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Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLACK SCORPION (1995)

Starring: Joan Severance, Garrett Morris, Casey Siemaszko, Rick Rossovich

Written By: Craig J. Nevius Directed By: Jonathan Winfrey

The Short Version

Roger Corman produces a comic book hero movie without an actual comic book.  Woot!

Joan Severance looks great in that costume.

Joan Severance looks great out of that costume.

Take away the plot holes, and the script’s better than you think.

It’s obvious that everyone’s having fun making this movie; you should have fun watching it!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BABY SWISS.

It’s light, mild, and full of holes, but it’s just so darn tasty and goes down so smoothly!


Pairs Well With...

CHARDONNAY.

Light, tasty, and doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to enjoy.  Don’t go more expensive than a bottle of Little Penguin, though, just to keep with the Roger Corman spirit.

“Do you mind if I take those?”

“No; I’ll just keep looking for the naked lady.”


Here’s the way evolution is supposed to work when dealing with the genus “comic book hero.”  First, you write the comic book.  Then you get the TV series (live action or animated; that part’s optional).  Then and only then do you get the movie.  So it was for Superman, so it was for Batman, so it was for The Incredible Hulk.

The Black Scorpion does things her own way.  She got this movie first, then a TV series, and only after all of that did she get a comic book.

Looking at Black Scorpion, though, it’s very easy to believe that it went the other way around, because this is a comic book movie through and through.  It’s not just because the protagonist is a (dazzlingly) costumed superheroine battling an improbably over the top costumed villain, either.  This one really is the total package.

The totally fun package.

Of course, when it comes to comic book movies, being the total package means embracing the ridiculous along with the good, and Black Scorpion has plenty of ridiculous to go around.   We’ll start with that, which means starting with our villain, The Breathtaker, who has to be one of the most ridiculous comic book movie villains this side of the Governator’s portrayal of Mr. Freeze.  I’ll be nice and not spoil the surprise of his “secret” identity, but I will say that if you can’t figure it out before the official reveal, you’ve probably polished off that bottle of chardonnay suggested off to the side a wee bit early.  Not that it matters, of course.  Nor does it matter that it looks like his costume looks like someone ran out of money trying to recreate a “Galactica 1980” vintage Cylon, minus the cool eye effect.  No, what really brings The Breathtaker over the top with an extra stop at the drive thru is how brazenly he is allowed to operate untouched even after threatening to kill everyone in the city.

This isn’t just a plot hole, folks; it’s a plot abyss.  The Breathtaker announces that he intends to poison the atmosphere of the entire city with toxic gas.  However, anyone who doesn’t want to die can go ahead and save themselves by picking up a free gas mask at BREATH Headquarters, which is located conveniently at the heart of town and has its name plastered right on the door in case you missed it.  In a sane world, we note and expect the following:

  • We note that BREATH is a really ridiculous name for an evil organization.  COBRA and SPECTRE are peeing themselves snickering.
  • We note that BREATH has a publicly visible headquarters building downtown.  This is like the Joker setting up a Joker Tower in the middle of Gotham City and expecting no one to bury the place in subpoenas and search warrants.
  • We expect that the immediate reaction of the authorities would be to send every SWAT cop in the state to BREATH Headquarters to raid the place and – oh yeah – take out The Breathtaker.  Or maybe we skip the cops and go straight for the military.  What we do not expect is for the cops to join every other panicked denizen of this apparently idiotic city standing in line outside BREATH HQ to dutifully pick up gas masks.  Gas masks handed out by, let’s remind you, the bad guys.  Guess which scenario actually happens?
  • We expect that, once the cops do pick up their gas masks, they’ll at least think to do some sort of, y’know, scientific analysis on said masks before placing them over their heads like badge-wearing sheep.  Yeah, well… turns out there’s a reason that these cops ended up here and not on one of the many CSI spinoffs.
  • We expect the cops to do something, anything, to try and go after the bad guy.  The one who just threatened to gas the city.  Oops.

We note and expect all of these things, but when all is said and done – even while it’s happening, really – we simply do not care.  We do not care because this is a comic book movie; plot holes are simply things for the heroine to drive her hot car through.  (More in a minute.)  We do not care because everyone here is having fun, and so are we.  We do not care because we have seen Joan Severance in that costume.  And we really do not care once we’ve seen Joan Severance in nothing but her mask and gloves, at which point members of the audience can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting their own names. 

Hey, this movie knows its target audience.  (Chapter 18 on the disc, by the way.  You’re welcome.)

Speaking of, let’s get to the good stuff that Black Scorpion’s target audience does care about.

We’ll start with the character of the Black Scorpion herself, whom the makers of this film had the rare opportunity to create from scratch.  She may not have been born on the pages of a comic book, but she might as well have been.  Writer Craig J. Nevius, the production team, and of course actress Joan Severance (more on her in a minute) really hit this one out of the park.  Her origin story is built on a classic frame (quite fairly compared most often to that of Batman), starting with formative childhood experiences highlighted by a personal tragedy (she hero worships her father, a cop, who ends up getting booted from the force in disgrace, but in a nice twist is actually allowed to survive his daughter’s childhood), then coming to triggering fruition after she becomes an adult.  (Yeah, about Dad being allowed to live…)  Like Batman, she has no actual super powers, instead relying on her own athletic prowess, the wonders of modern technology, and the assistance of a genius back in the garage.  (Replace prim white butler Alfred with streetwise black ex-thief Argyle.)  Also like Batman, she gets treated like a criminal by the cops, giving the story a little extra tension and several more opportunities for good-natured fun, augmented by the fact that the Black Scorpion’s alter ego, Darcy, actually is a cop.  All in all, a pretty solid legend.

Oh, but the cheesy fun is in the details.  The origin of the Black Scorpion’s costume is fabulous (with just a little nod to Catwoman, perhaps; you decide), being the re-stitched byproduct of a hooker costume that alter ego cop Darcy wore during an undercover job combined with a scorpion motif ring that was the last gift ever given to her by her father.  And speaking of that ring, it packs a power-shock punch that might remind savvy viewers a little bit of Iron Man.  Her boots pack the same power, which she uses to make multi-story leaps in a single bound.  The source of this amazing technology?  It’s… um… a souped up taser.  But who gives a damn?  That costume rocks.  Just hush, nod, and take a drink!

While we’re on the subject of technology, some consideration must be given to the car, which starts out its life as a hot orange Corvette.  But then Argyle (played with perfect hilarity by “Saturday Night Live” alum Garrett Morris), a reformed auto thief who feels he owes Darcy some favors for keeping him out of prison, gets his hands on it.  Somehow, this simple chop shop car thief has gotten his hands on some military technology – specifically, military technology that looks to have come straight of some UFOs stored at Area 51 – and he uses it to soup up the ‘Vette into something that actually out-cools the Batmobile with its two most outstanding features.  The first feature is a voice activated computer that can do pretty much anything… but only if you start all of your commands with the word “yo.”  The second feature allows the car to morph from an ordinary-looking orange Corvette into something that better exemplifies stealthy black-clad superheroine hotness and back again, conveniently allowing her to pull into parking lots without raising too much suspicion.  As Argyle explains in one of the best head-scratchers of the movie, “The atoms change at a molecular level.”  (If you do not understand why this is funny, go get a science book and look it up.  I’ll wait.)

Back let’s get back to our superheroine.  Joan Severance is excellent as the Black Scorpion, and no, it’s not just because she fills out the costume so well.  I know that a lot of Black Scorpion’s target audience isn’t going to be looking past the freeze frame moments, but seriously, folks, the lady can act.  She takes this character and runs with her.  She knows what’s funny and laughs at it.  She knows when to take things over the top and goes for it.  She knows when to play it straight, and she nails it.  Indeed, Darcy as played by Severance has to be one of the most believably human alter egos I’ve ever seen.  To be honest, I’ll take her over Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne any day of the week.  Yeah; I said it, and I mean it.  All of the emotions and the irrational decisions that spring from them, all of the human frailties, all of the human courage, all of the laughing in the face of doom; Severance plays Darcy as a real person who doesn’t need to be dependent on Prozac to function as an alter ego.

One knock that some point out with Black Scorpion is how our superheroine performs during fight sequences.  (And try not to notice the incredible disappearing stiletto heels.)  Personally, I find that part of the fun, and more importantly, it’s consistent with the atmosphere of the film.   I’ve also seen plenty worse.  (I’m thinking Bridgette Wilson as Sonya in Mortal Kombat, specifically.)  As it turns out, that’s Joan Severance performing her own stunts, for the first time ever.  That’s pretty impressive for a first effort, and you will appreciate it during the close up shots.  Body doubles are often easy to spot, and that would have been a bigger distraction. 

What’s not a distraction, amazingly enough, is the script.  As it turns out, it’s not just the fact that Black Scorpion is a comic book heroine movie that makes it easy to ignore the plot holes and improbabilities.  It’s also that the rest of the story is so solid.  Lines like the above-noted science problem are actually self-aware; generally, the dialogue’s great, even sharp.  The humor/drama train is ridden with wonderful precision.  The pace is perfect.

Bottom line, Black Scorpion is fun.  But it’s not just fun; it’s well-crafted fun.  Pick it up.  You won’t be sorry.

Two extra notes need to be tacked on before we close the curtain here, though.  First, a big shout out needs to go to Rick Rossovich (that’s right: Slider from Top Gun), who does brilliant work during his brief screen time as Darcy’s father despite what couldn’t have been a very big paycheck.  His role is light on the cheese and pretty much straight drama, and he pulls it off without flaw.  His performance makes it easy to believe that the character of Darcy grew up idolizing her father, and his chemistry with both young and adult Darcy is great.  Bravo, sir.

Second, your disc should include an introduction (really a one-sided interview) by Joan Severance.  It’s worth watching (though I’d do it after seeing the movie instead of before).  Not only is it informative, but her sense of fun about making the movie is absolutely worn on her sleeve, and it’s infectious.  She also has a commentary track during the feature itself for added enjoyment on a second viewing.  (I’ve never understood playing a commentary track during a first viewing of a movie, and besides, Black Scorpion is definitely worth multiple viewings.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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