Is David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (1981) an early attempt to make a darker, grittier superhero movie (i.e. a predecessor to Christopher Nolan) or is its more realistic tone a result of it being an original story, devoid of any comic book influence?
“Scanners” is set in a world where certain people have developed uncanny mental abilities. There are obvious parallels to the X-Men, which was by this time an almost twenty-year-old comic book franchise, but also around this time there was a bizarre pop culture fascination with “mentalists,” people who claimed to have actual telepathic and psychokinetic powers. They went on tour and appeared on talk shows, mesmerizing people with magic tricks touted as genuine superpowers. So was Cronenberg an X-Men fan or a mentalism enthusiast?
In 1981, the superhero genre was in its infancy. Early television adaptations of Batman and Superman were campy and cartoony, as was Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978). Please don’t misinterpret this as criticism. “Superman” is a colorful adventure filled with humor and light-hearted fun. It leaves you with a good feeling. This was the leading and only comic book movie until “Superman II” in the summer of 1981. Hence, if Cronenberg had been trying to steer the superhero genre into darker, grittier territory, he would have been very much ahead of his time.
“Scanners” does have some surface similarities to the X-Men. The scanners are essentially mutants. Two rivals emerge, one a maniac bent on the subjugation of non-scanners and one a scientist intent on stopping him. Still, it seems unlikely that anyone could read those comics, filled with color, goofy costumes, and disco dancing, and be inspired to produce a film like “Scanners” with its shoot-outs and corporate intrigue.
The film’s realistic tone is more likely a result of the fact that it’s an extrapolation of the real life mentalism phenomenon. It accepts the mentalists’ claims and then tackles the questions that naturally arise: Where do their powers come from? How exactly do they work? And why are they just bending spoons on Donahue? Wouldn’t some of them eventually try to use their powers to control or dominate normal people?
All of the above I was pondering during the movie, which tells you something about how engaging it is. The most glaring problem with “Scanners” is its lead actor. I don’t remember his name and it’s not worth looking up. His character has an interesting backstory (revealed as a surprise near the end) but the actor has an inexplicably vacant affect and when his character takes over the story it becomes tedious to watch him in scene after scene.
It’s unfortunate because Michael Ironside is a treat as Revok, the villain of the picture. He delivers an intensity that recalls the best of Jack Nicholson. The scenes that focus on him are filled with tension (especially that one unforgettable scene…), and we’re left to imagine how neat it would have been if the film had focused on him and his relationship with Dr. Ruth, the unfortunately-named scientist determined to stop his plans, instead of the bland and forgettable Hero. But I guess that’s the problem with most superhero movies.
Oh, but this isn’t a superhero movie. Or is it? I’m still wondering.