by John Ludwig
At first glance the film Magic Mike (2012), starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, may look low-brow, but it has some really good moments that make it much better than anyone probably expected upon its release. And for me, part of what makes Magic Mike better than it ought to be is the fact that it’s a better Star Wars prequel than the actual Star Wars prequels; both movies essentially tell the story of an aspiring individual who is mentored by a friend or associate but ultimately falls from grace and righteousness despite the mentor’s best efforts. Magic Mike is better because of its focus and consequent character development.
The synopsis of Magic Mike is straight-forward enough (contains spoilers): Mike Lane is the male-stripping equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi. He befriends and apprentices a young, arrogant college drop-out, Adam, the prodigal male-stripping equivalent of Anakin Skywalker. Eventually, Adam is drawn in by and seduced by some acquaintances of the male-stripping group, these people being the equivalent of dark side users. He becomes more arrogant, reckless, and hedonistic which causes him to botch a job. This in turn puts him at odds with the acquaintances, who want restitution or, failing that, his life. Mike is faced with a big decision: leave Adam to solve this problem on his own or give up his life’s savings to secure Adam’s safety. Mike chooses the latter. He later gives up male-stripping and walks out on the group. Dallas, the equivalent of Senator Palpatine, replaces Mike with Adam as his right-hand man, and the group continues to advance Dallas’s ambitions of creating an “empire” of male strip clubs—cue the Imperial theme music, please.
To get better idea of some the great moments I spoke of, let me present this scene between Mike and Adam:
ADAM: I want to say thank you about the money. I know how much it meant to you…especially because of that furniture crap you wanted to do. [ADAM CHUCKLES] I, uh…I’m gonna pay you back every last cent. I want you to know that.
ADAM: Man, we’re gonna look back in 20 years—You’re gonna be dead, probably…But I can look back in 20 years and look at the shit that we’ve done together, man. Fuck. Look at where I am now. I can’t thank you enough. Fuck, man. I was nowhere. I have money. I can fuck who I want to fuck. I have freedom, thanks to you. And I’m having a fucking ball. And we’re going to have a fucking ball in Miami, man. So can you smile? Can you look at me? I have only one thing to say. And that is: To my best friend. A guy who has given me more in this lifetime than I could ever ask for. And to bright futures.
This bit of dialogue above constitutes a surprisingly poignant moment for the film. Adam’s salutation to “bright futures” reveals that Mike’s sacrifice, which has left him financially destitute, was ultimately for nothing. Adam is irrevocably corrupted, and despite the peril he’s been rescued from, he will continue to behave recklessly, inevitably putting his life in jeopardy once more. And worst of all Adam attributes his “freedom” to Mike, who sees all this and feels defeated by it. In a later scene, Mike is back stage. Everyone is getting ready for another performance, but Mike is in the corner, disquieted with a case of identity crisis. He is filled with self-loathing, realizing that this isn’t who he wants to be. The look on his face as he makes the absolutely important decision to leave is reason enough to elevate Magic Mike above the Star Wars prequels.
Granted, the Star Wars prequels are reviled and universally hailed as offal coated in exquisite ILM shellac, so finding other superior examples isn’t hard. Think of David Mills from Seven (1995)—same character dichotomy and plot archetype. Think of Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight (2008) and Eric Lehnsherr from X-Men: First Class (2011). And notice what all these stories have in common with Magic Mike: the character who turns evil—falls from righteousness—is never the protagonist. They may share a large amount of the screen time, but it’s always the friend, compelling them to good, who is the main character. This is what I mean by better focus. Mike is the only one in a position to grow as a character, and the same is true for Obi-Wan (and to some extent, other supporting characters such as Padmé Amidala). Anakin, on the other hand, is doomed to turn to the dark side, we already knew this from the beginning, and this creates a problem.
In most good stories, there’s a point when the protagonist has to make an absolutely important choice that will set the consequences and terms of the rest of the story and often the rest of the character’s life. When Luke Skywalker sets aside his dreams of becoming a star pilot in order to help his aunt and uncle; when he chooses to abandon his training to save his friends; when he chooses not to kill his father; and when Mike Lane chooses to set aside his dreams of owning a business in order to help a friend are all examples of this. But when it comes to the Star Wars prequels, these kinds of choices are fettered away on Anakin because he is predestined not to have any character development, and the whole point of these absolutely important choices is that they provide character development.
And as a side note, the real tragedy in Magic Mike isn’t that Adam became corrupted; it’s that Mike was too late trying to talk some sense into his friend, rendering his sacrifice squandered. It’s that squandered loyalty that creates the tragedy, but it’s this tragedy that allows an awakening in Mike (e.g., character development), and this creates hope.
But the Star Wars prequels aren’t about hope; they’re about despair. The despair of Anakin’s turn to the dark side. Everything about those movies fixates on this so much that none of the characters have a chance to worry about themselves, to be real. The only two people other than Anakin who make absolutely important choices are Qui-Gon Jinn and Padmé, however, none of the choices bring about any character development. Qui-Gon’s decision to curtail Obi-Wan’s training in order to take on Anakin is rendered hollow because Qui-Gon dies before any consequence of the that choice can manifest—Qui-Gon’s decision to free Anakin doesn’t count because Anakin’s suspected connection to the force necessitates Qui-Gon’s attempt to free him. Furthermore, the choice to gamble the space cruiser for his freedom is unnecessary. Anakin is a slave; he isn’t going anywhere. Qui-Gon could have just come back later for him. As for Padmé, her decision to marry Anakin in secret sets the terms for the rest of the trilogy but in no way advances her character. She’s just there to bare Anakin’s children and die.
It’s these poorly written moments of decision that stagnate and reverse character growth which make the Star Wars prequels so wretched. It’s not just the bad acting, the vapid dialogue, the gratuitous special effects, the shameless fan service, the midi-chlorians, the servile Jar Jar Binks, etc. It’s the impotence of characters, suffering from a case of prequelitis and bad writing, which confounds the enterprise from the start.
As I mentioned before, movies like The Dark Knight and Seven avoid this problem. However, Magic Mike warrants distinction not only for its staggering similarities of character dichotomy and story archetype, but also in spite of the two films’ respective universes being so utterly, diametrically opposed: spirit-warrior monks battling aliens and robots in intergalactic civil war contrasted with scantly clad male strippers grinding on squealing women in post-Katrina Tampa, Florida. So hats off to Magic Mike for providing us with yet another indictment of the Star Wars prequels.