, combined with their consistency and their release schedules, means that Johansson, at least on paper, looks like a more dependable box office draw, and a more popular commercial presence, than nearly any other female performer in an action franchise in recent years.

Johansson may have company at the top before long, thanks to Charlize Theron and Gal Gadot. Until then, however, she remains the current Queen of Action.

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