Considering the Fifty Shades of Grey series is Twilight fan-fiction barely polished from its sordid internet origins, it shouldn’t be surprising that a villain besides dominant millionaire Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) sadist side would arrive. Child molester Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) was alluded to in the first film, but not seen. So we anticipated this older woman who taught a fourteen year-old Christian about sex (propelling him onto the path he struggles to battle today) would receive a bigger role once Grey and naïve “I’m not a submissive!” lover Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) got more serious. She is akin to Volturi leader Aro, queen of “kinky fuckery” and the revolving door of subs. But what about a James, the unhinged wild card seeking to take what isn’t his?
Fifty Shades Darker becomes his origin story, this greedy sleaze-ball earning at best ten minutes of screen time in two hours. But if you look at the whole objectively, his arc is the only one that evolves. Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) moves from smiley lecherous boss—publishing house editor to Ana’s assistant/manuscript reader—to ice-cold seeker of revenge despite being absent for the middle third of the movie. We never forget him, however, because he’s the only chink in an otherwise boring rehash of the first film; the only point of conflict not stemming from Ana discovering Christian is everything she believes: cruel, domineering, and a weirdo whose face of pseudo burning pain at the slightest touch of his chest is hardly discernable from that of pleasurable orgasm.
This opening of Ana’s eyes is almost forgivable in the first film because they’ve just met. The plot is to discover whether she’ll sign his contract or somehow flip the table and unwittingly take control. It’s actually comforting when she rebukes him—either because he’s “gone too far” despite our knowing other tools in his red room could go must farther or because she’s scared of the joy he feels in her pain. Johnson is very good at juxtaposing the awkward giggling of an innocent and the strong-willed independence of a woman who won’t be owned. Her Ana slips and lets Christian do whatever he wants at times because the allure is too much, but she stops everything dead when her threshold is crossed beyond reproach.
Maybe this makes her a tease, but I’d argue it makes her human. She isn’t a messed-up automaton like Christian who literally lets her draw a “roadmap” in lipstick around his chest to discern his “boundaries.” She’s flawed. She gets carried away and overwhelmed and stands by her convictions, admitting her role when things go too far. But we learned this in Grey. We don’t need to be reminded in Darker. E.L. James shows just how shallow her ideas for the series are with this installment (cribbing from an already not so great literary trilogy notwithstanding). She needs to introduce Elena and Jack as foes, but couldn’t do so successfully in Grey. And since they don’t warrant their own tale, she pretty much delivers Grey all over again.
So we get the requisite prologue of throwaway friends with Eloise Mumford‘s Kate, Victor Rasuk‘s Jose, and Luke Grimes‘ Elliot (Twilight‘s Jessica/Alice, Jacob, and Jasper respectively). We forget about them so Grey can tell Ana he’s trying. He will be better. He’ll listen. Then comes a sex scene, next a domineering slip-up, and finally a lesson to course correct or she’ll be gone. This cycle repeats itself a couple more times until the unpredictable Leila (Bella Heathcote) enters. Just like the albatross of Elena was held over Ana’s head in the first (a woman who knows Christian can’t survive without autonomous control), Leila’s complete submission reminds that Ana cannot be what he needs. But there’s absolutely no tension since Ana has ignored her instincts for carnal desire before.
There’s no tension from Leila or Elena or Jack. Each of them is merely a pawn getting set-up to be more dangerous in the forthcoming Fifty Shades Freed as well as help move Christian and Ana closer together. If James allowed her writing to not be so self-serious this middle chapter could have been a lot of fun. Just think how over-the-top melodramatic things would be if we discovered every horrible event that occurs was orchestrated by Christian to chip away at Ana’s defenses and make her his under the auspices that it was her choice? An overwrought tone doesn’t make this drivel “important.” It does the exact opposite. It makes us laugh at it rather than with it because we can see how hard everyone is trying.
Director James Foley has a thankless role in the proceedings because he can’t have fun with the material when E.L. James is constantly over his shoulder as producer. He also can’t push the envelope because a studio picture will not let itself go so far that the MPAA labels it NC-17. But he gets his paycheck and hopefully that money will provide him the freedom to find another Glengarry Glen Ross to helm. We cringe at his involvement toeing the line between accepting a no-win challenge and selling out, but we laugh uncontrollably at Niall Leonard‘s inclusion as screenwriter. Rather than adapt the thing herself, James hired her husband to break down her prose in one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood nepotism in years.
We could forgive it if the final product was good. Besides Johnson imbuing her role with a cuteness that belies the character’s lack of complexity, though, it’s all so misguidedly severe. There are three distinct endings to make you roll your eyes: the culmination of Leila’s combined five minutes of stalking, a suspense-less helicopter crash making me hope for a DC Green Arrow tie-in, and the stinger setting the stage for “danger” in Freed. We must watch Rasuk’s Jose emasculate himself again, Ana brush off every relationship she has for Christian, and Grey furrow his brow to denote confusion rather than humility when crossing obvious lines. And we never even discover the identity of the man who burned him with cigarettes. Fingers crossed we do in Round Three.
The most interesting revelation therefore becomes a much simpler yet no less important detail: the concept of safe sex. Whereas the first was written (Kelly Marcel) and directed (Sam Taylor-Johnson) by women, the second was men (Leonard and Foley). The former team took special pains to ensure Grey ripped open a condom with his teeth before every session in bed. The latter team does not. You can say that Ana spoke about seeing an OBGYN in the original film to receive oral contraception as demanded in Grey’s contract (which she never signs), but that’s not the point. There’s still the idea of setting a good example for the audience. I’m not sure you can just blindly ignore the fact that the women did and the men did not.
 DAKOTA JOHNSON returns as Anastasia Steele in “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. Expanding upon events set in motion in 2015’s blockbuster film that grossed more than $560 million globally, the new installment arrives for Valentine’s Day and invites you to slip into something a shade darker. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 Elena Lincoln (KIM BASINGER) is back in Christian Grey’s (JAMIE DORNAN) life in “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. Expanding upon events set in motion in 2015’s blockbuster film that grossed more than $560 million globally, the new installment arrives for Valentine’s Day and invites you to slip into something a shade darker. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 (L to R) Leila (BELLA HEATHCOTE) stalks Ana (DAKOTA JOHNSON) in “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. Expanding upon events set in motion in 2015’s blockbuster film that grossed more than $560 million globally, the new installment arrives for Valentine’s Day and invites you to slip into something a shade darker. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.