'Magic Mike XXL': Stripping as Soulcraft

Channing Tatum
Channing Tatum, who plays the eponymous Magic Mike, at the “Magic Mike XXL” premiere on June 26, 2015. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The conservatives are right: Traditional marriage is imperiled. The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, has nothing to do with it, though. The sanctity of marriage is threatened by none other than Magic Mike, as well as his as accomplices: Tarzan, Tito and tWitch. Also Ken, as in Barbie's paramour. And Big Dick Richie. Who among us mortal men, our meek caste of dutiful husbands and diligent boyfriends, can compete with Big Dick Richie?

Together, the enemies of holy matrimony are known as the Kings of Tampa, and they return this week with Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to Magic Mike, the 2012 film that made nearly enough money to make Greece solvent. Like the first film, Magic Mike XXL is sexy where it could have been lascivious, its dignity undiminished even as the aforementioned Richie simulates fellatio with a squealing female fan. For all its pleasures, this gloriously extended Channing Tatum-Joe Manganiello (Mike and Richie, respectively) shirtless montage is a stark affront to the American male, in all his soft-bellied, bacon-nourished lassitude.

If the American woman decides that we should look like the Kings of Tampa, then we are in trouble. If she decides that we should dance like them, then we are doomed. No amount of Antonin Scalia fury will save us.

In 2009, the philosopher-turned-mechanic Matthew Crawford published a book called Shop as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Crawford argued that the "satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy." To a nation of spreadsheet jockeys locked into cubicles, he preached the pleasures of working on an oily engine beneath the blazing sun.

So does Magic Mike XXL, which serves the same criticism of the prevailing American lifestyle, only with Heidegger allusions replaced by pelvic thrusts. The film opens with Mike (Channing Tatum) having zipped up his magic, retired from stripping and running a furniture business. It is hard, physical work, but it is not enough. As he toils in his shop one night, he breaks out into dance to the hip-hop on his radio. He just about freaks his own power tools. A return is at hand, à la General MacArthur at Leyte Gulf.

As it happens, Magic Mike XXL arrives at a time when the nation (well, Brooklyn, Oakland and Austin) is celebrating the dadbod, the male physique of the father-of-three, slouching toward middle age, neither fat nor fit, flabby but inoffensive, his Fitbit reposing in a bathroom drawer. "A dadbod makes me think we could eat pizza in bed together and never feel guilty or judge one another," wrote Allison Davis for New York magazine's ladysite The Cut.

Well, Allison, you certainly won't be eating pizza in bed with Magic Mike or Big Dick Richie, for the Kings of Tampa appear to collectively have zero body fat between them. The flimsy plot aside (a trip to a male stripper convention in South Carolina's Myrtle Beach), this is a movie about what the male body can do in its purest state, without computer graphics or stunt doubles or, really, very many clothes. So many films are about the pleasure the male body can take, mostly from the submissive female body (Entourage), though also from cars (Fast and Furious) and the ruination of other male bodies (Rocky, and pretty much every war movie). This one is about the pleasures a male body can give, in particular when it is synced up to a D'Angelo soundtrack.

Once, a very long time ago, I tried to dislike Channing Tatum, but then gave it up and have been happier ever since. He is sly, shy, a little insecure and a very, very good dancer. Sometimes brooding, he explodes into movement when called upon, at once furious and controlled. He makes stripping look as artful as Swan Lake, but more enjoyable.

If anything, there isn't enough dance in Magic Mike XXL. Like most sequels, it falls short of the original (the first movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh; his longtime collaborator Greg Jacobs directed the second). Nevertheless, the stripping scenes are as good as we expect them to be. They made me want to take a dance class, or at least get back to doing ab crunches.

The best scene comes about halfway through the film, when the Kings of Tampa find themselves sans vehicle and end up in the posh Savannah club Domina, where Mike used to dance for Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith). The clientele is all black women, while the dancers are all black men. A surprisingly limber Michael Strahan dances for an overweight black woman. The implicitly white gaze of the camera is neither mocking nor critical nor fetishistic, a refreshing vantage point at a time when so much of the conversation about black bodies has to do with vicious violence committed upon them. Mike—or "White Chocolate," as Rome knew him—giving a black woman a private dance is perhaps not the equal of Sidney Poitier meeting the Draytons in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but it is an oddly affirming reminder of something shared in the human experience, the simple electricity of flesh touching flesh.

The scene that follows is the obverse of the night at Domina: The Kings of Tampa arrive at a Southern plantation house (don't ask) to find a group of middle-aged women having dinner. Much like the black denizens of Domina, they could be easy targets, but Magic Mike XXL once again avoids the trap. The scene belongs to Ken (Matt Bomer), who is a skilled singer but doesn't have the dancing talents of Richie or Mike. Nevertheless, the encounter ends with a touching note about what mature women deserve — and should expect — from their husbands. Even the inessential Tarzan (Kevin Nash) gets a tender laugh.

After the film was over, I stood in the lobby and watched the crowd emerge, then floated with the moviegoers toward Broadway. A woman said that Magic Mike XXL was better than its predecessor—seriously, I think. A young man overhearing her remark said that in the wake of Magic Mike XXL, we might as well forget Citizen Kane—not seriously, I hope. The mood was like after the Mets had won in 13 innings, a tired elation, a relief in the air. Everyone was happy.