By David Shreve, Jr.
If I were to say a movie was about “a group of masculine, muscular men who encounter more than they bargained for when embarking on a mission,” does your mind prepare for a conversation about Predator or Magic Mike XXL? This is a significant question, because, judging solely only the fetishist observation of the physique of each group of core characters, these two films might only be comparable to one another. Both the 1987 alien thriller and the 2015 road trip film exhibit a gleeful lack of self-consciousness about the impressive bodies of the films’ stars. And yet, one of the two has stood for decades as a sacred chapter in the cinematic scripture of machismo and the other… well…
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I can list dozens of instances in which my outspoken enjoyment of Magic Mike XXL has earned a chuckle, a joke, or a warning to “maybe keep that one to [myself].” And I’d be lying if I made any attempt to say that I always trumpeted my enjoyment openly; a number of times, when asked something along the lines of “What are some good movies from 2015?,” I’ve deliberately excluded Magic Mike XXL just to avoid the predicted subsequent conversation. And yet still, I have had family, friends, co-workers, former co-workers, readers of my website and any number of largely well-meaning folks express either amusement in my having liked the film or a mild shame for their enjoying it/wanting to see it.
This guarded mindset isn’t exclusive to the non-critical film-going community. A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes, where Magic Mike XXL, a movie that was included on a number of Best of 2015 lists (including mine), holds a pedestrian 63% composite positive rating. Kam Williams of the Baret News describes the film as “An unabashedly carnal indulgence solely interested in inducing gelatinous drools of saliva from the mouths of overstimulated females.” Joe Williams of the St. Louis Dispatch echoes with a similar sentiment “With stingy portions and plenty of filler, “Magic Mike XXL” is the worst sausage party ever.” It’s difficult to find any criticism that doesn’t make a deliberate jab at the film’s masculine exhibitionism or its target audience’s consumption of said exhibitionism, and fair enough. This conceit is certainly owed the measurement, good and bad, by the terms it defines. But one included pull quote indicates perhaps a more useful distinction.
Cara Nash of Australia’s FILMINK writes “Like Mike and his posse of men when they hit the stage, Magic Mike XXL is a film all too eager to please.” I find this to be an unsettlingly strange accusation to place next to a rotten icon, but I also think it might create an entry point to determine where Magic Mike shifts from being a movie that is meant to “make women happy” to being a movie that stale, conservative mindsets might feel that “men shouldn’t like.”
In many measures, Magic Mike XXL is a very masculine film, even by traditional standards, in spite of its gender stifled reception. Ride-or-die comradery and unconditional brotherhood are themes traceable through action films new and old, from early Westerns to The Expendables and Fast and Furious. Magic Mike XXL is decorated with elements of the sort of fraternizing debauchery—drinking, partying, weed, sex, etc.– of traditional boy’s club comedies, and manages to present all of this without it feeling like insincere exceptionalism; that is, that lifestyle feels far more at home with these characters than, say, those in Animal House or American Pie.
Perhaps the most traditional measure of masculinity in the film is also the quietest. At its core, Magic Mike XXL is a film about men overcoming personal conflict, but the emotional fabric of all of these conflicts exists almost wholly in the subtext. With the exception of their pursuit of joy and happiness, these are not outwardly feeling men. Consider that Mike himself only speaks of his failed marital engagement for a few lines in a single scene. Which means, comparatively, Mike is made less emotionally vulnerable through love than John McClane, The Crow, Will Munny, Tyler Durden, Mad Max, Rocky Balboa, and any number of manly film heroes.
But even more useful than the comparison to other films is the observation that Channing Tatum plays Mike’s muted emotional condition not as callousness or stoicism, but as a conscious decision to medicate pain with joy and friendship. The same can be said with Joe Manganiello’s illustration of Richey’s identity crisis or Kevin Nash’s near wordless conveyance of Tarzan’s next-step career crisis. Really, the entire crew.
Many have also derided Magic Mike XXL as having an aimless plot and no conflict (almost always, of course, paired with a jab against its aesthetic), but that is utterly insincere. The stakes in Magic Mike XXL are very clear and relatively high. Suffering friendships, failed romances, career dissolution, ultimately, an implied budding romantic interest. The real exceptionalism here is provided Director Gregory Jacobs seeming refusal to paint the conflict in tones of melodrama.
Magic Mike XXL frequently pursues excited reaction shots of single females and crowds of females, flipping the standard model in which we typically are given the male gaze by the camera, and unashamedly fed frames filmed with the ogling eyes of male characters. This setup, though unconventional, isn’t just a rare appeasement to male-interested movie-goers. These interspliced images of female celebration are, in the structure of the film, functional in the same way that an intense dialogue would be functional, or hand-to-hand combat, or a shootout. The dancers providing joy to their audience also works as their addressing their own personal conflicts—each performer learns to deal with his life problems by selflessly accepting his gifts as an entertainer, a provider of joy.
While the canon of “manly” films includes and celebrates the aforementioned Predator, Pumping Iron, and any of Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme’s 80s and 90s films (all movies that fetishize the male figure in usually-violent performance), it’s hard to accept that the more contemporary point of contention regarding Magic Mike’s XXL’s incompatibility with male viewership has anything to do with the movie’s exhibition of its actors’ bodies in performance. Rather, it is certainly worth considering that maybe the source of common dissatisfaction comes by way of the movie’s carnal packaging being openly intended to entertain women.
Cara Nash’s assessment is accurate, but it should not be packaged as a criticism at all. Nash is correct that both the film and its main characters are “eager to please,” and the supporting characters, thrilled crowds, and droves of real life people who love this film suggest that this eagerness succeeds in both measures. So how can that serve as a negative critique?
It’s never my favorite thing to shape a critical conversation of a film around the reaction of other critics. But really, I’m not attempting to measure the value of the movie here, or force anyone else into saying positive things about it. Again, for me, in the most useful cinematic reading, Magic Mike XXL isn’t attempting an essay about masculinity, nor does it care to make any profound social or philosophical assertions. It’s just an astonishingly well-crafted, high spirited, and immeasurably joyful road trip film. But there is something unsettling about the way that our modern culture, including its film critics, have catalogued the movie with a borrowed mindset toward its relationship with masculinity, when the only real and evident non-traditional ingredient is its characters readiness to provide joy, entertainment, and positivity, particularly to women.
Even if it’s wholly incidental, Magic Mike XXL is (or should be) inspiring a dialogue in which we all attempt to determine why the provision and pursuit of happiness is thought to be a shameful thing for men to enjoy.
David Shreve, Jr. is a native West Virginian currently residing in Cleveland, OH. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of AudiencesEverywhere.net. You can find him on Twitter @David_Shreve2, where everything he says is dishonest or insincere.