By AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
As the titular superhero, Chris Evans is the main attraction in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but Scarlett Johansson and her alter ego, the Black Widow, nearly steal the show.
Johansson, who made her first Marvel appearance in “Iron Man 2” four years ago, has slowly but surely turned the butt-kicking crimefighter into one of the most fascinating figures in the Marvel universe.
“It’s an interesting challenge to keep coming back to this character who…is sort of evolving with each installment,” says the actress.
“[She has this] rich back story and I think it’s just an exciting thing to be scraping away at [that] a little [bit] at a time, to reveal the bigger picture of her.
“She’s actually a very complex character, which is wonderful for me, because over the period of time that I’ve played her, I’ve also grown, obviously…so I feel like the character’s story is more enriched as my own experiences are.”
Johansson’s Black Widow has become so interesting, in fact, that it seems as if its only a matter of time before the character becomes the focus of her own movie.
“As Scarlett has already said, there’s a big element that explores her back story in an upcoming Marvel feature,” notes “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” producer Kevin Feige.
“So the question really is when would we want to take her out of that ensemble to go and do her own thing? In fact, as you saw in this movie, and as you’ll see in [2015’s] `Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ she is kind of the key to so much of the broader world.”
Now in release, “Captain America: The Winter Solider” has been described as one of the darkest and most intense of Marvel’s superhero movies. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (TV’s “Arrested Development”), the film draws as much inspiration from ‘70s paranoid thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Parallax View” and “Marathon Man” as it does from comic book-inspired adventures.
In the movie, a follow-up to 2011’s $371-million-grossing “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Cap is drawn into the business of intelligence agency SHIELD after director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes under attack from the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan.) Wary of trusting anyone, Cap and the Widow hit the road in hopes of exposing the conspirators threatening SHIELD.
The supporting cast includes Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, EmilyVanCamp, Hayley Atwell and Garry Shandling.
For Johansson, the biggest draw of “Captain America” was having the opportunity to present another side of Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow.
“I think this is the first time that we’ve really gotten to see Natasha,” says the actress, 29. “We saw a little bit of her backstory in `The Avengers,’ and we’ll see more of that in `Avengers II.’
“But in this film, we really get to see Natasha as a person who gets up, gets ready for work in the morning, and has a life outside of just her job. She’s a woman and she has her own reality outside of the suit.”
Over the course of the movie, thanks to some late-game revelations, Natasha/Black Widow and Steve/Captain America get shaken to their core. Portraying that dramatic mix of emotions was fascinating for Johansson.
“As the plot unfolds, we find that both Steve and Natasha are questioning their own identity…They’re pretty strong people but at the end, the Widow, even more than Caps, realizes, `wait, I actually don’t know who I [am]. I’ve actually been this sort of hired hand for my entire professional career and young adult life. Who am I and what do I want and what do I need from someone?’
“So in some ways there’s a kind of cliffhanger at the end, because you really see that they’re just kind of cresting the wave of having this huge moment of self-discovery and hopefully we’ll be able to track where that goes in the next installments.”
Johansson has one of the most diverse resumes of any young actress in Hollywood. The New York native got an early start in the business, making her film debut at age nine in Rob Reiner’s “North” as John Ritter’s daughter.
She quickly followed that movie up with “Manny and Lo” and “The Horse Whisperer” before graduating to more adult roles with the Coen Brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
Johansson has a knack for picking projects with celebrated directors. She worked for Woody Allen three times in “Match Point,” “Scoop” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona” while also starring in “We Bought a Zoo” for Cameron Crowe and lending her distinctive voice to Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated “Her.”
This Spring, Johansson can be seen in both “Captain America” and “Under The Skin,” a quirky sci-fi indie about an alien (Johansson) who preys on the men of Scotland.
Right before Johansson shot “Captain America,” she played Maggie in a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
As it turns out, appearing on Broadway was the perfect way for Johansson to get into shape for the Widow.
“I had come off of doing this Broadway run, which is pretty much the most physically challenging thing you can do,” she says. “So I felt like if anything was going to prepare me to have stamina [for `Captain America,’] it was that.
“Everything seemed like a piece of cake after treading the boards for that long.”
Still, Johansson felt compelled to add a bit more exercise to her daily routine.
“I think I was in pretty solid shape… but then it’s [a matter of] maintaining it,” she says. “So I’d get up at 5 AM, go to the gym, and do all that stuff that’s horrible and not glamorous at all. I’d train like a dude and then eat a bunch of lettuce and whatever. That’s how it goes. Nothing fancy.”
Of all the characters Johansson has played, Black Widow is the one who’s been taken to heart the most by young girls. It’s a distinction which leaves the actress more than a little puzzled.
“I think Natasha is a bit of a reluctant superhero,” says Johansson who is reportedly expecting her first child with fiance Romain Dauriac. “Natasha doesn’t necessarily have this really kind of strong, golden moral compass. Let’s not forget, she started out her career as essentially a mercenary so I don’t know if that makes her role model material,”
“But I will say that one of the things that’s very attractive to me about Natasha is that she uses her feminine wiles as part of her job, but she doesn’t rely on her sexuality or physical appeal to get the job done.
“She’s extremely smart. She thinks on her feet. She’s a leader and she has a lot of foresight. Those are all qualities that I think it’s wonderful to celebrate for young women.”
If there was any doubt that Black Widow has struck a chord with young fans, the actress gets a reminder of the character’s popularity every Oct. 31.
“It’s really rad for me to have my friends’ kids look up to that character and dress up like her at Halloween and play with the boys and be rough,” says Johansson. “I always say, “The Widow always wins.’ And it’s true. And that’s a nice sentiment.”