Originally published at “The Iron Claw” tells emotional tale that both wrestling fans and the uninitiated can relate to
Some of wrestling’s most mainstream moments are, unfortunately, when tragedy strikes in the community. As much as professional wrestling has a place in popular culture for its more glamorous moments, every wrestling fan can attest to being asked by a friend or relative about a noteworthy death or tragedy that has taken place in the art form.
The way that wrestling’s darker moments are seen by the public can feel voyeuristic at times. But that’s not to say that wrestling’s worst moments shouldn’t be covered, or that nobody is doing these stories justice. Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring has been lauded for its critical view of wrestling history. In 2008, the fictional movie The Wrestler, which featured Mickey Rourke, attempted to shed light on the destructive and outright exploitative nature that wrestling can take.
Soon, you can add The Iron Claw to that list of media that got things right. The 2023 film, directed by Sean Durkin and released by film studio A24, looks at how tragedy became a theme — or in the eyes of some, a curse — which impacted the legacy of the legendary Von Erich wrestling family.
The Iron Claw is written for those who have never heard the story of the Von Erich family before, which will likely be a large percentage of those who will head to theaters in the coming months. It succeeds in telling the family’s story in a way that is shocking and tragic, presenting real heartbreak and grief to those who are learning the details for the first time.
The movie does an amazing job of fully submerging its audience in the world of the Von Erich family before getting to the true meat of the story. Viewers are taught about the politics of wrestling: Why “winning” matters in a predetermined art form and how the business of wrestling worked during the territory days of the 1980s. The film gets you invested in the different pursuits of each brother in the family, bringing in themes of romance, the way politics affects our lives, and family influence in career decision-making.
There is a certain level of trust that viewers must give this film when they’re watching. There are points early on where its direction is hard to read, and it feels like sometimes it’s wandering around without finding its actual plot just yet. This is by design, but can feel a little odd upon first viewing. This is a movie that is best suited for theater viewing, where those who paid for their ticket are willing to go an hour deep into a movie before the major plotline kicks in. If this movie eventually gets onto streaming, it’s possible that some viewers might not hold the same patience.
While learning about the many unique and interesting personalities in the legendary wrestling family, the movie remains subtle about why or how the conflict will emerge later. It clues you in on some issues between Fritz — the father figure in the movie — and his style of parenting with his sons but mainly tries to capture the rise of the family in the 80s. It’s this style of storytelling that will comfortably settle viewers into the world of 80s Texas wrestling before revealing utter tragedy.
“Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed,” says Kevin Von Erich, who is played by Zac Efron. “Mom tried to protect us with god. Pop tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt us.”
The Iron Claw does not try to sell viewers the idea that the Von Erich family has a legitimate curse placed on them. Instead, it outlines many themes in the relationship between Fritz and his sons which causes immense grief.
Themes of toxic masculinity are addressed in the film. The Von Erich brothers are in a world where you deal with issues through toughness instead of wits. The only way out of an issue is through, even if that means pushing your mind and body beyond its limits. This style of dealing with life’s problems, which turns a blind eye to health and well-being to preserve the image of an unbreakable toughness, proves to be destructive.
Fritz is also used as a representation of how struggles can be passed down from one generation to another in families. The hunger for success that Fritz carries throughout the story transfers down to his children, who at times feel the need to satisfy their father’s goals over what they plan to accomplish in life.
The Iron Claw is careful with its judgment of wrestling. While there are numerous montages of all the acting stars throwing down in the ring — and to the credit of Efron, White, et al, they all showed up in jacked wrestling star shape — the movie paints a picture of how the pressures of being a top wrestler can break you. Drug use, injuries, and the worldwide touring needed to become a world champion are all laid out for viewers to witness. A fair balance of showing why viewers and performers are infatuated with the art form, mixed with the brutal reality that it can bring down upon those involved, provides viewers with a fair representation of how wrestling can be a complicated relationship for some.
In its most boiled down form, The Iron Claw is about bad relationships: With family, with jobs, with egos. Having tunnel vision about one part of your life and sacrificing everything else — temporarily or permanently — to accomplish a goal for something or someone, is not a story unique to wrestling. But when looking at a retelling of the Von Erich family story, wrestling was the perfect topic to turn to.
Whether or not you’re a wrestling fan, The Iron Claw immerses you in the smoky arenas of 1980s wrestling and the larger-than-life figures from that time. But bringing you back to reality then rips you out of that world and into themes that you can relate to in your own life. It’s a story that is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, but it’s done beautifully, arguably bringing justice to one of the saddest stories in professional wrestling.