This post contains spoilers for Joker and Terminator: Dark Fate. These are mainly character and mood spoilers, but some (pretty vague) plot spoilers are also included. If you’re cool with that, read on.
Recently I’ve been going to the cinema on Wednesday afternoons. This is usually the only alone time I get in the whole week, so I take it very seriously: I clean up, put on my nice shoes and treat myself to some pre-movie lunch. If anyone tries to make small talk with me (which they generally don’t because Lithuania), I politely engage them for a few minutes before making a break for it.
The time window for managing all this is so incredibly narrow that I don’t much choice in the films I see. It has to be whatever blockbuster Forum Cinemas, the chain known as Finnkino to my Finnish peeps, happens to have in rotation. Lucky for me, I don’t have a thing against a good blockbuster; in fact I’ve just seen two that I waited for a long time to see.
So grab some soda and popcorn, because here are my unnecessarily long-winded thoughts on Joker and Terminator: Dark Fate.
Let it be known that Joker is the best new film I’ve seen in a long time. Hands down, no questions asked.
I’m someone who enjoys movies as much as the next person but isn’t very educated on l’art du cinéma. It is then a testament to Joker that I actually noticed the elegance of the cinematography, the clever visual cues and, most of all, Joaquin Phoenix‘s incredible, physical interpretation of the origin story of the world’s favorite supervillain. I was terrified and entertained from the opening scene all the way to the end credits. I also laughed, because this movie is riotously funny when it goes to certain dark places. The soundtrack is 10/10.
Much has already been said and written about the film’s take on mental illness, wealth inequality and the politics of austerity. It follows the downward spiral of Arthur Fleck/Joker, a failed comedian living with an unspecified mental disorder in an economically divided Gotham City. Diverting from tried and tested comic book traditions, Arthur becomes our murder-y folk hero not as a result of a freak electrical accident or secret governmental experimentation, but of a lifetime of having his dignity and humanity denied by those in positions of power.
Joker is a revenge story for the 2010’s. Rooted in contemporary American (and by extension Western) socio-economic realities, it doesn’t feel like a comic book movie at all. The critics are loving it, of course, but a few are asking if it does not legitimize the violent misogyny and racism of incels, an internet-based subculture of self-identified “involuntary celibates” who blame women and minorities for their issues and sometimes go on actual killing sprees.
I get the argument, I feel it and I can, unfortunately, see how Joker could inadvertently end up legitimizing certain toxic ideas. There is undeniable catharsis in Arthur’s eventual rise to the top of the food chain that any underdog, real or self-perceived, can feel empowered by. To me, however, the operative word is still “inadvertently”.
There’s one plot point in the movie that has left critics and fans debating Arthur’s readiness to commit gender-based violence against women, but the director Todd Phillips has made it clear that this would be out of character for him. Arthur, though “involuntarily celibate”, is never shown blaming women or minorities for his issues. He goes after those who have actually wronged him and his kind: rich white men sitting in glass towers while the 99% eat other on the streets.
Joker takes men’s real-world disenfranchisement seriously and then just kind of runs with it. It has some clear parallels with Fight Club, a 1999 movie about men’s mental illness and the perils of capitalism that I’ve often found myself standing up for. The morally ambiguous (more so than Joker) movie has been co-opted by just about every masculinist movement, including incels, in the past 20 years, but to me it always read as a cautionary tale with a human heart rather than an endorsement of men’s violent extremism. I’m a firm believer in not judging films based on other people’s subjective readings of them.
But, back to Joker. The movie’s politics may be closer to Hunger Games than 4chan, but Arthur is no Katniss Everdeen. He remains a villain through and through, just as he should. His villainy is not cancelled by the fact that he has suffered terribly, or vice versa. I was very impressed by how the film managed to balance both views and push me, as the viewer, to think for myself instead instead of serving a pre-chewed moral story. A sanitized Joker would be no Joker at all.
Compared to Joker, Terminator: Dark Fate is your run-of-the-mill action flick complete with explosions, car chases, people shouting angrily at each other and not a little fan service. It’s held together by two things: Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis. Everyone’s favorite green governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also makes a delicious appearance.
To understand my excitement about the release, you should know that I grew up on the original Terminator movies. They had already been out for a while when I found them because I’m old but not, like, Gen X old. I loved The Terminator and lived for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I never warmed up to the later installments, except for the tragically underrated and short-lived TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles. What I’m trying to say it, I was happy to see the new movie go back to the original James Cameron timeline (though with Tim Miller as the director).
Let’s talk about Sarah Connor and Linda Hamilton for a second. Sarah Connor was to me what Princess Leia was to my brainier girlfriends. Not that I wasn’t a brainy kid myself, but I was always drawn to other qualities in my on-screen heroes. I don’t need to tell you how revolutionary the tough, troubled and ripped character of Sarah Connor was in her own time, but the amazing thing is that she still is. Cameron may have caught some flak for stating as much in 2017, but I don’t think he was wrong: the Hollywood of today may love the concept of a Strong Female Character™, but it still doesn’t want her to look the part.
Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor looked the part in 1991 when we last saw her and she still looks the part today. It’s deeply, truly satisfying to see Hamilton, now in her 60’s and sporting a sensible grey action bob, reprise the role. I don’t say that just for the statement that it makes, although, yes, a statement is inevitably going to be made when an original actress is recast for the same role several decades later down the line.
On a side note, Sarah is no longer just an action hero. We get to see her assume another conventionally male archetype: the old grump. She’s snarky, stubborn and kind of a pain in the butt, with some great one-liners. As a self-appointed spokesperson for lady grumps everywhere, I salute this.
Beyond gender politics, though, I was just happy that we got more Sarah. It was a delight to watch her do her thing and team up with some new characters. The most notable of these is Mackenzie Davis’ Grace, a mechanically augmented human warrior from the future and unbelievable dreamboat. If you love Sarah, you’ll love Grace, and you’ll love the two of them on the screen together.
Some feminist writers have criticized the franchise for presenting women’s heroism as an aspect of their caretaking roles. Sarah is obviously the mother of John Connor, the would-be leader of human resistance against the machines. Grace is sent from the future to protect Dani, the new hope of humanity. To me, though, the love they feel towards their protectees is different from the love usually shown by women in action films. Love doesn’t sideline them from action; it’s the thing that drives the action.
The movie is so hyperfocused on Sarah and Grace that John and Dani become almost irrelevant. Even Arnold’s character, the only male (or male-assigned) character in Dark Fate with a decent speaking role, plays the second fiddle to our dynamic duo — but his role, too, packs on a strong commentary on the power of human connection and caring.
Let’s put it this way: Terminator: Dark Fate is not a great movie. I kept forgetting what the plot was when I was actually watching it and now, a couple of weeks later, I have zero recollection left. I still plan to see every sequel of a sequel that will inevitably be made, because even at its most mediocre this timeline is still a feast for the eyes and the heart. And who can resist that main theme?