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The World Wasn’t Ready for ‘Magic Mike’

Steven Soderbergh making a movie about male strippers? Channing Tatum becoming a legitimate star? The birth of the McConaissance? On its 10th anniversary, we marvel at the film that upended expectations and brought sexy back to the multiplex

As a film critic, you go to enough press screenings and eventually you’ll hear (and see) everything. I’ve encountered near fistfights. I’ve watched in horror as a person had a seizure in the middle of a movie, paramedics rushing him out of the theater. (Thankfully, he ended up being just fine.) I’ve heard cheers and boos, I’ve sat next to colleagues who nearly jumped out of their chairs during horror movies, and I’ve heard folks sniffle and blubber at tearjerking endings.

But when I saw Magic Mike before its release, I encountered something that was a first. I heard the sound of female voices whooping with delight at what they were seeing. It’s true that men still dominate film criticism, and as a result, it’s mostly men that I see at screenings (although that’s been getting slightly, slightly better in the last decade). But that night, it was women (and some men) who responded passionately and vocally to what was up there on the screen. Press screenings can be slightly staid affairs, but Magic Mike felt like a party. Soon, it was a party that the whole world would be invited to.

Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of a film that was one of the summer of 2012’s most surprising and deserving hits. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Magic Mike would be huge, but at the time that was far from certain. This was before people considered Channing Tatum to be a serious, legitimate movie star. (Sure, he was fun in Step Up, but c’mon.) It was before the world was fully on board the Matthew McConaughey comeback train. And it was before audiences could wrap their head around the idea of Steven Soderbergh — the cerebral, Oscar-winning director of Traffic — making a comedy about male strippers. (Right, he’d done a great job with the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, but camp wasn’t exactly his thing.) Ten years later, the shock of everything Magic Mike ushered in has worn off. But the party still hasn’t stopped.

The project originated with Tatum, who before acting briefly worked as a stripper. Performing at a club in Tampa called Joy, he and a buddy made a deal with each other: As Tatum explained later, “Okay, we’re going to do this for a little while just to be crazy and insane; then we’re getting out.” After his breakthrough in Step Out, Tatum did date-night dramas, like Dear John, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, all the while thinking that his past occupation might make for a fun film. And after collaborating with Soderbergh on the action film Haywire, Tatum told the director about his dancing days. Soderbergh, who’d recently made more somber movies like Che and Contagion, was excited to do something a little more lighthearted.

“[A]bout a week before we started shooting, I saw everybody do their [stripping] routines,” Soderbergh told Film Comment around Magic Mike’s release. “I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the first concrete confirmation that this was going to be fun for the audience. [The routines] weren’t sleazy, they were funny, and that’s when I relaxed and thought we’re going to be fine. Is there a darker, dirtier, scummier version of that world? Of course, but I wanted it to be fun not only for the audience’s sake but for mine.”

Although inspired by Tatum’s time as a teenage stripper, Magic Mike took plenty of liberties in its story of Mike, a Tampa dude who wants to start his own furniture business, dancing at Xquisite to make extra money. The club’s most popular stripper, “Magic” Mike takes a potential new dancer, Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing, introducing him to Dallas (McConaughey), the cocky, charming owner of Xquisite. At first, everything’s great — lots of money, lots of women — but soon drugs and greed get in the way. “If we actually put everything that happened in my life into the movie, it’d just be an outright comedy, you just wouldn’t have believed it,” Tatum said, later adding, “The only thing that is relevant to my actual life is that I was 18, I had a sister, I played football in college and dropped out. That’s it, I never overdosed or anything, that never happened. I don’t have a drug problem, guys!”

At the movies, audiences have seen plenty of strip clubs that cater to straight men, but Magic Mike was one of the rare glimpses into an all-male revue. And Soderbergh was fascinated by the differences between the two settings. “In strip clubs for men, there isn’t even a pretense of narrative,” he said in that Film Comment interview. “But in clubs aimed at women, you always have a skit or some kind of sketch that has a story in it.” Which is why Magic Mike spends so much time not just on the characters’ dance routines but also on the idea that they’re creating fictional scenarios on stage. What might have seemed cheesy or fabricated about Mike and his buddies’ elaborately plotted dances — so many props, so many complicated lighting cues — were, in fact, part of the fantasy Mike and his bros were selling. 

Maybe it was because Tatum understood this world so well, but he’d never been so compelling on screen before. In Step Up, he’d shown off his dance skills, but generic would-be blockbusters like G.I. Joe suggested he might be a little wooden as a dramatic actor. Magic Mike, which came out just a few months after the very successful action-comedy 21 Jump Street, helped wipe away those concerns. 

Mike is a funny guy who’s maybe not the brightest, but he possesses a real soulfulness — not to mention a dream to create a better life for himself with this furniture business. Tatum was able to navigate both the film’s comedy and drama — much like in 21 Jump Street, he proved to be very good at portraying a doofus with a kind heart. You sensed that Mike was realizing that his days as a golden god were about to end, the dreariness of adulthood impatiently knocking at his door. Tatum made Mike a vulnerable himbo. Plus, he had the moves and sex appeal to convince you that Mike was the most beloved male stripper in Tampa. With Magic Mike, Tatum came into his own by showing us part of his past. When he was starting out, Tatum’s PR team didn’t want journalists finding out about his stripping. Tatum didn’t care. “I had wanted to tell people,” he said in 2011. “I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t regret one thing. I’m not a person who hides shit.”

Like Tatum, McConaughey was trying to gain respectability — or, more accurately, regain respectability. Coming up in the indie world in the 1990s thanks to Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, the Texas-born actor quickly made the jump to studio movies, eventually establishing a surfer-dude persona in dopey romantic comedies such as Failure to Launch. (All these years later, I think of Tina Fey’s comment about him guest-hosting on Saturday Night Live: “He was always taking his shirt off, he’s like, ‘Yeah, here’s my deal, I’m hot.’ …. He doesn’t smell great, no.”)

But by 2012, McConaughey had started to turn his image around, tackling more substantial work. The year before Magic Mike, he’d done The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe, where he portrayed, respectively, a savvy attorney and a frightening killer. He’d gotten good reviews for Mud, playing the titular runaway fugitive who meets some local kids. But Magic Mike was a showier role: Dallas talked a big game, getting the crowd at Xquisite excited for the arrival of Mike and his cohorts, as irrepressible a showman as P.T. Barnum. Then in his early 40s, McConaughey depicted Dallas as an aging stud and possibly shady schemer, the kind of backslapping raconteur that you don’t know if you can entirely trust him.

To prepare, McConaughey went to strip clubs to see how they were run. Soon, he was writing his own bits, as Dallas, to introduce Xquisite’s strippers. “I really got into entrances and exits,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “And I remember that first day that [the actors] came out and danced, I had written all this stuff — I want to introduce each one of my guys, give them a different introduction, a different theme song. … It was like Dallas was directing the theater. … [E]veryone had to have a different sort of story, and it was fun to go back and go, if this is a female fantasy — we’re giving females fantasies here — so how is each character in a different demographic of the female fantasy?”

Indeed, Mike’s crew is stacked with different types of hunks. There’s Matt Bomer’s pretty Ken, Kevin Nash’s beefy Tarzan and Joe Manganiello’s swaggering Richie. We don’t see naked penises in Magic Mike, but by studio standards — the film was released through Warner Bros. — there’s a lot more female gaze than we normally get, the audience invited to feast its eyes on those beautiful male bodies. And serving as master of ceremonies was McConaughey, who with Magic Mike cemented the so-called McConaissance, a newfound cultural appreciation for the laid-back actor who would soon win an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. As with Tatum, it was as if we were meeting him again for the first time.

Soderbergh wasn’t sure if Magic Mike would connect. Speaking with Film Comment, he said, “I hope that if it works, a door is going to open for someone behind me. It’s an original screenplay, there are no guns, nothing explodes, it’s aimed at adults. If we can show up in the middle of the summer and have it work, that means someone else is going to get that opportunity too. And I like that.” 

That was a summer filled with comic-book movies — The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man — but Magic Mike found its niche, bringing in about $113 million in the U.S. on a budget of only about $7 million. It was a movie about living in economic hard times — the Great Recession had only been a few years before — that, like Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, examined how sexual desire is turned into a commodity. But it was also funny and sweet, filled with colorful characters in a vivid world, punctuated by dance sequences that were sexy and sometimes silly. Soderbergh, as is his tendency, approached this universe with a wry detachment, but there was clear compassion for Mike, who was trying to figure himself out while taking off his clothes. There was no blockbuster like it in 2012.

And like a lot of blockbusters, Magic Mike inspired a sequel, 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, which doubled down on its pursuit of female pleasure, focusing on a road-trip narrative that found plenty of excuses for the guys to grind and strip. Soderbergh’s former assistant director Gregory Jacobs replaced him behind the camera, and McConaughey didn’t take part, but if anything, the follow-up was even more joyous and unembarrassed about objectifying its male heartthrobs. If Soderbergh’s approach was slightly ironic and distant, Magic Mike XXL more deeply identified with the thrill of those muscular bodies in motion — the jokiness was stripped away, replaced with pure adoration for these gorgeous men who wanted nothing more than to show us a good time. 

Magic Mike XXL wasn’t quite the hit that the original was, but the empire has only grown from there. There was a Vegas show, and a reality series — and, soon, we’ll be getting Magic Mike’s Last Dance, a third film, which will be directed by Soderbergh. “I think you’re going to see this might have been the movie we always should have made, but we shouldn’t have gotten here without our education on the other two and the live show,” Tatum said in February, adding that Last Dance would contain “the sickest dancing that we can possible create” and calling it “the Super Bowl of stripper movies.”

Whether or not that’s just hype, I’m excited about the prospect of another Magic Mike movie. Not only have I not forgotten that initial audience reaction to the first film, I remember how unusual and bracing it was to see a mainstream film where men paraded their bodies in such a bold way. Often barely clothed, Mike and his pals are proud of how they look, happy to delight their female fans and be treated as boytoys. It was an aspect of sexual pleasure that was so foreign to my experience of going to studio movies — and one that, clearly, a lot of people had been desperately wanting. 

Ultimately, Magic Mike is about class and commerce — it’s about how myriad people have to hustle to have a shot at the American dream — but those darker themes are embedded inside a really fun film about getting off on looking at hot guys. Mike knows the good times can’t last, but for a couple hours while watching this film, we can pretend otherwise.