Closer To God: The Religious Experience Of MAGIC MIKE XXL
Magic Mike XXL is a film that, while fun and sexy, also doesn't shy away from greater themes like religious symbolism and imagery.
Of all the movies that have ever been made, Magic Mike XXL probably wouldn’t be one that jumps to mind when you think about religion in movies. The sequel to 2012’s Magic Mike, the movie picks up the story of Mike, played by Channing Tatum, as he goes on a road trip with his old stripping buddies for one last big show at the Myrtle Beach convention.
It is an incredibly fun movie that is made up of little vignettes where the gang find themselves somewhere and end up performing in some way for the crowds. It’s almost like a musical in that way but rather than the characters breaking into song every ten minutes, they’re ripping off their shirts and grinding on very happy women.
On the surface, the movie feels slight and doesn’t seem to be aiming much higher than giving you a fun movie experience (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but scratch the surface a little and you’ll find some interesting ideas about masculinity and growing old.
There is also a rich seam of religious imagery and symbolism throughout Magic Mike XXL that sometimes feels as though the writers have put it in subconsciously, and others it feels very close to the surface. The three main aspects of religion that the movie focuses on are resurrection, the nature of pilgrimage, and the power of worship.
Resurrection and Healing
A running theme throughout Magic Mike XXL is Mike reconnecting with old acquaintances and them talking about him as though he had died. When he arrives at Rome’s house, she refers to him as a ghost. When he asks for help she doesn’t want to give it, and takes him into the main rooms of the house where Rome’s queens are watching men dance and raining money upon them. Rome says to the assorted women, “I need your help. I need you to help me make a decision of whether I should leave [this] ghost in his grave or give him an opportunity to be resurrected.“ The imagery of resurrection is highly biblical and we associate rising from the dead with the stories of Lazarus and Jesus. Or zombie movies.
Mike needs to earn his resurrection with Rome by showing he’s still got the dance moves, which he does while being doused with dollar bills. It is almost as though Mike is brought back to life by the power of prayer as Rome’s queens shower him with both their money and their passion. Mike is like one of those evangelical preachers who gets their congregation speaking in tongues and filling the collection basket, only what Mike does is at least honest.
When they leave Rome they are taken to their next stop by one of her dancer’s Andre (Donald Glover). In the car, he outlines why he would continue to perform for Rome’s queens even if his EP blew up the next day. At first, he seems as though he’s in it just for the amount of girls he gets to meet, but then he segues into something more wholesome. He laments that these poor women he performs for have men in their life that don’t listen to them and don’t ask what they want and “all we gotta do is ask them what they want. And when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. It’s like we’re healers or something.”
When you think of religion and healing, the images that probably jump into your head are of Jesus making a blind man see or curing a leper. I doubt when the apostle Matthew wrote, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ he meant women getting out of the house and taking a break from their deadbeat man to watch a dude with washboard abs grind to Ginuwine, but if it heals, it heals.
Early on, the trip to Myrtle Beach is referred to as a pilgrimage, which is very fitting. After all, this isn’t a sports movie where they’re driving to a championship game they have to win; the Myrtle Beach convention is really just a showcase of stripping talent with no winners or losers. This might seem as though it robs Magic Mike XXL of its stakes, but really it just changes them.
A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by someone wanting to expand their mind or their horizons. It can be a spiritual undertaking meant to cleanse the soul or to provide clarity to a cluttered life. In Magic Mike XXL there are no illusions among these characters that this trip to Myrtle Beach isn’t the last time they’ll be doing it, and it is referred to throughout as the last ride.
The stakes aren’t that they need to win or that they might lose, the stakes are that this is the last time they’re going to be doing what they love for a crowd and they need to do it better than they’ve ever done it before. The pilgrimage they’ve embarked upon is to find closure with their old lives before they move on to new business ventures and careers.
In a sense, for all of them, the reward of the pilgrimage is that they get to be themselves by the end of it. They manage to shrug off the toxic influence of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas character from the first movie, and branch out with their performances to each do something that closer reflects who they truly are. This is a great thing for us viewers, because it leads to the final shows that are incredibly funny, sexy, and personalised to each character. It also forms a handy metaphor for their own self-realisation. They have each discovered who they are and what they want to be, right before the chrysalis is about is about to open and they are to join the real world. The pilgrimage has done its work and they are not the same characters they were when they began their journey.
On face value, it would be easy to say that the objects of worship are the men on stage, but that is debatable. Yes, the men are rewarded with showers of cash that seem to fall like manna from the Heavens, but consider the more intimate dances between the male entertainers and their chosen women. Worship is too small a word for the attention they lavish upon these willing partners. How many of the dances involve the men simulating pleasure on the women? Most of them? All of them? And it’s not just physical worship.
When the trip takes the pilgrims to the home of a hookup from an earlier scene, they find themselves sat in an upscale living room with a group of bored housewives/rich divorcees. What begins as a scene that feels as though it’s going to turn into a full-on, raucous, bacchanal of shirtless dancing and screaming women turns into something much sweeter.
One of the women, Mae, blurts out that she’s never had sex with the lights on and Ken, played by Matt Bomer, says that she has a pure, sweet, loving, and nurturing energy and that if her husband isn’t going to worship her, someone else will (and the other dancers all agree). She talks about how when she and her husband were in college they would listen to a certain song and be romantic and loved up. Ken sings the song to her while performing a slower, tamer version of the usual wild stripper set.
Whereas a lot of the other dances involve throwing the women around and more aggressive sexuality, Ken is caring and gives Mae what she needs: attention. She feels as though she isn’t worthy of being desired and Ken, singing a song called “Heaven” just to help make my point, falls at her feet and showers her with intimacy and attention.
There is something wonderfully sweet about the scene that is both highly sexual but also, within the context of this movie, fairly chaste. When Ken and Mae fall onto the couch in each other arms, she is aglow with her brief taste of being treated like a goddess and we see the power of being worshipped.
Magic Mike XXL: Final Thoughts
Big Dick Richie’s final dance is performed to the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Closer’, a song in which the singer serenades someone and tells them that he wants to ‘fuck [them] like an animal, and bring them closer to God.’
This almost feels like a perfect summation of this movie’s themes: on one hand, it is a sexy movie about hot people dancing on each other, and on the other, it is something more wholesome about friendship, second chances, and getting over your fear of the future.
Magic Mike XXL is layered with religious subtext and imagery perhaps by accident, perhaps on purpose, or perhaps the biggest clue to the filmmaker’s playful stance on religion in Magic Mike XXL’s world is that at Myrtle Beach the dancers name their group, Resurrection.
It almost feels as though they know what they’re doing, so in the end, it might not be a coincidence that Magic Mike, who was thought dead by so many only to rise again, is a carpenter.
Do you think Magic Mike XXL can be seen as a religious movie? What other movies are there with this kind of imagery and symbolism? Discuss in the comments!
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