Why ‘Magic Mike XXL’ Is Summer’s Most Subversive Studio Pleasure

Magic Mike XXL
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

REARVIEW: This gratifyingly inclusive sequel is the rare Hollywood picture to put the spectacle of female desire front and center.

“My gaze was being so constantly serviced,” observed my fellow critic Catherine Bray, giddy with delight after seeing “Magic Mike XXL,” the amped-up, dressed-down follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 male-stripper study. “Is that what it’s like to be a straight man looking at most media? No wonder so many of them are resistant to changing that.”

It may be cheating a bit to begin an opinion piece with someone else’s opinion, but it’s hard to state much more succinctly than that what feels at once so disarming and disorienting about “XXL,” the rare mainstream sequel that not only matches the quality of its accomplished predecessor but emphatically doesn’t match its tone, shape or perspective. Soderbergh’s film, in addition to being a pithy, pointed snapshot of life in a sunken economy, was a witty dissection of the American male psychology in the 21st century, and the vanities and insecurities that hold it together in the face of waning authority.

The sequel — quite distinctively shot and cut by Soderbergh, though helmed by his longtime a.d. Gregory Jacobs — was made with the knowledge that the socioeconomic needle hasn’t shifted enough in three years to prompt a reinvestigation of its principals’ pretty, not-necessarily-empty heads. Instead, “XXL” lays its still-roiling bro issues to one side for the night, casts its view outward to the female-dominated audience within and beyond the reaches of the frame, and asks what it can do for them. The message got through loud and clear, it seems. Box office reports state that an astonishing 96% of the film’s opening weekend audience was female; the chromosomes cleverly nestled in that title don’t lie. What looked to be one of the season’s more self-assembling cash-ins, then, might instead be the most subversive studio movie of the summer — raucously, thoughtfully about women even when it’s ostensibly about men.

“Pleasure” is a word that was bandied around a lot in reviews of “Magic Mike XXL” last week. Not just about the film itself, though it certainly applies: More overtly comic and spectacle-driven than its predecessor, with nary a hint of sturm und drang to interrupt the good vibes, it’s as uncompromised an entertainment as any on the multiplex menu. That’s not to call it dim or unconsidered, however, as Jacobs, Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin have thought long and hard about what pleasure constitutes for both their characters and their viewers. Channing Tatum’s Mike and his crew proudly label themselves not dancers but “male entertainers”: Performing is a rush for them, but so is the process of actively pleasuring their admirers, in routines that frequently border on simulated intercourse. The fevered, reciprocal ecstasy felt by that audience, meanwhile, is no less palpable in the film, as Soderbergh’s agile digital camera reverses perspective to show us the boys through their eyes; in key performance setpieces, gooseflesh-inducing sound design swamps us with the fuzzy mania of mass appreciation.

How often has the female libido — not to mention the gay male one, also given a welcoming wink and wiggle in an early drag-club sequence — been quite so generously addressed in mainstream American cinema? Certainly not in the romantic comedies and starry-eyed young adult fantasies that dominate Hollywood’s current allocation of “women’s pictures,” both of which push largely sexless notions of personal bliss. Not even in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s underappreciated “Fifty Shades of Grey,” where every orgasm comes with a line of bitter moral conflict, as its heroine accepts pleasure in lieu of emotional intimacy — even if, as in “Magic Mike XXL,” erotic stimulation is presented very much as a two-way street.

Love and physical desire in Jacobs’ film are only mutually exclusive if the women involved wish it so. Cue a scintillating yet wholly clothed dialogue scene at the film’s midpoint, where a middle-aged divorcee (Andie MacDowell, fiercer than she’s been on screen in the 26 years since her previous Soderbergh collaboration, “sex, lies and videotape”) seduces Joe Manganiello’s bluntly named Big Dick Richie with her own forthright carnal confessions. “Two beautiful daughters and only one penis my whole life,” is how she purringly describes the legacy of her failed marriage, to murmurs of empathy from her girlfriends. She’s not out for a second stab at Happily Ever After, even if her story concludes with a filthy riff on Cinderella’s “glass slipper” resolution; one night of untrammeled, unconditional pleasure suits her just fine. Big Dick is only too happy to listen and oblige, without judgment or consequence. So, by extension, is the movie.

The female perspective is not a minority one, of course, even if today’s cultural output often leads to it being described in such terms. “Magic Mike XXL” cannily elevates that point of view without isolating it. Male and female desire aren’t locked in a hackneyed battle of the sexes; rather, they’re symbiotic, dependent on each other for complete sexual release. As in “Mad Max: Fury Road” — with which “XXL” would make an unexpectedly illuminating double bill, and not just because they’re the summer’s two best wide releases by a country mile — it’s gender parity, not a turning of the tables, that is the objective here. The sexes mutually achieve their aims through communication and physical collaboration; in Jacobs’ film, men and women alike are aroused by arousal.

The leveling doesn’t end there. As Variety‘s Peter Debruge pointed out in his own review, “XXL” casually co-opts the perspectives of other demographics routinely neglected by mainstream cinema. The aforementioned drag sequence, in which Mike’s nominally straight crew put on a lighthearted display of vogueing and shimmying for a gleeful gay crowd, isn’t played as farce or burlesque. A wholly voluntary and spontaneous act (in a club, it bears mentioning, that they choose to frequent), it’s merely a sincere extension of their vocation to entertain.

Pleasure doesn’t discriminate in “Magic Mike XXL,” even if it occasionally self-segregates: In the film’s most daring, vividly realized setpiece, the boys visit an elite venue run by Mike’s old flame Rome (a delicious Jada Pinkett Smith), where a mostly African-American clientele is steamily serviced by an all-black band of dancers. Soderbergh shoots this extended, ecstatic tour with a degree of sensual scrutiny that all but leaves sweat patches on the screen, highlighting heaving expanses of exquisite, aubergine-dark skin in glorifying pools of crimson light. (Soderbergh’s supposed retirement from feature film directing may yet be the cinematography world’s gain: Not since “Solaris” has he pointed his camera with such precision and purpose in the service of beauty.) It’s a sequence quite unlikely any other in Hollywood cinema, reminiscent more of Gaspar Noe’s work in aesthetic and outlook — though it’s a much sexier, more surprising celebration of fleshly pleasures than anything in the Frenchman’s much-ballyhooed Cannes flub “Love.”

That’s a lot of words spent on the formal and textual marvels of “Magic Mike XXL,” and perhaps too few on the more conventional virtues that make it such a thrill all the same: the quick, gliding wit of Carolin’s dialogue, the hot, limber staging and choreography of the dance sequences themselves, and of course, the ever-evolving star quality of Channing Tatum — whose place among the most vital and versatile American actors of his generation can no longer be snidely denied.

“XXL” may boast several more elaborately conceived performance scenes, but its most purely electric is all Tatum. Wickedly lampooning Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance” — welding mask and all — Mike pulls a physics-defying series of solo moves in his carpentry workshop, hips in sync to the squelchy bump-and-grind of his signature jam, Ginuwine’s “Pony.” It’s the kind of routine for which the instructional cliche “dance like no one’s watching” was coined, but “Magic Mike XXL” has no time for that: It’s a film that knows full well we like to watch, taking and giving great joy in that assurance.

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  1. Noah Slater says:

    unquestioningly linking gender with chromosomes, like this piece does, is cissexist. if you specifically mean to say that the film has a large cis female audience, you should state that. but if that’s the case, how do you know? what percentage of the audience are trans?

  2. Kristen says:

    Thank you for this! You were able to encapsulate a lot of my feelings about the movie that I couldn’t find the right words for. I’ve been really disappointed by the many reviewers who don’t seem to recognize or acknowledge what the film is trying to do and how well it accomplishes that. Such a great joy ride, and yes, the cinematography is amazing. (Also the soundtrack!)

  3. Tony says:

    These portrayals give men an unrealistic image of the ‘perfect’ body image.

    • guylodge says:

      No, they’d give men an unrealistic image of a ‘normal’ body image if that’s what they were claiming. Which, luckily enough, they’re not.

  4. anonymous says:

    Who cares about Magic Mike? Its just the Full Monty but with better actors and better marketing and better looking strippers.

  5. Jojo the hobo says:

    I really have to take issue with the mainstream line of thinking on this, for two main reasons. 1- objectifying men instead of women is not forward thinking. That’s like saying “thank god this movie is racist towards hispanics and not blacks. How progressive!” I’m glad women (and gay men) now have more visuals for their spank bank and all, but how is this not just progressing the problem of hollywood turning people into sex objects? If this was “magic michelle” about a sexy scantily clad woman and her sexy stripper fans- it would be thrown away as misogynist, decried as sexist and offensive, and never get off the ground. Yet, if done the other way this is “as uncompromised an entertainment as any on the multiplex menu.” Give me a break. 2- objectifying men and not women has not only been around for years in hollywood, its been the standard for years. “Troy” was much more about Brad Pitts pecs and eric bana and orlando blooms eyes than about the trojan war.
    The 300 was the most phottoshopped panty wetter that hollywood technology could develop. Women flock in droves to movies simply for the men they deem “sexy” . Pitt, clooney, dicaprio, affleck, damon, mccounaghey, the list goes on and on. I guess we can take tome cruise off the list (maybe) and throw tatum on, but havent movies for years focused on featuring the “sexiest” men hollywood has to offer in hopes of eliciting women’s $$$? Hell, Michael fassbenders member was the main selling point on “shame”. What if a major actress was asked to show her vagina in a film? trash. Misogynist. Sexist. Its well known in hollywood that women go to a film to see the man in it, wheras men will not go to a film just to see scantily clad women. (They get that elsewhere, the internet, etc.) hell, THE MAIN GENRE IN MOVIES TODAY CONSISTS OF FORMER AND FUTURE SEXIEST MEN ALIVE FLYING AROUND THE SCREEN IN SPANDEX TIGHTS WITH 6 PACK ABS. In thor, where were the shirtless oogle shots of natalie portman? Nowhere to be found, yet columnist could drool and pine for hemsworths chest while still holding themselves as serious critics. What a joke. Look, I dont care who creams your twinky, or what gets your juices flowing, but can we all stop praisin ourselves for or inclusion in objectification? And stop acting like its a new thing? Call it what it is, a movie to get women wet so we can get their money. Does that sound sexist? Yeah, it does to me too.

    • Kristen says:

      A group of male writers, producers, directors, and actors is allowed to make a movie about female pleasure that involves the intentional and voluntary sexualization of its male characters without it being “sexist and offensive” for reasons that should be obvious. The male gaze has shaped film form, period. Acknowledging female desire is progressive.

      Also, if you’re saying that filming performances by male entertainers is “just as sexist” as focusing on ones by female strippers, then you’re saying that ALL sexualization for pleasure in film offensive. Objectification is more than naked bodies, it’s ignoring a person’s humanity for sexual pleasure. The male leads in the film are human beings with personalities and relationships who enjoy performing. Also, way to just completely ignore power dynamics.

      Your examples of objectification are flimsy. You’re right, action movies cast hot people because most people have sexuality that they like to see acknowledged. That is not news. But this movie about female pleasure/desire is. Also, Shame is an art movie ABOUT sex, of course the lead is sexualized.

  6. Donna says:

    Ironic, it seems,. While Hollywood is criticized for not having women in significant jobs. this ridiculous movie depicts desperate women oogling over men who looked like they had the same trainer! All right. Tatum is a great dancer.

  7. gus says:

    This seems like a pretty blatant advertisement for the movie. It comes across as paid damage control after a weekend where it completely bombed.

    • John says:

      You don’t know what “bombed” means.

    • Gus, the movie didn’t bomb in any way, shape or form. Being a commercial success does not equate to opening at #1 at the box office or making the same as the original.

      The movie cost a reported $15 mil (which undoubtedly does not take into account whatever backend Tatum and Soderbergh have coming, to be fair). It grossed $33 mil worldwide on its opening weekend. Even if it ends up grossing just half of the original’s $170 mil worldwide, it will prove profitable.

  8. James says:

    I’m a straight male who saw it opening night in a packed theater. I was one of two males sitting in that theater and enjoyed every minute of the film (especially laughing when the women went wild at Channing Tatum’s moves). I would say that, what most critics rarely mention, is that the film does have plenty for the straight male audience. In the end, it’s a film about a brotherhood of men who like to give women pleasure. The film’s themes of embracing your passions and who you really are were themes that I could connect to as a male in his mid 40’s who is always examining his life. And, in the end, seeing what excites women is not a bad thing. I don’t have the physique or the dance moves to be a male entertainer. But, I can enjoy living vicariously through men that can.

    • lichtstrom says:

      This reminds me of the one man besides my husband in the theater when I watched it – he got up to leave with his wife and announced to the theater with glee – “Now I get to go home and be creative!”

      Everyone cheered for him. :)

      Thanks for your take as well!

    • What an interesting take James and guylodge, one I didn’t expect. Steven Soderbergh never dumbs down to the audience and that’s what it takes to appeal today to an audience smarter than we are given credit for. A lot of us are sick and tired of comic books turned into films and others that assume we can’t all appreciate diversity in our entertainment no matter who we are. It’s working for “Empire” and it works here too.

    • guylodge says:

      I’m very glad to see this comment, and I think you’re absolutely right — it’s certainly a wittier, more authentic and compassionate portrait of straight male camaraderie than, say, “Entourage.”

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