'Magic Mike XXL' gets spiritual and a little bit more intersectional

Chris Pratt might want men to be objectified as much as women but Channing Tatum is the only one putting praxis behind philosophy and building a franchise in service to the female gaze. "Magic Mike XXL" fulfills its title’s promise by elevating the 2012 original’s strippers from broken and recession-weary drug addicts to nearly superheroic “healers” whose human alter egos need some healing of their own.

It's three years later and our titular stripper-turned-custom-furniture-designer is dealing with the drawbacks of having given up stripping for the straight life, unable to keep a relationship or get his one employee health care. Meanwhile, Mike’s old crew of male entertainers, known collectively as the Kings of Tampa, have been abandoned by spiritual guide and southern huckster Dallas (an absent Matthew McConaughey and a nail in the coffin for the McConaissance). Seeing their former glory fading fast, they decide it had better to go out with a bang by competing in a Myrtle Beach stripper convention and need Mike to complete their band of bros. All it takes is hearing the redemptive power of Ginuwine’s 'Pony' and Mike is ready for the reunion/farewell tour. Thankfully, instead of a boring relapse into bad habits, we get near-spiritual affirmation in the service of female desire.

As a road movie, it allows the franchise to move past a localized portrait of Florida ennui and create a snapshot of larger American dysfunction with some novel ideas on how to fix it. Each pit stop ends up being an indicator of ongoing sexual/racial stratification in the U.S. where capitalist progress just means everything has its own segregated market. One stop at a drag club exposes the strictly hetero boundaries of the film’s paean to female desire, but also presents a diplomatic openness to fluid sexuality when the boys join a voguing competition to find their “inner queen.” Possibly as an amends for the first’s lack of black actors (which inspired the movie "Chocolate City" to pick up the slack), the kings expand the racial demographics of their crew at Domina, a mansion and all-black stripping establishment run by Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith in electrifying boss mode). Rome gives the boys a treatise on how women, continually undercut by societal constraints, deserve to be treated like queens and instructs them to learn about respecting women from Augustus (Michael Strahan) and Andre (Donald Glover), which, combined with the sexual healing of the mostly R&B soundtrack (Jeremih!!!), combats mainstream Hollywood notions of predatory black men.

In jarring contrast is their third stop at what looks like a former plantation populated by Andie MacDowell and a bevy of wealthy Southern white women. Sweetly, though, it becomes both a therapeutic sojourn and opportunity to practice queen worship as the men’s insecurities about the effects of aging on their moneymakers are mirrored by the sexual disenfranchisement of older women screwed over by their husbands. The actresses reportedly had plenty of say in their characters and their dialogue, and any sense of mere pandering to women is displaced by a collaborative spirit. When the boys’ fate at the convention rests in the hands of Rome and Elizabeth Banks’ Paris, it’s no question who really runs the show.

Channing Tatum is an expert at navigating hunk vulnerability, peeling jock layers to expose the emotional mess behind muscle mass, something that "Magic Mike XXL" doles out to the rest of the crew in equal measure. Flipping the first film’s scapegoating of ecstasy, a molly trip leads the group to an identity crisis cum revelation that they don’t have to play cops or firemen and can use the stage as a platform to figure out what they’re meant to do on this planet. It leads to a sequence both heartwarming and hilarious (which this whole film often is) where Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie, both “cursed” by his namesake’s “blessing” and struggling to get his groove back, improvises a routine for a gas station attendant set to the Backstreet Boys that ends up being as much for him as it is for her. At one point Mike riffs about his god being a she, and as such the stage in "Magic Mike XXL" becomes a temple for mutually beneficial group worship.

What makes "Magic Mike XXL" particularly radical is the way in which it drops the cautionary trappings and surprisingly chaste moralism of the original and embraces stripping as a vehicle both for self-actualization and negotiation with American sexual politics. Like Mike wearing a Marilyn Monroe outfit interpolating ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ with an American flag sticking out of his crotch in the first film, "Magic Mike XXL" also acknowledges a relationship between sex and politics that our nation's puritanical conventions would rather avoid. Eventually, the private and the public are blurred when the boys’ final routines allows them to wed illicit raunch with more respectable societal aspirations. By then, it’s unified the aforementioned pit stops into a community run by and for all kinds of queens and painted an exceptionally hot mosaic of America’s future as foretold by its libido. 

‘Magic Mike XXL’ directed by Gregory Jacobs, now playing

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