I wasn’t expecting a movie packed with sweaty muscular dudes, 1980s rock music and teenage heart-throbs inspired by a Texan wrestling family to make me sob so hard I couldn’t stop coughing.
But “The Iron Claw” is more than just a battle of wrestlers. It’s a battle of toxic masculinity and generational trauma among family members, stuff you can’t beat by physical force alone.
In a story known all too well, the movie follows the lives of brothers falling apart under pressure to be the toughest and the strongest. Zac Efron, who stands out as Kevin Von Erich, watches three of his brothers meet their end, all in one way or another related to torment and abuse from their father.
Kevin Von Erich was always told his family was cursed, a myth that felt all too real following the death of his older brother at five years old. His father, Fritz Von Erich, taught him and his brothers the only way to survive the curse was to be “the toughest, the strongest.”
For the Von Erich brothers, failure in wrestling was a manifestation of failure in manhood. The brothers struggled to talk about their feelings or seek help for extreme stress. Their family encapsulates toxic masculinity, modeled by their father. The brothers all struggle with some form of depression, chronic stress and substance abuse as a result.
David Von Erich is perhaps the most pertinent example of the risks of toxic masculinity. His death occurs the night before the heavyweight championship, the most important fight of his career. In the movie and in real life, he died from acute enteritis, an easily treatable condition he ignored to continue wrestling.
“The Iron Claw” breathes new life into the story of the Von Erich family and provides a fresh perspective on how ideas of gender and masculinity have changed since the late 20th century. It reminds viewers of the importance of men’s mental health and that being physically strong is nothing without strong mental health.
In recent years, male athletes have begun speaking out about their struggles with mental health — a cultural code that suggests a growing openness toward these issues. From Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Michael Phelps to Dak Prescott, male athletes are pushing back against the narrative that they must always be the strongest to be the best.
“The Iron Claw” is perhaps the only movie this year that can transition flawlessly from intense, high-action wrestling to grave funerals. The aggression of wrestling is seamlessly interwoven with tense, emotional moments against Fritz.
The film is cast to perfection, with Efron delivering a career-defining performance. Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons bring distinct energies to each of the brothers that viewers can understand with little exposition. Lily James, who plays Kevin’s wife, shines as the emotional heart of the film, often functioning as the only character with any level of emotional intelligence.
In the penultimate scene, the deceased brothers reunite in a peaceful afterlife. Away from the torment of their father and the grueling expectations of toxic masculinity, the end result of happiness is cathartic after seeing the characters struggle for so long.
Watching Efron as Kevin Von Erich in the final scene finally break and allow himself to cry and feel the misery of the past two hours inspires a sense of hope — maybe he can rise above the curse of his father.
The Von Erichs may be remembered as a powerhouse wrestling family, but “The Iron Claw” will be remembered for its artful dismantling of toxic masculinity.