MAGIC MIKE: The One-Two Punch Takedown of Toxic Masculinity

Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL will be playing as a double feature at Cambridge’s Brattle Theater on Friday, February 26 and Saturday, February 27. Check here for ticket availability and showtimes.

A funny thing happened when the endearing yet chronically miscast Channing Tatum led a greased-up, gregarious cast of studs for the breezy 2012 hit Magic Mike. Marketed to the world as a winking, this-one’s-for-the-ladies romp partially based on Tatum’s pre-fame experience as a stripper in Tampa, the extent to which this film undersold its pedigree is one for the record books. Directed, shot and edited by the legendary Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Ocean’s Eleven; TV’s “The Knick”) and boasting an award-winning performance by Matthew McConaughey at the dawn of the “McConaissance,” Magic Mike is a thoughtfully composed parable of a man realizing that he’s been trapped by the very thing that once made him feel free, albeit one that is cleverly masquerading as a campy flexfest; it has the exterior of a male power fantasy, but with a sly indictment of toxic masculinity tucked into its G-string.

An even funnier thing happened in 2015 when the follow-up, Magic Mike XXL, proved to be the exact opposite of its predecessor while remaining worthy of the moniker. This time, the film actually was the thing everyone who hadn’t seen the first film imagined it to be—a lighthearted Strip-O-Rama with charisma to spare—that again seized the opportunity to defy expectations. Directed by regular Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs (with editing and cinematography still by Soderbergh himself), gone is the subtle takedown of its characters’ male-dominated sex-negativity. In its place is a whimsical fantasy of what confident male sexuality might look like if allowed to comingle with feminism and inclusiveness. Magic Mike XXL dares to envision a world in which masculinity is a force for good, one in which everyone’s needs and satisfaction were valued equally, and is the perfect knockout blow to its predecessor’s jabs to the face of hypermasculinity.

“YOU ARE THE HUSBAND THEY NEVER HAD! YOU ARE THAT DREAMBOAT GUY THAT NEVER CAME ALONG!”

We first meet “Magic” Mike Lane as a charming exotic dancer with ambitions of starting a small business after he’s done stripping. Actually, scratch that; we first meet Mike’s naked ass as it emerges from a three-way with bisexual friend-with-benefits Joanna (Olivia Munn), and a woman whose name neither can remember. By all appearances, Mike leads a charmed life; beloved and respected by everyone he knows, a talented dancer and even more talented furniture craftsman, and a man who never appears to be out of his element.

Enter Adam, “The Kid,” a young man with no ambition or promise who becomes Mike’s protege at Xquisite Strip Club, owned by Dallas (McConaughey). The Kid is a sponge, absorbing Mike’s lessons as he appears to turn his life into something more than a burden, until it gradually becomes clear that the Kid has only soaked up Mike’s negative qualities with none of his positives. Mike is troubled by the monster he’s created and fears what it says about him, and thus begins the pushback against Dallas’s authority. Mike attempts to convince Brooke (Cody Horn)—the Kid’s unimpressed sister and the object of Mike’s affection—that “I am not my lifestyle,” when he realizes that he can’t even convince himself of this fact, and the sudden obviousness of the life’s hollowness leaves him feeling imprisoned by the very thing that once made him feel empowered. The film’s evolving color scheme is a reflection of this shift, beginning with a pleasant sunniness that gives way to a more disquieting, nauseous palette that develops alongside Mike’s inner disgust.

The culture of Xquisite Strip Club is supremely tacky, with cheesy stage lighting and obviously fake Greek statues lining the walls. The routines are as cliche as the men are oblivious to this fact—fireman, jungle stud, and so on—save for Mike’s signature (and stunning) solo number to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” This garish cheesiness is a natural consequence of the culture at Xquisite, a Petri dish of self-delusion where the performers cannot distinguish between their nightly fantasy and the outside world. The men, under the leadership of alpha male Dallas, have internalized all the wrong lessons from their experience. Dallas encourages them to get off on the power trip of putting the audience under their spell, and when it appears to work, night after night, they feel like the gods depicted in the aforementioned statues; which is appropriate, given that they are every bit as inauthentic. The women leave the club having gotten what they came for, a night of unabashed fun, and return to their lives. The men, meanwhile, are caught inside their own bubble, oblivious to the internal contradictions that come to plague Mike.

“YES, MY GOD IS A ‘SHE’”

Mike’s introduction in XXL is the complete opposite of his hedonistic debut of the first film, as we meet him living the honest—and uneventful—life as proprietor of his own custom furniture operation. After a phone call from Tarzan (with whom he stripped at Xquisite in the original film), he links back up with the former “Kings of Tampa” right before they embark on their final pilgrimage to an annual stripping convention in Myrtle Beach. Mike is hesitant to drop everything he’s worked for to go on a road trip with reminders of the world he left behind, but while working overtime at the studio, “Pony” happens to come on the radio, and Mike’s love for performing is rekindled by an acrobatic dance worthy of Gene Kelly.

Mike was initially lured in with a phone call that implying Dallas was dead and inviting him to the wake. While this was just a ruse to get Mike to party with the gang—he isn’t dead, just living abroad with the Kid—this is the first clue to XXL’s change in focus and strikingly different tone. Dallas may be alive, but what’s really dead is his way of thinking. This time around, the group has no single leader, leaving room for the previously undeveloped characters of Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (former pro wrestler Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) to expand and flourish. The whole thing is a party, and everyone is invited; so much so that the first group dance number is voguing at a drag night, something the oversexed child-men of the first film would never do.

The real journey begins when the gang literally tosses their old costumes out the window (while peaking on Molly, to be fair) to explore new routines that are true to who they really are. At a gas station stop, Mike explains the real meaning behind his “Pony” routine, which is as simple as imagining himself pleasuring a woman he saw feeling neglected at a nightclub. He then gives Richie an assignment: make the bored-looking young woman at the register smile. What follows is perhaps the most dynamic set piece of any film from 2015 that doesn’t involve a flamethrowing guitar.

magic mike brattle

There are several more stops before they reach Myrtle Beach, the first being a unique members-only club owned by a figure from Mike’s past, Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Rome’s club exists not to allow women to bask in the dancers’ masculinity. Quite the opposite; the club flips the power dynamic of the first film on its head, in that it is a shrine to making the all-black, all-female clientele recognize, unleash and then indulge their inner queens. They are worshipped by the dancers, including star performers Andre (Donald Glover) and Malik (Stephen “tWitch” Boss), rather than the other way around as at Xquisite. After Rome’s, the men unwittingly crash a party hosted by Nancy (Andie MacDowell) for her friends, all middle-aged women. As the wine flows, the conversation turns to love and intimacy, or the lack thereof. The men naturally begin to fill the roles left vacant by the women’s negligent husbands, establishing genuine emotional connections to complement the already palpable sexual tension. The pairings that occur that night happen on grounds of complete equality.

“WE’RE IN HEAVEN”

In Magic Mike, the stakes were high: dominate or be dominated, save your soul by rejecting the personal hindrance that once seemed like an asset. The only struggle in XXL, meanwhile, is to boost the world’s confidence and give the people they encounter along the way a reason to smile, like Care Bears with washboard abs. In the first film, Mike had to make a clean break with the stripping world in order to grow as a person; in XXL, the closing revue (20 minutes!) is itself the manifestation of the personal growth that the men experienced on the road, as the camera is as interested in showing women’s smiling faces. Mutual enjoyment, not individual fantasy fulfillment, is now the goal.

Though the first film may not appear conventionally feminist (especially with one ill-conceived, mean-spirited weight joke directed, with no irony, at a patron whose weight is the target), it holds true to the notion that gender-based power imbalances are ultimately unhealthy and harmful to all parties socially, psychologically and sexually. And while the sequel proudly wears its sociopolitical stance on its sleeve, it would not be possible for it to plant its seeds as successfully had its predecessor not ripped up the weeds in the way. May social justice and dollar bills rain together forever.

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