While Fifty Shades Darker exceeds its predecessor in some ways, in other respects it's just as ridiculous (if not more so) by comparison.
In the aftermath of her her breakup with her troubled billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) attempts to move on to greener pastures in both her personal life and professional career. Christian then approaches her in the hope of "trying again" with their relationship, agreeing in the process to be much more emotionally open, less controlling and willing to lead as close to a "normal" romance with Ana as he's capable of.
Much to Ana's surprise, Christian makes good on his promise (if not always willingly), in turn revealing more about his tumultuous upbringing to her and easing back on his need to control everything in Ana's life, all while keeping the spark in their relationship alive. However, the pair soon find their hopes for a happily-ever-after in danger from outside forces that include not only people from Christian's past, but those who are still part of his (and Ana's) present.
The followup to best-selling erotic novel-turned blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker follows the popular Hollywood sequel trend of incorporating a different genre flavor - here, that of a psychological thriller - as a means of better distinguishing itself from its predecessor. Fifty Shades Darker director James Foley is well-versed in the craft of dramatic thriller storytelling, but his efforts to raise this franchise's bar for quality prove as fruitless as those of Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson before him. While Fifty Shades Darker exceeds its predecessor in some ways, in other respects it's just as ridiculous (if not more so) by comparison.
Written by Fifty Shades of Grey creator E.L. James' husband Niall Leonard, Fifty Shades Darker struggles with tonal issues similar to those that inflicted the Fifty Shades of Grey movie adaptation before it. For every moment in Fifty Shades Darker that's played tongue-in-cheek or with an air of self-aware humor, there are (at least) two that handle the film's soapy narrative proceedings with a straight-face and unintentionally come off as campy, by comparison. The result is another Fifty Shades film that's internally at war with itself; often verging on being a wry deconstruction of the troubled relationship that lies at the core of its story, yet ultimately delivering the lurid, yet hollow romance that is expected from the Fifty Shades "brand". On top of that, the Fifty Shades sequel suffers from basic narrative issues such as plot holes that require too large a leap in suspicion of disbelief to overlook, as well as a thin amount of actual plot and/or thematic substance in general.
One respect in which Fifty Shades Darker does surpass its predecessor is its (numerous) sex sequences, embracing a cheekier and more brisk sense of pacing here than it does during its dramatic scenes. Downside is, whereas Taylor-Johnson took a more visually unique and radical approach to constructing the sex scenes between Anastasia and Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey, Foley and his cinematographer John Schwartzman (Jurassic World) film these sequences in a more visually-conventional (re: with a 'straight male gaze') and in turn, less interesting fashion. Still, the sex scenes benefit from the film's leads being (seemingly) more comfortable with them too and are more creatively put together than most every other moment in the film. Case in point: one could put together a - dangerous - drinking game, based around every time there's an uninspired montage set to a modern pop song in Fifty Shades Darker.
Dakota Johnson, as she did in the first Fifty Shades, makes a valiant effort in Fifty Shades Darker to give Anastasia Steele a charismatic and compelling presence, despite the lack of personality that the character has in the film's script. Most of the (intentionally) funniest moments in Fifty Shades Freed are courtesy of Johnson too, as she often plays up Ana's incredulity in response to the strange and/or threatening behavior of those around her. Jamie Dornan, for his part, still struggles here to bring more depth to the two-dimensional Christian Grey featured in the Fifty Shades Darker screenplay, handling the character's light-hearted and self-aware moments better than the dramatic situations (where Christian reflects on his trouble past, in one way or another). Although Johnson and Dornan don't have much more romantic screen chemistry in Fifty Shades Darker than they did the first time they played Ana and Christian, the pair - as mentioned before - do seem more comfortable here, both in their roles and opposite one another.
New Fifty Shades movie franchise additions Eric Johnson and Oscar-winner Kim Basinger play over the top sinister, but otherwise flat antagonists in Fifty Shades Freed in the respective forms of Ana's slimy boss/Christian's would-be competitor, Jack Hyde, and Christian's business partner/ex-lover, Elena Lincoln (aka. "Mrs. Robinson"). Costar Bella Heathcote doesn't leave much of an impression either, due less to her performance and more to her character (a woman from Christian's past) functioning as more of a plot device than a fully-realized person. Meanwhile, otherwise talented returning Fifty Shades cast members Marcia Gay Harden, Luke Grimes and Eloise Mumford are relegated to the fringes of the story being told here, save for those handful of scenes where they become somewhat relevant (Harden, in particular) and are then subsequently pushed back, firmly into the background yet again.
Wheres Fifty Shades of Grey oscillated somewhat in artistic intention and storytelling quality, thanks to the efforts of its director to elevate the film's subpar source material, Fifty Shades Darker is more consistent in its mediocrity - for better or for worse. A better movie can be glimpsed at times throughout the Fifty Shades sequel, but those more enjoyable moments are the results of either the cast's performances or directorial choices, not the script or subject matter. The sequel is strictly for steady Fifty Shades fans, in other words, and unlikely to change most anyone else's impressions of this franchise. That said, considering how much big business the E.L. James book-turned movie property has done already and with the third film on the way already (as a mid-credits teaser for next year's Fifty Shades Freed confirms), there should still be enough gas left in the tank for the Fifty Shades film series to make its way to the finish line, based on the remaining fanbase's support alone.