What Magic Mike’s Last Dance gets right (and wrong) about female desire

Salma Hayek Pinault and Channing Tatum go in for a kiss inside a nightclub.
Salma Hayek Pinault and Channing Tatum in Magic Mike’s Last Dance. | Warner Bros.

It’s silly. It’s sexy. It’s supply and demand.

There was something really satisfying about being able to say, straight-facedly, that the first Magic Mike movie is “about the economy, actually.” This was maybe the first thing the series really understood about female desire, the eventual subject of its trilogy, which concludes with Magic Mike’s Last Dance. Or, that’s not quite right. The Magic Mike trilogy is about the economics of female desire, actually.

In the first film, released in 2012, this is literal: We meet a group of male strippers working multiple jobs in the busted American capitalist system, men whose bills are paid by this notoriously finicky thing of “what women want.”

But that movie, through some let’s-just-call-it magic, actually captured the finicky thing, possibly because it wasn’t trying to be about it. It caught the audience off-guard, allowing them to be surprised and delighted, like a cop in tearaway pants banging on the door of a bachelorette party. Women who never would have imagined going to an all-male strip club were suddenly hooting and hollering in theaters and expressing a desire for more.

They got more. Today, the “Magic Mike” brand includes three films, a Vegas live show, a touring live show, a short-lived HBO Max reality program, and the kind of immediate name recognition shared only by Iron Man and Daenerys Targaryen.

This shift was helped along by 2015’s Magic Mike XXL (a stroke of titular genius), in which “female desire” comes to the fore, and explodes a bit, definitionally. The grit is gone. The gang, now more explicitly styled as a fun team of buddies, embarks on a road trip of multi-demographic proportions, bringing joy to hooting and hollering groups of older white women, Black women, and queer people — which is to say that “female desire” is best understood as a useful shorthand for something perhaps even more complicated and interesting, without pausing to get into the ins and outs of gender.

The third film takes these ideas and collides them, showing female desire (or whatever exactly we want to call it) to be a peculiar but compelling system that doesn’t comport with what we know, i.e. the economics of capitalism. Supply and demand seem to be out of whack.

After all, don’t we want, as emcee Hannah (Juliette Motamed) asks of her audience toward the end of the film, “a little bit of everything all of the time?”

Magic Mike’s Last Dance provides that formally, being at various times: a romcom, a dance flick, a heist movie (briefly), a fairy tale, multiple types of novel (romance, modern literary fiction, a touch of YA but not in a weird way), the barn-burning rewrite of a nonexistent play with Madame Bovary undertones, that thing where you just gotta put on the show, an absurdly meta meditation on what it means to have a “strong female heroine,” and a movie about the economy, actually.

But at the same time, our hostess continues, isn’t there something about being the only one? Don’t we all crave focused attention, devotion, a type of oneness with the object of our attraction? Which is to say: Don’t women value scarcity? Don’t they want to be Magic Mike — as inspired, played, and created by Channing Tatum, with help from director Steven Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin — ’s last dance?

Now, maybe not. The one consistent complaint I’ve heard from people who have seen the film: not enough boys. The old gang — Tito, Big Dick Richie, Ken, and Tarzan — appear only by glitchy Zoom call, and we never really get to know the dancers in Mike’s new show. This flouts the script of the show-within-the-show of Last Dance, which very explicitly posits that one of the primary things a woman might want is “not just one man.” “Lots of guys” is a bedrock premise, employed by teen magazines, Charli XCX’s best video, and every boy band in history. What if Mike’s not your type? (I cannot relate, but it’s possible.)

The movie is named after Magic Mike, though, and he’s our sole focus here, even if that arguably creates a little bit of a supply issue. The trade-off is that, in many ways, we’re his sole focus.

The movie brings Mike to London for reasons that you, like our hero, just kind of have to go with. See, there’s a very, very rich woman and she wants things. Exactly what those things are is both staggeringly obvious (Mike) and obliquely approached (by declaring him the director and choreographer of a strip show named after and somewhat based on a nonexistent, long-running, apparently sexist play called Isabel Ascendant). Mike has lost his furniture business to the pandemic, he owes money to his friends, and Maxandra (Salma Hayek Pinault, playing a ridiculous role with a lot of fun, pathos, and magenta) is paying him an absurd amount of money to put on a show. There are those economics again.

The sheer breadth of things the movie is doing, plus that tricky little supply issue, require an awful lot from Mike, including acting as both our romantic hero and fish-out-of-water ingenue. It helps that Tatum is, as always, charming and goofy and handsome and fun. The last decade’s other movie trilogies about female desire — The Twilight Saga and the Fifty Shadesiverse — fulfill these same archetypes, if in discrete characters. Those movies each end with a kind of montage, and Last Dance does that too. Of course, those series also each spent three movies building up a couple’s connection; we only just met Max. Whether or not the audience, or the film, really buys into her completely shifts around as much as female desire itself. The movie’s strength is that it’s comfortable with those shifts.

Inserting Max as Mike’s love interest this late in the game isn’t actually super comfortable, so the movie doesn’t pretend it is. She’s less character and more “walking personification of female desire.” She’s tempestuous in unflattering ways. She doesn’t finish things and throws her money around. Mike seems to be reasonably wary of her. Her own daughter calls her “the queen of the first act.” Max’s clearest trait is simply that she wants it all. Her desire is voracious and cannot be contained, etc., etc.

This might sound absurd and even a little insulting, but after the misleading trailer, I was surprised (and delighted) by how well it landed. Even as Soderbergh, Carolin, and Tatum explore a system of want that is arguably illogical and likely impossible, it is respectful to that system. It knows there’s something beautiful and even generous about wanting to have it all.

The movies have always understood that in this system, demand — desire — is actually the hard part. Public displays of female lust aren’t traditionally encouraged. When they are, it’s often to create desire in others. Or, as in the last decade’s other big trilogies about women wanting, it looks like quiet yearning and unsmiling passion. What the Magic Mike movies have only leaned further and further into is that it can also be uniquely fun. I’m under the impression there isn’t nearly so much genuine giggling at Scores.

There’s not just the trick of creating desire, there’s the undertaking of maintaining it. The MMCU is necessarily preoccupied with how to stimulate (I’m sorry!!) that demand through overlapping principles of permission, attention, connection, and respect, which are revisited and reestablished throughout the films. Like a dancer, the movie knows that once those elements are lost, they’re harder to regain than they were to gain in the first place. It can feel recursive and silly; it also can feel reassuring.

At a certain point — somewhere between the stripper stakeout and the surprise bus flash mob — Magic Mike’s Last Dance is holding so much that it really has no choice but to hold it very, very lightly, and then juggle it. This is where the film starts to take off. With so many elements in play for your affection and attention, the whole thing becomes something of a daring feat, like a man spinning up from the ground into a headstand. Part of the appeal is simply that he’s trying to do it. Even if he stumbles a little, you might just be impressed.

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