Fifty Shades of Grey, the first film based on E.L. James’ wildly popular trilogy, overwhelmed us with novelty. It was our first glimpse at Don and Melanie’s kid, Dakota, and she was fetching and winsome and committed so hard to the cringe-worthy material she actually made a lot of it work. For me at least, it was my first glimpse at British dreamboat Jamie Dornan, whose entire job in the film was to be ridiculously, ridiculously good looking (and who was more than up to the task). And finally, it was the first American multiplex film to feature S&M (unless Secretary counts?)—and while it was never quite as grandly kinky as one might’ve hoped, let’s just say it was soft-core-porn adjacent.
I honestly do think that the novelty of all this was enough to hold my attention, and even trick me into thinking I cared about these people. But here’s a thing I learned while watching Fifty Shades Darker: I don’t.
Christian Grey is still a boring billionaire sadist in love. Anastasia is still an unassuming young woman confused as to why he would choose little ol’ her.
And weirdly, while there’s not nearly as much S&M in this installment—Anastasia and Christian have more “vanilla” sex, in his parlance—this one actually seems less progressive than the first. Fifty Shades of Grey contained that wonderful scene in his conference room where they negotiated the terms of their sexual union—Ana had full agency there. And by the end of the film, she decided that she’d had enough of his shenanigans and left him. “Let the river run!” as her mom might say.
In this film, the problematic aspects of their relationship really come into high relief. By now, it’s Ana who mostly chooses to enter Christian’s Red Room of Pain, which is a good thing (although, the argument could be made that, since she was a virgin when she met Christian, it’s the only form of intimacy she knows). But Christian does a lot of things to her: He orders her to stay put in the car; he deposits $24,000 in her account against her wishes; he picks her up and carries her, Rhett Butler-style; he threatens to spank her for disobeying him (this turns her on); he refuses to let her go on a business trip to New York; he commands she take off her panties at a restaurant; and I won’t even mention the thing he does with a pair of silver balls (use your imagination—or better still, don’t).
Bottom line: Christian is a very damaged guy—obsessive and controlling and just shy of abusive— and the film fully buys into the idea that Ana can save him. That is such a tired and dangerous myth.
If the film had any guts, it would introduce a potential romantic rival for Christian who was handsome and successful and not a messed up dude who gets off on pain. But Fifty Shades Darker actually goes in the opposite direction. Yes, there’s a handsome male foil—but he’s demonstrably worse than Christian. Compared to this guy—I won’t spoil who it is—Christian is practically a saint.
Dakota Johnson still charms as Anastasia, but Dornan can never seem to do much with his ridiculous character, who somehow needs to be both deeply disturbed and a fantasy dream date at the same time. Still, since I whacked the film for perpetuating some dangerously anti-woman tropes, I should at least give it props for indulging the female gaze, in a big way. Christian may be the one gazing at Anastasia, but the audience is encouraged to gaze at him, whether he’s walking around the bedroom with no clothes on (just from behind—don’t get too excited), balancing himself expertly on a pommel horse, or leaning against a wall in a perfectly rumpled tuxedo shirt.
Beyond that, there’s not much action—the trailer makes it seem as though there’s a lot more intrigue than there actually is. Yes, there’s a haunted-looking girl, straight out of a Ring movie, from Christian’s past who may or may not be stalking him. There’s also the slightly disruptive appearance of Christian’s “Mrs. Robinson” (Kim Basinger), who schooled him in the ways of S&M when he was a boy. There's a masked ball—but there are no mistaken identities! (Seriously, why even bother?) Mostly, it’s just Anastasia and Christian endlessly dithering about whether or not she’s the girl for him, whether or not he can lead a normal life, or if the fact that he is vampire, Sookie (basically), is a dealbreaker. They should've called this one The Fifty Times I Yawned.