Pop Rocks: Is Iron Man 2 ScarJo's Finest Performance?

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Unsurprisingly, Iron Man 2 was tops at the box office last weekend. The $128.1 million haul was considered a mild disappointment by some, proving once again that even the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history can be spun as a negative in Hollywood, where it was also argued semi-convincingly that the $329 million grossing (which was budgeted at a "mere" $55 million) Forrest Gump actually lost money.

But this isn't a financial analysis, mostly because math is hard, but also because the most significant aspect of Iron Man 2 isn't how much money it earned, or that not-so-secret post credits scene, or how completely wrong Don Cheadle was for the role of James Rhodes, but how it might be the greatest role of Scarlett Johansson's young career.

Spoilers may follow, so if you're one of nine people who haven't seen IM2 yet, read no further.

What's that? You doubt my assessment? It's true that on the surface, the role of Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff seems like pretty standard supporting character stuff: few lines, a couple key action sequences, and, uh...inspired costuming. What most people don't realize is how well Romanoff plays to Johansson's strengths compared to her past movies. Lucky for you, I'm prepared to break it down in easily digestible snippets of debatable "humor."

For starters, I'm not anti-ScarJo. True, my favorite movies of hers are still Ghost World and Eight Legged Freaks, but that's because one features Daniel Clowes' deft handling of the themes of friendship and alienation and the other has giant fucking spiders. I just don't see a lot of nuance -- or "skill" -- in her acting. Rebecca in GW demonstrated a lot of the same qualities (quizzical stares, petulance) that would be found in later movies like Lost in Translation and A Love Song for Bobby Long

And we need to get this salient fact about Lost in Translation out of the way from the get go: it really wasn't that good. I blame Sofia Coppola for paying more attention to the music she picked for the film than in trying to make her characters anything more than clichéd annoyances. The opening scene, a close-up of Johansson's derriere, inspires less confidence in what's to come than it does memories of Al Pacino in Heat:

We can also dismiss stuff like The Perfect Score and In Good Company because they're tedious and formulaic, and because Johansson doesn't figure significantly into either one.

And then we get to the Woody Allen movies.

Allen is a maddening figure in cinema: a writer/director responsible for some of the most genuinely hilarious (Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask) and touching (Annie Hall) films of the 1970s and 80s, he's also a horrible misogynist, and that's leaving his embarrassing personal life out of the equation. His female characters are either diabolically promiscuous, needy, or just plain dumb. In Johansson's case, she got to experience all three in Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Scoop, the latter of which can't even be redeemed by Hugh Jackman in a bathing suit, according to a close family member who shall remain nameless.

Speaking of bathing suits, I'm trying to remember a movie Johansson has appeared in since Translation where the filmmakers haven't contrived to put her in as few clothes as possible (The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie doesn't count). Hell, even Iron Man 2 manages to get her down to her bra for a needless sequence designed to remind us what a great bod she had, as if cramming her into hip hugging skirts and mostly unbuttoned blouses for the first part of the movie didn't already make that clear.

In this respect, she's similar to another 20-something Hollywood starlet: Jessica Alba. Except that Johansson's comic book movies to date haven't sucked.

But aside from that, Iron Man 2 maximizes Johansson's strengths without getting needlessly bogged down in shit like "acting" or "believability." Romanoff hardly speaks, rarely emotes beyond a glare, and spends the rest of the time in a catsuit, sharing scenes with a double that does all the actual fighting. She can reliably ride future sequels (and Avengers movies) into super-duper stardom without having to work with Allen or Coppola anymore, which is as close to the Promised Land as a Hollywood career gets these days.

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