Whatever hope there may have been for a culturally relevant Fifty Shades movie franchise has long since passed. And, say what you will about the quality of the movies or the books that they’re based off of, there absolutely was the potential for these films to genuinely matter in a larger cultural context. No, seriously. I mean it. Fifty Shades could have been important.
Women-lead blockbusters are precious rare commodities in an industry that is very much dominated by and preoccupied with the aesthetic tastes and narratively leanings of white men. Few roles are written with women in mind, and desperate few of those are leading roles. Smut or not, these movies could have offered a rare purview into a realm of female experiences that simply don’t get addressed the way that they deserve to be in mainstream movies.
Similarly, Fifty Shades could have de-stigmatized the NC-17 rating, bringing it into the fold of genuinely commercially viable film ratings. These movies were always going to make money no matter what they were rated. In fact, the salacious MPAA rating could have been used as a powerful promotional tool: proof positive that they did the books justice and left no scandalous page out of the final adaptation. It could have made bold, controversial films that radically bucked the mainstream sensibilities of the ratings body not have to sacrifice profitability to retain their artistic integrity.
Unfortunately, we got none of these. The female roles that the film created were among the absolute worst in recent memory. The safer R rating that the studio was able to secure for it did nothing to advance the acceptability of abrasive art. What we received was a largely sexless, boring and surprisingly tame affair.
But that hasn’t stopped the movies from making money. Even with the diminishing returns that the franchise has experienced since the first movie made waves during its release, it has never-the-less proven to be one of the more profitable movie series in recent years (especially considering how many “safe bets” have ultimately fallen on their faces in the last cycle of movies).
Off to a surprisingly strong start overseas (despite the worst opening for the franchise yet), the latest film in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, will bring the trilogy past the $1 billion mark at the global box office. And with that, it enters a rarified company of mega-blockbusters that have proven themselves as major Hollywood moneymakers.
Only thirty-two films total have ever passed the $1 billion mark. Collectively, those films represent nineteen different franchises, heavy-hitters such as the MCU, Dark Knight Trilogy, Lord of the Rings saga, Bond, Transformers, Star Wars. And while the individual Grey movies hardly live up to those kinds of powerhouse names, they have never-the-less pushed themselves into those spheres on the collective whole.
Like the Hunger Games, though, the gravy train has pulled into the station: end of the line. There are no more books to adapt, and whatever audience once flocked to the series has started drying up in the home stretch. Even had there been more material to work with, interest in the films have long since dried up. Hollywood will have to turn elsewhere for a salacious new cash cow.
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