Magic Mike XXL is an odd duck of a film. In a weird way, it’s like Jurassic World meets Fifty Shades of Grey. Plus Channing Tatum. Minus pants. I know that’s weird, but stay with me.
The thing that I heard most often about the first Magic Mike was “…Wow. It actually has a story.” People saw Channing Tatum+Stripping and assumed it would be wall-to-wall dongs ‘n’ abs. And then there were actual characters and subplots and emotional arcs, because this is Steven Soderbergh, and he knows what the fuck he is doing.
Magic Mike XXL was not directed by Soderbergh. It was directed by Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh’s long-time assistant director. The Sodes is still present, as an executive producer, cinematographer, and editor. But Magic Mike XXL is a very different movie to its predecessor. It doesn’t have much of one of those story things. It does have a hell of a lot of fan service.
In the first Magic Mike, Mike (Tatum) leads sweet summer child Adam (Alex Pettyfer, neither seen nor mentioned in XXL) through the manscaped jungles of male stripping. Mike’s a legend among strippers–sorry, “male entertainers”–but what he really wants to do is start his own furniture business. There’s a little bit of romance, a little bit of coming-of-age, a little bit of dancing.
Magic Mike XXL: Wall-to-wall abs and butt-shaking.
This time around, Mike reteams with his old buddies to drive up to Myrtle Beach and participate in an annual male stripper convention. Nothing much happens, plot-wise. They’re on the road. There are hijinks, bro-bonding, and car trouble. They stop along the way at “Domina,” a male strip joint converted to a beefcake-laden house party “subscription service” by Mike’s ex-partner (in more ways than one) Rome (Jade Pinkett Smith, a standout). They go to a drag bar. They meet a group of boozy suburban housewives, led by Andie MacDowell. It’s a road trip movie, or The Odyssey with strippers and a completely different type of one-eyed monster.
Like Jurassic World, Magic Mike XXL is dumb but fun. It’ll fall apart if you try to put a modicum of thought into it, but it has velociraptors Joe Mangianello’s abs, so whatever. Any attempts to establish a plot fall flat, most egregiously in the case of Zoe (Amber Heard), Mike’s love interest this time around. Heard is this movie’s Pettyfer. She’s supposed to be a main character, but honestly, no one gives a shit. Zoe could have–should have–been cut, and all the movie would have lost is some snooze-y dialogue scenes.
What Magic Mike XXL lacks in story, it makes up for unending, unapologetic focus on female desire, which is something 50 Shades was going for but never quite reached. The women Mike & co. grind up on are of all different ages and body types. There’s never a joke or a nudge-nudge or even a weird look exchanged between bros when one of them gets hot and heavy with a woman who’s years older and pounds heavier than what glossy magazines tell us a female “should” look like in order to be sexy. All women are equal, and equally deserving of being ground up on by a man in a metallic thong.
Multiple characters–Matt Bomer’s hippie dunce Ken, Donald Glover’s crooner Andre, most notably Pinkett Smith’s Rome–talk about male stripping as a way to worship women, to make them–not feel beautiful–but recognize the beauty they already possess. Ken even thinks of stripping, not as a way to make money (well, that too), but as a way to heal women on a spiritual level. Sure, it’s cheesy, and there’s not much nuance to how XXL approaches female desire, but this is a movie where Joe Mangianello strips down to a Backstreet Boys song.
In every stripping scene, there are abundant cut-aways to reaction shots from the women. Women hooting and hollering, women laughing, women gazing at Bomer like they’re witnessing the pearly gates of heaven open. Magic Mike XXL succeeds in making Female Gaze: The Movie in a way that 50 Shades didn’t, because the latter film was too preoccupied with being serious and “artsy” to embrace the frank, explicit sexuality that fans of the book liked so much. There are no dongs in Magic Mike XXL, either, but it embraces its conceit: Fun, campy ass-shaking.