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How ‘The Avengers’ & ‘Lucy’ Turned Scarlett Johansson Into an Action Superstar

Donning a dodgy Russian accent and a skin-tight, leather suit as “The Avengers'” Black Widow is reaping dividends for Scarlett Johansson.

The actress may have benefited more from her work on the Marvel movies than any other member of the superhero ensemble save for Robert Downey Jr., whose work as Iron Man transformed him into perhaps the biggest box office star on the planet. Evidence of Johansson’s raised profile was on display this weekend, as the actress powered “Lucy” to a $44 million debut, the third biggest female-driven action opening of all time.

First and second place belong to “Wanted” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” both star Angelina Jolie, who may have a worthy successor in the come-hither glances and gunplay department in Johansson.

“‘Avengers’ turned her into an action star and that’s part of the reason ‘Lucy’ had so much success,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s difficult for females to be an action star. You can count them on one hand.”

Indeed, besides Jolie and Milla Jovovich, the list is unpeopled. Those who have tried to carve a name for themselves, such as Geena Davis with “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” have failed to catch fire.

But Johansson has shrewdly mixed up her dance card, rotating smaller indie projects, like the moody alien thriller “Under the Skin,” the breakout art house hit “Chef” and the off-beat rom-com “Her,” with overtly commercial projects like “Lucy” and last spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Throughout her career she’s gravitated towards filmmaker-driven projects from the likes of Woody Allen, Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan and “Lucy’s” Luc Besson. That’s a strategy that’s served the likes of Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio well.

“What a career she’s got going right now,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “She’s been smart to align herself with great directors and to be choosey about the people she works with.”

“Lucy,” which features Johansson as a superhuman avenging angel, was the first big film she’s had to carry on her own shoulders and now that she’s surmounted that obstacle, expect Hollywood to take notice.

“She is well respected in the acting community and she can deliver at the box office, that’s got to have producers salivating,” said Bock.

Universal Pictures, which released “Lucy,” credits Johansson with bringing in a more diverse crowd. Fifty percent of the opening weekend audience was female, a rarity for the male-oriented action genre.

“We knew women were going to react well to this,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal Pictures domestic distribution chief. “It helps that [Johansson is] a really good actress, in addition to being appealing as an action star.”

To be sure, other “Avengers” alum have profited from their time in tights. Chris Hemsworth helped push “Snow White & the Huntsman” to $396.6 million globally and Mark Ruffalo is having a banner year with his well-received turns in “Begin Again” and the upcoming “Foxcatcher.” But it is Johansson who seems to have mastered the perfect mix of commercial hits and passion projects.

Move over Angelina Jolie. Meet your next action icon.

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