Magic Mike’s Last Dance and the ‘Feminist’ Pivot

Despite the franchise’s rebranding as a cinematic feminist utopia, the third installment just appears to be selling the fantasy of men being...decent.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance and the ‘Feminist’ Pivot
Screenshot:Warner Bros.

The first 10 to 15 minutes of Magic Mike’s Last Dance is truly worth the next hour-and-a-half of plot murkiness and under-baked ideas. Because Channing Tatum, returning to the third and final installment of director Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper odyssey, is just so good at what he does.

What exactly Tatum is so good at is hard to articulate, because I’m not just talking about his dance ability. His talent really has to be seen, and it’s on display in that first 10 minutes or so of the film. When we meet Mike, he is 40 years old and making ends meet with odd jobs after a string of “failed relationships and unrealized dreams.” He’s just wrapped up bartending a charity event at the Miami mansion of a rich older woman named Maxandra Mendoza (played by Salma Hayek Pinault) when she invites him into her home and propositions him: She’s heard from a friend who recognized him that he’s a stripper. How much for a lap dance? Mike says he doesn’t do that anymore. She offers him $6,000. He reconsiders.

What happens next is the best part of the movie: a sensual dance duet between Tatum and Hayek Pinault that has him grinding into her, flipping her around, gyrating his hips in her face. It could all veer off into cringe territory, but it somehow never does. That’s what makes Tatum so good, so essential to what makes this franchise work. It’s not in the way he looks; it’s not the thrust of his hips or the wind of his waist that makes him compelling to watch on screen; it’s not just his innate ability to elevate the lapdance to high art. It’s the utter intimacy, earnestness, and vulnerability with which he does those things that makes his performance so exhilarating.

After this amazing lapdance (and amazing sex, which we don’t get to see, because in the world of Magic Mike, sex itself is actually beside the point), Maxandra feels like a new woman. She wants other women to experience what she’s just experienced. She asks Mike to accompany her back to London for a mysterious, strictly business opportunity. With only a little cajoling, Mike agrees.

While the story of Mike and Max is ostensibly a love story, it’s also a story about autonomy and control and weird financial power dynamics. The first day Mike arrives in London, she buys him a new wardrobe at a fancy store and then announces that he will be the director of a new “show about empowering women” at the prestigious theater she owns, without even breaking the news to him first.

The show they’re trying to prepare in a month is a reimagining of a 19th century play about a society woman who must choose between penniless love or loveless security, where talented male entertainers manifest as the heroine’s innermost desires. The show is also a glaringly unsubtle metaphor for Max and Mike’s tenuous relationship. Max is the wife of a Rupert Murdoch-esque media tycoon, and though the two are separated and in the process of a divorce, it’s established that if she goes ahead with this new show–if she in essence chooses Mike–she could lose “everything.” So when the two argue about the creative direction of the show, they are also arguing about the fate of their situationship. During a heated argument about whether or not they should include the song “Suavemente” in the show, Max screams in Mike’s face: “A strong female lead needs to know what she wants!” She’s clearly talking about herself.

What do women really want? That seems to be the main question of this film. Is it security or passion? Independence or someone they can depend on? Why do women even have to choose? Why can’t they “have it all?” And why do they have to spell it out, anyway? In an interview with Rolling Stone, director Steven Sodebergh described the dilemma as, “You’re trying to get at this very amorphous space of: I want you to give me what I want, but I don’t want to tell you what it is. I want you to know what it is I want.”

In the movie’s final act, which is essentially the opening night of the show Mike and Max have been working on, Magic Mike’s Last Dance provides nebulous answers to its own questions. The show, which is built up and up and up throughout the film like an impending orgasm, is an anticlimax. Save for another electrifying dance performance by Tatum, it did little to move me. Everything is technically good, yes; all the oiled up abs and flexing biceps are nice if you’re into that sort of thing, fine. And it really is always gratifying to see older women get to receive praise, affection, and ridiculous chair-flipping lapdances in a movie landscape wherein the question of female desire after the age of 25 is often framed as a joke or a scandal. But something feels off.

Max and Mike’s show is not selling the kind of intimate, ultimately sexy vulnerability that was on display in the film’s opening lap dance; it just seems to be selling the fantasy of men being decent. The dancers are introduced to the audience as “a Sexy CEO who pays women more than men,” or “a fuckboy who always texts back,” or “a guy with a puppy.” Magic Mike is not really about the objectification of men, not some role-reversal in “gaze,” but actually taps into its assumption of the female desire/fantasy around the type of man straight women want. There’s something strangely cynical about it all, despite the franchise’s earlier rebranding as a cinematic feminist utopia.

It’s worth considering that the Magic Mike franchise never actually set out to cater to women. The first film, released in 2012, was loosely based on Channing Tatum’s personal experiences as a stripper, prior to his foray into modeling and acting. It was pitched as a dark and gritty tour of the male stripper world in the vein of Boogie Nights or Saturday Night Fever. It’s a great movie, but it’s not a fantasy world. It’s a sort of bleak story, full of conventionally attractive men living very messy unfulfilling lives, striving for something more.

In an oral history by The Ringer, writer Reid Carolin explained, “We didn’t really understand that we were making a movie for women.” That understanding came only after the movie was in the can, then tested for audiences who reportedly seemed to love it at screenings but scored it poorly when surveyed. Focus group testing found that women felt like they weren’t allowed to enjoy the film, perhaps felt ashamed of their own lust. This prompted the marketing campaign (riding the wave of Fifty Shades of Grey success) to lean into “the fun, crazy, aspirational ride.” TV spots were run alongside shows with heavy female viewership, including captions like, “Tell your boyfriend you went to book club.”

“The film wasn’t designed to be candy for women, but that’s how [Sue Kroll, former head of marketing at Warner Bros.] sold it,” Carolin added.

Obviously, it helped that Magic Mike had a surprisingly smart script, that it was helmed by one of the great ensemble directors Steve Soderbergh, that Matthew McCounaughey was in the midst of his McConaissance, adding further legitimacy to a film whose lead had not yet reached A-List status. But it was largely women who turned that first film, which cost $7 million dollars to make and made $167 million dollars at the box office, into a cultural phenomenon. It was largely women who helped make it the top grossing dance film of all time, thus shaping how the franchise would evolve. The reception molded it into something else entirely.

In many ways, this last film could be read as a meta-commentary on the last 11 years of the Magic Mike franchise’s wild trajectory and the way in which the narrative (much like Mike in the movie) has adapted in order to survive and thrive. From Magic Mike came a Vegas show in 2017, Magic Mike Live, which was later transferred to a traditional London stage and retooled as a kind of theater experience. And then there was Magic Mike XXL, a road-trip movie of sorts which in comparison to the first movie’s explorations of exploitation, leaned further into themes of autonomy, freedom, re-invention, sexual autonomy and female desire. It was this sequel (the best in the trilogy) that really cemented the so-called “feminist” readings of the franchise and established the Magic Mike universe as one primarily concerned with catering to the sensibilities and desires of straight women.

And now, the third and apparently final installment of the franchise, out this week, has gone all in on this feminist reading in ways that don’t feel as satisfying or authentic as the last two films. Magic Mike’s Last Dance is frustrating because it almost sticks the landing, but there is something about its mission to “elevate” stripping by placing it into the container of an old London theater that actually strips a lot of the dance sequences of their art and immediacy. It’s a little strange that none of the dancers who do so much to create this spectacular spectacle actually have any lines. Soderbergh is a master of making films about process, collaboration and camaraderie, but the focus on just Tatum and Hayek’s character makes what should be a more expansive film feel all the more claustrophobic. As a standalone movie, it’s just OK. As the final installment of a series that surprised audiences with its dense themes, it’s simply disappointing.

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