The inevitable post-screening question regarding Fifty Shades Darker: “Is it better than the first one?” “No” is the answer, but not for any of the standard reasons one might expect. It’s not as though the film is ineptly mounted, or poorly shot, or even particularly badly acted…at least by the principles. Really, there’s an argument to be made that this second leg in the planned Fifty Shades trilogy is sleeker, more evocative in its presentation, and buoyed by stronger character chemistry.
And that’s why it’s evil.
At its core, this softcore saga – which started, lest we forget, as Twilight fan fiction – is a fairy tale that reifies the dominant male-subordinate female paradigm that has persisted in the culture for centuries. It poses as a conduit to sexual freedom and therefore empowerment, but any woman that obsesses over this material because they assume eventually their hardened master will soften and become Prince Charming has, indeed, already surrendered to the status quo. Such is the fraudulent princess cartoon Fifty Shades Darker peddles: it’s a soft-lit torture fantasy where the environment is so completely soap-operatic that it seems safe, thereby permitting its female targets to co-opt the base sexual gaze usually exemplified by men. For being put through the ringer, the prize at the end is a Happily Ever After of wondrous egalitarian respect and empowering sexual potency, because if Anastasia Steele is the one special person who can turn Christian Grey’s dark, tortured soul, you can be that person for some other sexually brutal man.
If you can’t quite remember how Fifty Shades of Grey ended – and why would you? – the sequel provides a handy on-the-nose recounting of events. “I know I told you to take it too far,” Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) tells her estranged sexual master/boyfriend, Christian (Jamie Dornan). “But you got off on hurting me.” No worries, though – these star-crossed (star-bound?) lovers reconnect after no less than five minutes of soulful pining, and for a relationship that ended in literal scarring, the reconciliation is swift and complete. So begins a film that never, for a single minute, tonally matches what its title promises. Basically, Darker is much, much lighter – essentially a romantic comedy – but for an enterprise that would like its viewers to believe that “no” means “yes,” I suppose such a contradiction is right at home. For what it’s worth, Johnson and Dornan are quite good together, and why wouldn’t they be? They’re great actors. The rigors of contractual obligation haven’t deterred them from performing the hell out of the material they’re given, and within the confines of this discordant romantic comedy punctuated with episodic softcore sex scenes, they are about as good as the circumstances permit.
The film also looks good. James Foley has assumed the director’s chair – after original director Sam Taylor-Johnson came to her senses – and he delivers a slick studio product, surely designed to polish the edges of a drama that is inherently designed to seduce. Therein lies the evil – if this is just a well-mounted, frothy rom-com, it becomes an automatic counterpoint to charges of misogyny. But insidious malevolence aside, let’s not pretend there isn’t some legitimate shittiness on display in Fifty Shades Darker. Not as though it’s so seductive that anyone could overlook the simple fact that it has no legitimate tension or conflict whatsoever, subbing in a series of mini-dramas that are introduced and then resolved within three scenes apiece. We have Ana’s publishing firm boss (Eric Johnson), whose slimy jealousy is palpable before he even utters a word. There’s also Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Christian’s former subordinates, who now stalks Ana with frightening criminal precision. Kim Basinger turns up as the mastermind of Christian’s deviance, hell-bent on separating our central couple. And one incident involving a missing helicopter appears to have been inadvertently spliced in from another movie. These individual plot strands deliver neither payoff nor consequence, aren’t particularly connected in any tangible way, and only momentarily threaten to raise the stakes for these characters before being snuffed out like red herrings, as if the movie is nothing more than a collection of episodes in a daytime soap called “The Adventures of Ana and Christian.”
After all, that really is the point of this franchise: to introduce of series of meaningless would-be impediments to delay an inevitably blissful conclusion. Ana is a princess and Christian is a frog who will eventually turn into a prince. Except this frog is a sexual brutalizer who demands his subjects kneel before him and beg for his affection. Advocates for the franchise would refer to this strategy as “delayed gratification.” I would rather call it “delayed evolution,” a transparent audience swindle that hides behind a thin veil of so-called empowerment but further diminishes the continuing struggle for true equality.