Scarlett Johansson, female superheroes and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Scarlett Johansson has now been in front of the camera for over twenty years. (You thought Lost in Translation was one of her early films didn’t you? I can’t believe you’ve not seen her work in Home Alone 3.) Over the decades she has clearly sought out interesting film projects working for directors like Sophia Coppola, The Coens, Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan, but throughout her adult career she has constantly been cast in the beautiful woman roles.

In films such as The Spirit and He’s Just Not Into You she has little to do other than be sexy but even the more critic friendly films have her playing on her looks. Think of The Prestige, The Black Dahlia and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, all of which present her as a highly desirable woman.

You could argue that this is fairly inevitable; she is after all an attractive lady, but I don’t think the careers of other contemporary actresses have this pattern to quite this extent. It hasn’t been the case for Angelina Jolie or even Pretty Woman herself Julia Roberts. As a result I think Scarlett Johansson tends to be written off as more of a looker than an actor, which simply isn’t fair as she is a genuinely talented performer and even has a BAFTA to show for it.

Her first outing as The Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, in Iron Man 2 didn’t help. Her main characteristics in that film seemed to be bouncing curls and a tight catsuit, but when she returned in The Avengers she was a lot more rounded (which is not a reference to the catsuit although she was still wearing it). Blockbuster superhero films rarely give an actor a chance to truly shine (unless they are playing the bad guy) but Romanoff’s scene against an imprisoned Loki was a great, dialogue heavy, two hander. Just in this one scene Johansson played shrewd sass, toughness and wit.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier gives Johansson’s S.H.I.E.L.D agent her greatest screen time so far. The character may not be massively developed beyond that which we saw last time but we do see a slightly different side to her and she isn’t in the catsuit the entire time. Okay, so it’s tight jeans and a vest top but what did you expect, twin set and pearls?

Black Widow may not be one of two names in the title but she is a major part of the film. She is the Captain’s closest ally throughout and is largely unflappable, strong willed, independent and loyal, regularly kicking butt with a wry smile and a deadpan quip. In fact she might actually be the closest thing we have had to Buffy since the Slayer disappeared from our screens, so even though Joss Whedon isn’t involved, his influence is felt. Certainly this time round Scarlett Johansson is more than a pretty face.

Lots of people will argue the character is now ready for her own picture and but there does still seem to be some reluctance to give women the full superhero treatment. Even Wonder Woman, the greatest of them all, is being squeezed in with Superman and Batman, and when they get it wrong it really doesn’t help the cause. ‘But audiences don’t want female-led superhero films’ they say ‘the box office is always poor’. Nope, it is because the films aren’t very good. (I’m talking about you Catwoman, Supergirl and Electra.) If they get Black Widow right it could definitely work. Come on Marvel, give it the money and give it the time because you’ve already got your leading lady.

I really liked the first Captain America film. After Iron Man it was my favourite of the pre-Avengers movies. With its Nazi bad guys, WW2 setting, rip roaring sense of adventure and charismatic hero it felt a lot like those Indiana Jones films that nicely punctuated 80s action cinema.

This sequel though has quite a different feel. It has been the strength of the Marvel Universe films, of which there are now nine, that they have all had quite contrasting tones, even those concentrating on the same heroes have been reluctant to just retread old ground. The only time they didn’t really change tack was with Iron Man 2 which is easily the weakest of the franchise.

Initially, at least, Captain America feels like a 70s style conspiracy thriller with the discovery of a dark heart at centre of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. To be honest though any real sense of mystery and intrigue has passed after the first half an hour. It very quickly becomes clear who you can trust and there are no big reveals and twists as there are with the best of this genre.

That said, I don’t want to say too much more as the film is not totally without its surprises. To the casual viewer Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be solidly entertaining with some nice character moments and fairly hard edged action sequences but to the Marvel faithful it is truly epic. If you are one of the people who has been following Nick Fury’s band of colourful heroes since he turned up at the end of Iron Man then this film changes everything and you need to see it.

I have been hoping for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D television show to react properly to the events of the films since the series started. I was convinced that the season break was scheduled deliberately to coincide with the release of Thor The Dark World so that the stories could weave together but it didn’t happen. They did reference it a few episodes later but it was a passing reference. This time it has to be different; there is no way Coulson’s Team can obliviously carry on pursuing their own plot points now, things have changed too much. If the show is not picked up for a second season then the reason for their mission to end is right here in Captain America part 2. In fact if you wanted to find it there is also reason in here as to why S.H.I.E.L.D did not turn up in the last Thor or Iron Man films.

All in all then, a great one for Marvel and Scarlett Johansson fans and a pretty good one for everyone else.

The ISWYS Test:

1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?

Clearly Johansson is the female lead and she kicks butt with the best of them. She isn’t just beating up random henchmen anymore either, she is properly saving the world, so I think that is 3 out of 3 on the ISWYS test.

Is this one for the kids?

If you have seen any of the other Marvel Studios movies then you know what to expect here. The violence is a little grittier this time but it is still largely bloodless and the swearing is mild.

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