How Magic Mike Became the Unlikely Feel-Good Trilogy of Our Times

Despite beginning as a gritty character drama, Channing Tatum's Magic Mike films have turned into feel-good classics that satisfy an audience Hollywood didn't even know was there.

Channing Tatum in Magic Mike's Last Dance
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

When Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was released in 2012, it’s doubtful that anyone knew entirely what to expect. A film about male strippers that was loosely based on the star of the film, Channing Tatum, and his own experiences in the world of stripping seemed unlikely to spawn a sprawling and vocal fanbase—much less the Magic Mike Cinematic Universe (or MMCU for short). But that’s exactly what it did. 

From the opening speech and the now famous line of “I think I see some lawbreakers in here,” drawled enticingly by the club’s compere Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), it was pretty clear that a good time was coming. Set in sweltering Tampa, Florida, the film centers around the star of Dallas’ show, Mike Lane (Tatum), who is working day and night trying to achieve his dreams of starting his own furniture business. By day he works construction and by night he is Magic Mike, the jewel of the Kings of Tampa troupe. And in between, there are drinks, parties and women.

It’s no wonder that 19-year-old Adam, (Alex Pettyfer), who meets Mike at his construction job but is soon being inducted as one of Dallas’ boys, is seduced by the lifestyle. Adam is keen to learn the tricks of the trade, but he is also keen to have as much fun as possible. Through Adam’s burgeoning career we see the underbelly of the, at times, seedy stripping scene.  The sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle that comes with its highs but also its consequences—for him and for those around him. While the film does give us plenty of titillating performance scenes of the group, it is firmly grounded in reality and all the grit and unpleasantness that comes along with it.

That then changed for the better…

Ad – content continues below

Magic Mike XXL Replaces Grit with Good Vibes Glory

Magic Mike was a box office hit. It felt complete. The story of this particular life seemed to have been told. However, three years later came an unanticipated sequel, Magic Mike XXL. Executive produced (and DP’d and edited) by Soderbergh, but directed by Gregory Jacobs, the tagline alone, which on the posters simply read “You’re Welcome,” teased of something different; more strip, less grit… and audiences were not disappointed.

The core troupe from the first film made up of Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ernie/Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and of course Mike are reunited. Dallas has started a new show with Adam as the star, and the rest of the boys have pursued endeavors elsewhere. Mike, who left the group at the end of the last film has not seen his friends since. He finally has his furniture business, only just off the ground, but he is desperate to expand. His girlfriend left him after turning down his proposal, and the call from the Kings of Tampa catches him at just the right time.

Magic Mike XXL quickly becomes a road trip movie as the group make their way to Myrtle Beach for a stripping convention and their last hoorah on stage together. Yes, there are of course more scenes dedicated to stripping, and to Tatum in particular and his incredible skills as a dancer. There’s also an unforgettable scene of Manganiello’s Richie, high on MDMA, dancing in a gas station to try and make the cashier smile. But what really sets this film apart from its predecessor is the relationship shared by this group of friends and by how women are represented and discussed. 

The women that we see onscreen in the 2012 film are mostly skinny, young and white. The dancers, besides Tito, are also all white. Dallas’ instructions on stripping are borderline vulgar and most of what they do is focused on male stripping cliches and getting as close to sex as possible without breaking any laws. In Magic Mike XXL, they are doing away with old tropes. These men realize they didn’t actually enjoy all the aspects of their previous shows and spend the trip digging deeper. They discuss their desires, fears, hopes, feelings, and love for each other, and what they do without worry of retribution or shaming.

Even when mad at each other, they strive to be kind and work out their issues. They are comfortable sharing beds, being in gay clubs with drag queens, and with women they want to sleep with as well as those they just want to be friends with. Women of all ages, sizes, and races get their full attention. They tell each other repeatedly and often how much they love each other. When they visit Rome’s (Jada Pinkett-Smith) private members club and meet her mostly Black clientele and dancers, there is no rivalry, only a sharing of experiences. 

“We knew everything about these guys” Tatum said of the the stripping troupe in one interview about XXL “but the people that actually watched the [first] movie wouldn’t even have a scratch of who they actually were.”  This film was about the audience getting to know these performers as people and not merely their stage personas. Toxic masculinity is done away with and replaced with growth.

Ad – content continues below

“The whole idea is to try to find what is cool to you by… asking a woman what they want,” Tatum said of the quest at the heart of the film “We’re tired of telling you that we think a cowboy in some assless chaps should be sexy.” It’s no wonder that on the film’s release, press and fans were calling it a surprising feminist masterpiece.

Magic Mike XXL gave audiences something joyous and life affirming and really showed the full potential of this story. The men are older, and they take their lives more seriously, but they still have time to enjoy the unplanned and create the kind of memories that make all the hard work worth it.

Magic Mike Takes the Stage for Real

The sequel was such a hit that in 2017, Magic Mike Live was born. Here is a dance show that is part theatrics, part stripping, and all inspired by the second film. It was also created and directed by Tatum. It started in Las Vegas and has since opened in London and toured around the world to regularly sold out performances, and its popularity has shown no signs of slowing.

The atmosphere at the live shows is nothing short of electric from the start, and it only escalates from there. When women get a personal dance, the people around them cheer them on, and the women themselves, though excited, determinedly respect the “no touching” rule. By the finale, the audience is scream-singing along to the music and cheering the dancers on with unbridled enthusiasm.

Every show show feels like a once in a lifetime, one-night-only extravaganza, which is no small feat. 

“This is actually for women, made by a bunch of men, but with the guidance of women” Tatum previously said of the live show “It has a message. We really wanted to make something that just feels right.” And it does. It’s bizarre to think of a show such as this as a safespace, but that is what it feels like. It helps that the whole thing is guided by Tatum’s voice and a female compere, who watches over everything during the show. 

Ad – content continues below

Magic Mike’s Last Dance and a Chemistry That Drips

It is no surprise then, that the anticipation for the third and final instalment of the Magic Mike franchise was high. Directed once again by Soderbergh and titled Magic Mike’s Last Dance, it follows Mike, who due to the pandemic has fallen again on semi-hard times. But his luck is about to change when an incredibly wealthy woman named Max (Salma Hayek Pinault) takes an interest in him and his talents, and we get to see the fictionalized creation of the live show. 

The chemistry between Hayek Pinault and Tatum practically drips off the screen, and during the first dance of the film, which Mike does for Max, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. With the creation of the live show, we get a lot more dancing from the performers they audition and hand select. The dancers in the film, all who are currently a part of or have previously been a part of the real live show, do not disappoint, although it is a shame we get so little of their personalities. Meeting this passionate woman who believes in him and finding his voice and point of view through directing other dancers feels like a natural progression and good ending for Mike. If these really are his final dance moves, he has certainly made them count. 

It may seem obvious why these films are popular, especially with women and the queer community. There is no shortage of abs or eye candy on screen at any given time. But there is more than meets the eye as well. The first film contains hackneyed ideas in the strip shows like, fireman, soldiers, policemen, etc. The methods are tried and tested, and the paying customers seem happy with what’s on display. However, for the performers, it allows little room for creativity or growth. They are simply there to take their clothes off in a timely manner, excite the women, collect their money, and go.

The second film rallies against this idea, that they are simply buff pieces of meat to be ogled. They have ideas and talents that not only need expressing but that people want to see. Above all, the ever expanding idea of what makes a good stripper, what makes a good man, is in focus. And always the question is being asked: What do the women actually want? The heroes’ raison d’etre is to make the women in their lives and the women they perform for feel special, desired, beautiful, loved. It is a concept that they achieve time and time again without being condescending or reductive.

Most of it is as simple as asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers. A topic that is brought up in all three films is that straight women are often dealing with men who neglect their emotional needs in their day to day lives. What these shows and these performers can give them is fantasy; a slice of time where the real world melts away and anything is possible. 

It’s a message that has struck a chord with women and many others. The MMCU creates a place for desire that feels both fun and safe. It actively encourages camaraderie and general good vibes. For example, during the live shows, while there are endless screams for the male dancers, the biggest cheers often come for the one female dancer, the female compere, and any woman lucky enough to be pulled up on stage for a more personal experience.

Ad – content continues below

By just being in the room, you could be the lucky one, and therein the magic lies… While watching the films, seeing so many different types of women smiling, laughing, cheering, and being chosen creates a feeling that any one of them could be any one of us. Even the casting of beloved actresses like Hayek Pinault, Pinkett-Smith, and Andie MacDowell seems geared toward women, particularly millennial women who grew up with those stars. 

The third film is a continuation of this feeling. Mike is trying to bring joy into the lives of regular people, but especially regular women, just like Tatum is trying to do in real life with Magic Mike Live (without which, the third film would not exist at all), and it turns out, he is the perfect man to do it. No one would argue that Tatum has a lot to offer in the looks department, but he is also a skilled dancer and his efforts and dedication to getting show fit for each film is commendable. But he is also easygoing, fun-loving, charming, and hard working. All qualities he puts into playing Mike, which makes it easy to believe that this character would be comfortable in all types of company, that all kinds of women could fall for him, and that he could be successful at whatever he tries his hand at.

It’s a winning combination and the appeal is undeniable. Magic Mike has gone from the bitter truth to bigger, universal truths about desire and performance and escape. While the first film has some tougher scenes, it ends on a hopeful note, a bright spark that is fully ignited by the second film, which continues with the live show and goes out with a bang in the third film.

Some think that sex is missing in modern cinema, but it could be argued that it’s sensuality that is missing, and for films that have very little sex, Magic Mikes one, two, and three are incredibly sexy and packed full of sensuality and intimacy. They may seem like trivial things, but if the box office or the packed houses in both Vegas and London are anything to go by, women’s desire is not only lucrative but transformative, and something that has clearly been absent from our screens and stages for far too long.