“What we do know, is that in order to become sick you have to first come in contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is to come in contact with a rumor, or the television or the internet.”
Sound familiar? No, it’s not a ripped-from-the-headlines excerpt from a CDC speech. It’s a quote from “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 all-star “Towering Inferno” of germ movies.
If “Jaws” kept people out of the water “Contagion” should have kept them from touching their faces. The average person touches their face upwards of 3,000 times a day, and in the world of “Contagion” everything that comes in contact with your skin — an elevator button, a glass at an airport, a handrail on a ferry — could be fatal. In our world of big diseases with little names like COVID-19, SARS and H1N1, germs are the new Frankensteins.
The movies have used microscopic germs and viruses as bogeymen for years, leaving us with a plethora of topical films to stream during quarantine and self-isolation.
“28 Days Later” begins with a great horror movie premise. A group of British activists free infected animals from their cages, unleashing a deadly “rage” virus on the human population. It is a full-blown Halloween flick, complete with drooling angry zombies, (although most of the horror here is psychological) but at its core it is also a compelling study of human nature and the will to survive.
“The Crazies,” a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film, is the story of a virus that turns the inhabitants of a sleepy Norman Rockwell town into koo-koo bananas killers. It’s a classic tale of “us” versus “them”, with an extra “them” thrown in for good measure.
“Pontypool” is about a disease that turns regular people into flesh eating creeps, but it’s more about how they became that way than the eerie aftereffects of the sickness. Set entirely inside a small radio station in the basement of a church, the story focuses on announcer Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and call screener Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who use eye witness accounts to slowly piece together the horrible story that is happening outside their doors. When the reports turn ominous Mazzy realizes he is at the center of a big story and keeps broadcasting. What he doesn’t realize is that, perhaps, he is helping to spread the disease.
“Pontypool” is a movie set in a radio station that plays like a radio show. By and large the action is described and for once the old cliché that what you can’t see is more terrifying that what you can actually see rings true. Couple that with a mounting sense of doom and you have an edge of your seat thriller.
“Outbreak” features germs of a less speculative type. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman star in this 1995 film about an outbreak of a fictional Ebola virus called Motaba spread in the States by a white-headed capuchin monkey. If the contagious simian looks familiar, no wonder. It’s Betsy who also appeared as Ross’s pet Marcel on “Friends.” The sitcom spoofed Betsy’s work in the disaster flick by showing the monkey on a poster for a fictional film called “Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes Manhattan.”
Michael Crichton dreamt up the idea for “The Andromeda Strain” when he was still a medical student. The story of a deadly alien virus was inspired by a conversation with one of his teachers about the concept of crystal-based life-forms. His novel was a bestseller and the author — who would later go on to write the sci-fi classics “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park” — actually makes a cameo appearance in the hit 1971 film of the same name. He can be seen in the scene where the star of the movie, Dr. Hall (James Olson), is told to report to the government’s secret underground research facility to study an outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona.
More down to earth is “The Cassandra Crossing,” a big budget disease-on-a-train flick. This time it’s not an extra-terrestrial virus, but a plague contaminated terrorist starting all the trouble. Structured like a “Love Boat” episode, with an all-star cast that mixes and matches Sophia Loren with O.J. Simpson, it has none of “Andromeda’s” serious edge, but for sheer cheesy fun it can’t be beat.
Medical mayhem rules in “Warning Sign,” where an experimental virus turns people (including “Law and Order’s” Sam Waterston) into rage filled maniacs, a plot echoed in “Resident Evil” when a virus gets loose in a secret facility. “The T-virus is protean,” says the Red Queen, “changing from liquid to airborne to blood transmission, depending on its environment. It is almost impossible to kill.” “The Thaw” sees Val Kilmer unleash a prehistoric plague when he discovers a diseased Woolly Mammoth carcass. Eli Roth gave new meaning to the term cabin fever in his virus movie of the same name and the film “Doomsday” sees most of Scotland devastated by a deadly germ.
Predating all of them was “Panic in the Streets,” a low-budget film noir set in 1950s New Orleans. In it, a doctor and policeman (Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas) have just 48 hours to track down an illegal immigrant infected with pneumonic plague and stop a possible eruption of Black Death. Made during the Cold War, the rapid spread of the infection plays like a paranoid metaphor for the proliferation of Communist ideology. Despite this subtext, director Elia Kazan said: “This isn’t very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it’s engaging.”
These days watching the news can feel as though we’re watching a scene from one of these fictional bacteriological horror movies come to life. As alarmist as the films may be, they occasionally offer up some good, simple advice in the face of a pandemic: “Stop touching your face, Dave,” says Dr. Erin Mears in “Contagion.”
Richard and “Canada AM” host Beverly Thomson have a look at he weekend’s big releases, the bombastic “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’s” souvlaki slapstick and the terrific tension of thriller “Eye in the Sky.”
Superhero geeks need not fear, this column will contain no spoilers.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the world’s two most famous caped crime fighters throw down, wrestling literally and figuratively to determine what kind of hero is best suited to serve the world’s needs.
The story picks up after the action in Man of Steel, which saw Superman (the square-jawed Henry Cavill) protect the planet by destroying half of Metropolis in an epic battle with the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Batman (Ben Affleck), unimpressed with the collateral damage, joins the contingent of folks who see the Last Son of Krypton not as a champion but an alien threat. A battle ensues.
Who will win? Other than Kryptonite, Superman has no known weaknesses, so this would seem like a fairly one-sided fight, but Batman has skills as well, so who knows?
To get to the bottom of the matter I held a highly unscientific Facebook Batman v Superman poll to determine a winner. It drew mixed results.
“Brains over brawn,” wrote one FB friend, “Batman for the win!”
“Superman could basically fly down at super speed striking Batman before he could even sense he was coming and turn the Bat into vapour,” wrote a Superman fan.
Another wasn’t so sure. “Both seem to wear their underwear over their pants… it is a tough call.” Whatever the outcome, expect a wild showdown. But that’s on screen. It’s make-believe. What about Reel Life v Real Life?
The Caped Crusader and Supes have been duking it out for decades at the box office but Batman, specifically the Christian Bale era, comes out on top. The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight KO the competition, with the 1978 Superman, the first Tim Burton Batman and the recent Man of Steel rounding out the top five.
Batman also brings in the lion’s share of the marketing money. According to comicbookmovie.com Batman sells almost two-to-one to Superman products.
That means more parents dress their kids as Batman than Superman at Halloween and that includes Ben Affleck and Christian Bale who met at a costume store last year as they shopped for Batman outfits for their kids.
What about prestige? Again Batman is victorious, with three Academy Award winners — Affleck, Bale and George Clooney — playing the Bat at one time or another.
As for the Metropolis Marvel, Oscar winners Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood both turned down the role as did best actor nominee James Caan who said, “There’s no way I’m wearing that silly suit.” Oscar winner Nic Cage wore the suit but his Superman story never made it before the cameras.
So far my Reel Life v Real Life look at Batman v Superman favours the Dark Knight, but Clark Kent’s alter ego is still a formidable foe.
Keep in mind, without Superman there may never have been a Batman.
Predating the Caped Crusader, the Man of Steel is a pioneer whose popularity helped create the superhero genre. Since then he’s been ubiquitous, inspiring an American Sign Language symbol, movie serials, TV shows, comic strips, pop songs — (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman by The Kinks among many others — and even a Broadway musical called It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman.
Finally, as one of my Facebook friends pointed out, Superman has at least one insurmountable advantage over Batman: “If Superman loses the fight he can fly back in time to fight again.”
In 1984 raspy-throated singer Bonnie Tyler warbled, “I’m holding out for a hero.” At the time I didn’t get the song’s sexy undertones but was reminded of the tune as I watched “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thirty odd years later it’s quite clear what kind of hero Bonnie Tyler was looking for—“It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet!”— but it’s less certain what kind of hero the city of Metropolis wants or needs.
Ben Affleck plays Bruce Wayne as a weathered crime fighter, someone his trusty butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) says, “got too old to die young, and not for want of trying.” Banged up and grumpy, his fellow crime fighter Superman (Henry Cavill) is in his bad books after tearing up Metropolis and knocking over Wayne Tower, killing many of those inside, during an epic fight against villain General Zod. “Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me,” says Wayne. “We have a bad history was freaks dressed as clowns.”
He’s not the only one to have a bone to pick with The Last Son of Krypton. Distressed by the Man of Steel’s seemingly uncontrollable power Congressional Superman Committee head Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) finds a supporter for her Aliens Are Un-American campaign in a Machiavellian tech mogul named Alexander “Lex” Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). “The world has been so caught up by what Superman can do,” Finch says, “we haven’t thought about what he should do.”
All this leads to a superhero showdown, a battle of the behemoths, cowls v capes. It’s Batman, a billionaire vengeance seeker with a bursting bank account and cool toys, v Superman, an alien with good intentions but uncontrollable powers. “It’ll be the greatest gladiator battle in the history of the world,” giggles Luthor.
Who will win? Who should win? Will it be the hero Bonnie Tyler is holding out for?
Wrapped around the central storyline is the introduction of lasso-wielding Amazonian Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Luthor’s crazy schemes and the appropriately named Doomsday, a Kryptonian killing machine.
These are jittery times and “Batman v Superman” is a jittery movie. Luthor’s xenophobic notion that Superman is a dangerous alien, an “other” who we don’t quite understand, is ripped right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. “People hate what they don’t understand,” says Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Mix that with depictions of the death and destruction on city streets and all-too-familiar shots of buildings with smoke oozing out of them and you’re left with a movie that as feels timely and ripped-from-the-headlines as a movie about tights-wearing superheroes can be.
Other than that it is essentially a long trailer for the next DC superhero ensemble movie tagged on to a WrestleMania style smack down. Director Zack Snyder does have a flair for staging darkly dramatic scenes—Superman surrounded by Mexican Day of the Dead revellers is a stunner and the image of Supes casually kicking the indestructible Batmobile out of frame with a flick of his foot is very cool—but while he is entertaining your eye he does little to engage your brain. There is tons of psuedo-intellectual talk about gods and monsters but it’s all surface, chatter meant to make the film seem smarter than it actually is. Very little of what happens feels motivated by the characters. It mainly feels as though someone came up with a grabby title and crafted a set of circumstances to justify the name. Characters talk and interact with one another but it feels in service of the title, as if they are all simply brand ambassadors, rather than living breathing people.
The performances are, if not super, then fine. As the superheroes Affleck makes a better Bruce than Bat and Cavill is suitably steel-jawed. Eisenberg plays Lex as a twitchy Mark Zuckerberg in a performance that suits the wonky tone of the film. The women aren’t given much to do, but Adams finds Lane’s pluckiness and Gadot shows real promise as Wonder Woman. Nearly everyone gets overpowered by the CGI overkill of the final hour, but I suspect fans aren’t looking for nuance as much as they are mega action and that Snyder delivers.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is bombastic. The experience of watching it is like having a drunk at a bar tell you the story after five beers. It’s loud and in-your-face with the occasional maudlin moment.
There was a time when superhero movies were fun, escapist entertainment. Those days seem to have passed. There are a total of two laughs in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” although there are several other unintentionally laughable moments. Now our caped and cowled heroes are as dark and troubled as a reject from a Kafka novel which, in this case, makes for a rather loud but dreary night at the movies.