Fifty Shades of Grey was a literary phenomenon when it was released in 2011. While the book and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, may still have their fans, the movies feel like they’re paying off an obligation even though the fervor has died down. Nowhere is that more clear than with Fifty Shades Freed, a movie that’s largely indiscernible from its predecessor except for a handful of minor plot points. Freed is what these movies have always been—two actors who lack chemistry, sex scenes that have no spark, and brazen displays of wealth. But perhaps the most damning aspect of these movies is that Christian Grey is a bad guy, and his toxic masculinity contaminates the entire picture.
Freed kicks off with a wedding between Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), but their relationship remains the same as it was in the last movie. Christian is domineering, insecure, and given to bouts jealousy if Ana so much as wants to have a drink with a friend, and Ana pushes back against his childish attitudes. Whereas the last film had a Christian fending off a stalker, this time it’s Ana dealing with Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), the scorned fiction editor who apparently also knows how to sabotage helicopters and commit industrial espionage because sure why not. The story then moves in a loop where Christian and Ana will bicker, they’ll have sex, Jack will do something threatening, rinse, repeat.
Although Fifty Shades Freed was probably in the can before the #MeToo movement rattled our culture for the better, the current climate makes it even clearer how studiously these movies avoid being about anything. There’s this odd notion that a guy like Christian who enjoys kinky sex just needs a strong woman like Ana, but she never really changes his core personality over the course of three movies. For Freed, a “bad guy” is someone like Jack, a deranged psychopath who will break into your home and leave threatening notes saying “YOU OWE ME A LIFE.” (Although maybe he’s just a Man of Tai Chi fan) Guys like Christian are flawed, but ultimately redeemable even though they’re possessive and insecure.
There’s a lot I could tolerate with these movies—the fact that they worship at the altar of wealth and confuse gratuitous displays of money with love (I know Christian can whisk Ana away to Aspen whenever he wants, but I’d be shocked if he knew the title of her favorite book); that Dornan and Johnson clearly despise each other (the only scene where they seem to have any connection is one where Ana and Christian are angrily yelling at each other); and that the sex scenes are bland because there’s no chemistry between the actors. But I draw the line at trying to normalize someone like Christian without ever forcing him to change his behavior.
Yes, Ana continues to call Christian out on his bullshit, but he always lapses back into the same patterns. Ana and Christian are married in this movie, but he’s still hiding information from her, still tries to micromanage her life, and doesn’t respect her boundaries. Christian doesn’t really change, and the weird thing about the Fifty Shades movies is that they seem to think that if the surrounding circumstances change, then the people change. So if Christian just gets married, has a kid or two, and bad people like Jack are defeated, Christian will be a changed man. But they never want to show him doing the work of changing because that would take us away from the fantasy these movies aim to present.
For some people, that fantasy is why these movies are worth seeing. They want to see some kinky sex and gratuitous displays of wealth mixed with a bit of soap opera. But everything is tainted because it’s all resting on such a repulsive lead character. Christian isn’t a “bad boy”; he’s a bad guy, and no amount of pop songs played over bondage scenes can cover that up. These movies already felt past their prime last year, and now I’m just grateful that this limp saga is finally over.