What a delightful summer season it’s been for Hollywood films, whether it be the vapid but entertaining Jurassic World, the extremely endearing and intelligent Inside Out, or the absolute gems that is Mad Max: Fury Road. They’re just not much to complain about this year. No surprise then that there’s been high praise in certain parts of the Internet over a sequel to a film that didn’t need a sequel but ended up being a stellar example of how to stick a landing. If you didn’t know, that would Magic Mike XXL (What, you thought I meant Terminator Genisys?).
Devin Faraci over at Birth.Movies.Death has called it one of the greatest sequels ever, a hyperbolic praise that still captures the ecstasy that the film delivers. For all it’s popcorn fun, the film soars above just being an exploitation film to get ladies’ panties wet, and instead ends up championing women’s sexuality. Grant it, the film makes no bold attempts at a grand thesis or deeper reading, but still wins points by how it endears with its charming playfulness and lighthearted good times.
No doubt there’ll be fears from a certain group of men of how lust is portrayed in the film. At one point a male stripper licks chocolate a woman’s thigh, and I can only say that if you don’t have an open mind towards sexuality avoid this film at all costs. Not you like you needed the warning though.
For those of you who are less prude, and by you I mean ladies, Magic Mike is the epitome of female fantasy. You’ve got muscle bound alphas grinding womens’ faces, gyrating to 90s sex music, and those abs and pecs. I can’t think of another film that has been so aimed at the female libido, and if the box office run of this will show, reveals how dry the market is for the genre. In a male drenched film industry, it’s no wonder so many women are starved for film that caters to their desires. Take it from a male, there’s no complaint about the dearth of films with the male gaze. But the female gaze? That’s all but unheard of.
The film has the thinnest of plots. Mike, you’ll recall from the first film, left the stripper business to start his own furniture company. At the start of this film he is now running the business. To his surprise one day, his old gang of strippers visit him and reminisce about their days of glory. Via a throwaway line we learn that Matthew McConaughey’s character Dallas from the original film has left town with the Kid. I’ll admit that this development was a letdown. McConaughey was one of the best aspects of the first film, and I worried his absence would diminish from this film. Fortunately this wasn’t the case.
Wouldn’t you know that the gang, now out of a job, have set off for a last hurrah. They’re heading to Myrtle Beach for a stripped convention. Mike, reeling from being dumped by his love interest from the first film, decides to go with this spray tanned gang of chiseled he-men, in an attempt to seize the day. And that’s it. There’s no stakes, no competition, no conflict. They’re just going to a convention to strip.
But what makes the film work so well is that it makes no attempt at providing a traditional narrative. Instead, it invites you to join in the fun, and whether you’re a man or woman, take part of the sexual pleasure that is the duty of the stripper. Yes, that’s exactly what I said. The writer, Reid Carolin, declares this thesis in bold letters. Take for instance, a show stopping sequence early in the film. Mike and the gang stop at a gas station, where one of the strippers is challenged to make the woman clerk smile. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve already seen this sequence in the ads. Joe Manganiello does the unthinkable and makes a bag of Cheetos sexy and humorous all at the same time. Don’t get even get me started on his use of the water bottle. And good god, that man’s abs could shred lettuce. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler when I too you he gets the clerk to smile.
And I’m telling you, that’s the entire stakes of this film: to make you smile. It’s no wonder why women are flocking to this franchise. Yes, it offers the chance to see Matt Bomer almost completely nude, but more importantly, the filmmakers treat women with respect..
Take, for example, Mike’s female interest Zoe (Amber Heard). Mike meets her at a beach party, and after some flirtation involving humorous drag aliases, is invited to go a boat trip to an island, with the insulation that they’ll hook up. But Mike declines the invitation, and it’s this simple character choice that earns this film the feminist approval. In any other film directed by a male, this sexual dynamic would dominate the film. Instead, this film lets the two have a conversation over a cake and cookies, and no, there’s no sexual innuendo implied.
That’s really it. Oh, there’s a few stops along the way, each with their own dance sequence. Michael Strahan is a pleasant surprise, and Channing Tatum once again asserts he’s the best film dancer of our generation, but it’s all low stakes. The film’s climax is the show at the stripper convention, where each member of the gang gets their moment to shine. It’s all good fun, and will no doubt make women swoon. Although I’ve got to ask if women really shower male strippers with dollar bills and smile with ecstasy as they’re being strapped into a swing with the legs spread apart. But I think this is beside the point. The film plays with the female fantasy and goes at length to create a spectacle. I highly doubt any real word striptease would involve such highly choreographed dance numbers or elaborate set designs.
If I had any complaints about the film, it would be that for all its good times, it undercuts the themes of the first film. Magic Mike, despite its sexy dance routines, was about the shallowness of the stripper business and argued that one should follow their heart instead of their wallet. The business was depicted as a seedy life that had diminishing returns. To wit: in the first film, we saw The Kid get drawn into drug use, quickly becoming a junkie. In XXL, drug use is shown as a casual thing that is humorous. And instead of portraying the stripper business as empty experience, it is now seen as liberating and empowering. Both films are best viewed in a vacuum.
Criticism aside, Magic Mike XXL is a film created for women that actually seems to know what they want. And in an industry that can only muster up Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, it easily soars above being trash. Finally, a film that is able to be sexy and intelligent, all without insulting it’s demographic. This is one of the year’s best.