The Iron Claw is more than just a wrestling movie – it provides an insightful look at masculinity and toxic family dynamics

Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Simon Stanley, and Jeremy Allen White in The Iron Claw
(Image credit: A24)

The Iron Claw is a family affair. Based on the true story of the Von Erich wrestling family, Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) Von Erich rose to prominence in the '80s under the guidance of their father and coach, former wrestler Fritz (Holt McCallany). 

Eldest brother Kevin is a local hero and self-designated guardian of his younger brothers, but struggles with his confidence. David is young and fiery, but cares deeply for his family, while the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics denies Kerry, a near-Olympian, the opportunity to compete in the discus, leaving him bubbling over with frustration. There's also youngest brother Mike (Stanley Simons), smaller and weaker than his older brothers, with a gift for performing rather than powerslams, much to their father's unwavering disdain.

Big Screen Spotlight

Shining a light on the under-the-radar theatrical releases that you need to know about, with a new article every Friday

Despite the siblings' rise to fame and success, tragedy clings to them like a shroud, bad luck awaiting them around the corner of every win. They were victims of a so-called "family curse", meaning the Von Erich sons spend their lives under the thumb of both fate and their father, living through his sons' successes. Fritz never got his hands on the World Heavyweight Championship title, but he's forced his sons on the path to win that coveted belt.

Power and control

Zac Efron in The Iron Claw

(Image credit: A24)

Fritz continually plays his sons off against each other. All it takes is one disappointment for prodigal son Kevin to take a backseat and David to become his sole focus, choosing him to take on world champion Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg). One of the most interesting parts of the movie, though, is that this doesn't lead to any brotherly resentment – Fritz's word is gospel, and the Von Erich boys are powerless against it. Why fight something you cannot change? Fritz is unerring in his pressure and high expectations, standing firm and unchanging in the face of tragedy after tragedy, and the brothers are steadfast in their love for one another – all they want is to be together in the ring. 

Fritz's signature wrestling move, the Iron Claw, is one he passes down to his sons in their training. It involves holding your opponent firm, hand clamped across their forehead, applying pressure to both temples, until they submit. Day in and day out, Fritz forces his children into submission, but his influence is seen but not heard, and the absence of violence and force is far more sinister than seeing it up close. 

When we do witness his cruelty firsthand, it slips off his tongue, easy as breathing. Right off the bat, he reels off his sons' names from most to least favorite in front of Kevin, David, and Mike – Kerry, not present, gets the top spot. But Fritz's favorite changes like the seasons, and none of these young men are safe for long. We don't hear him yell or see him use physical force against them, so his lack of physicality feels unnerving, like it's just beneath the surface at all times. We don't need to see it to know that it's there. 

The poison drips through

Lily James and Zac Efron in The Iron Claw

(Image credit: A24)

Throughout the movie, Kevin, as the eldest son (a mantle he inherited after the Von Erichs' firstborn, Jack, drowned in childhood), has been trying to do everything for everyone. He's tried to be the supportive patriarchal presence that their father never was, tried to be an example to his younger brothers without having one to follow, but to what end? By the film's conclusion, he's alone and grieving, perhaps the greatest victim of the Von Erich curse as the only one left standing. His actions feel futile – he went too far, or not far enough, pushing one brother too hard while treading too lightly with another. Best intentions aside, he can't save them from their fate.

Ultimately, The Iron Claw is an indictment of masculinity, and director Sean Durkin takes some liberties with the source material to hammer this home. For example, in the movie, Kevin and his wife Pam (Lily James) have two young sons. In real life, the couple had two daughters first, but the film, particularly the final scene, wouldn't function as well without a third generation of Von Erich boys thrown into the mix to examine the toxicity imprisoning the previous generation. The young boys reassure their father that it's okay to cry, that everybody does it. What this scene is saying, gently, is that to love and be loved is enough. "We'll be your brothers," they tell their father, after finding him weeping, silently, in their backyard. 

As the credits rolled on The Iron Claw, a quote from another family drama started rattling around in my head. "Maybe the poison drips through," Succession's Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) remarks in the series finale, reflecting on his role as a father compared to his own father – how can he be a good role model for his children when he had none himself? How can he show them love when none was shown to him? In The Iron Claw, the poison also drips through – until it doesn’t. Kevin feels that he's failed his brothers, but the softness of his young sons proves that he hasn't. Curse or no curse, Kevin has put an end to the masculine tyranny of his father. He can't change the Von Erichs' past, but, he realizes, he has the power to shape their future.

The Iron Claw is out now in UK cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series.

Entertainment Writer

I’m an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering everything film and TV-related across the Total Film and SFX sections. I help bring you all the latest news and also the occasional feature too. I’ve previously written for publications like HuffPost and i-D after getting my NCTJ Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.