The finest scene in Magic Mike XXL doesn't take place on a stage. It's in a roadside mini-mart on the way to Myrtle Beach, where Mike (Channing Tatum) and his boys are headed to give one final blowout performance at a stripper convention. They're high on molly and arguing about whether they're going to come up with new, more personal routines or just break out the tried and true ones, and somehow, this leads to Richie (Joe Manganiello) being sent into said mini-mart on a mission to make the cashier smile.
She's sullen-looking, which is how these movies, the first directed by Steven Soderbergh and the second by his longtime AD Gregory Jacobs, have tended to prefer their ladies. Like Brooke (Cody Horn) in Magic Mike and her sequel replacement Zoe (Amber Heard), the bored girl behind the counter buried in her phone does not seem the type to be easily won over by a pretty face and an exquisitely defined six-pack. How Richie goes about charming her is better discovered than described, but it involves Cheetos, the Backstreet Boys, and the other strippers cheering him on from outside the windows like fans watching their team make its way down the field.
It's also a departure — the first Magic Mike wasn't all that concerned with making random women smile beyond its business value. Its characters were after their dollars, a group of handsome hustlers in a fun, dead-end gig from which it was hard to walk away, even as it promised to spit them out into middle age as irrelevant cheeseballs with a few tired dance moves and no marketable skills.
The image of Channing Tatum lithely gyrating to Ginuwine's "Pony" is the one from the first movie most likely to sear itself into your brain, but the rest of the story was actually about the character's slow realization that he's never going to extricate himself from this world if he keeps waiting around for "the market" to "hit the sweet spot."
There's little of that pesky economic urgency in Magic Mike XXL, which shares the screenwriter of the first movie, Reid Carolin, but none of its underlying stress. Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey, and Alex Pettyfer are all dismissed with a few lines of dialogue, and Mike, now running a budding Tampa custom furniture business, reunites with Richie, Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) for "one last ride," the future be damned. Magic Mike XXL doesn't bother with bummers like conflict or stakes — it's a shaggy, convivial road movie filled with opportunities for its characters to bond (with each other) and flirt (with various women) before the big show. It's total fan service. But it's not dumb about it.
Thanks to the internet, fan allegiances and expectations have become a constant clamor, and thanks to the triumph of serialization in movies and television, those allegiances and expectations actually have the potential to put pressure on and shape the direction of future installments. When characters (like Furiosa) are beloved or romantic couplings (like Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner) are not, people are very vocal about their feelings. It's not good or bad so much as just a new reality — without these fans, there wouldn't be sequels or additional seasons, and they have an ever-growing platform from which to speak up.
When Tatum, who produced both Magic Mikes in addition to starring in them, told Pop Sugar that the sequel "might be a little bit more up the alley of some things that people were expecting out of the first one," he was perfectly aware of the fact that it wasn't the original film's undercurrent of capitalist critique that made it a hit.
Magic Mike was an artful, melancholy musing on how its hero seemed to be running just to stay in place, but it racked up over $150 million from a largely female audience at the box office on the backs, and abs, and glutes of its shimmying cast.
Rather than cash in with a sequel that's an hour and a half of Tatum humping the floor, Magic Mike XXL gives the audience what it wants by ceding to the idea of female desire. It's a fan service film about the concept of fan service. Its characters surrender their narrative arcs until the only throughlines are whether Richie will find a woman who can handle his immense manhood and whether the van they're driving in will make it — but it doesn't feel like laziness, it feels like refocusing. We've already seen the story of these men chasing their particular American dreams, and now we're getting a look at what women are after in soliciting their services.
If the first movie was all about the affirmation of being paid for desirability — McConaughey preening as he watches himself thrust his hips in front of a mirror during rehearsal — the sequel is a reversal that treats male stripping as tantamount to a public service. It's described not in terms of sex but in terms of making women smile, reminding them that they're beautiful, and making them feel worshipped.
Magic Mike XXL actually features less aggressive baring of flesh than its predecessor, but it feels warmer because of its awareness of who's doing the looking. Its women come in various shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, and are frequently older than the former Kings of Tampa — like the group of divorcée Southern belles, led by Andie MacDowell, who puts them up for the night. Their perceived desirability isn't in question, and why should it be? It's their house.
The hottest older woman of them all is the film's answer to McConaughey's Dallas — Rome, played by an irresistible, fedora-wearing Jada Pinkett Smith. She has a history with Mike and owns a Savannah club named Domina where women pay a subscription to wander the plush rooms taking in performances by muscled men.
The place has the look of a bordello and the feel of an especially supportive therapist's office — while Stephen "tWitch" Boss "takes care of" a giggling customer by dancing for her in the center of room, Donald Glover freestyles a song for a woman getting over a recent divorce in another. Mike, who's come for a favor, is pressed into proving he still knows how to thrill, and keeps his eyes on Rome even while hauling someone else's legs over his shoulders.
It's a sexy, heady act of supplication, and one that summarizes the spirit of Magic Mike XXL as a whole. "All we got to do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it's a beautiful thing," Glover's character says of the women he serenades, like he's figured out an essential secret. Magic Mike XXL isn't better than Magic Mike so much as different — more ragged, but also, in its own way, more daring. It's a movie about how giving fans — women — what they want involves first listening to what they have to say.