Gladiators, thrill-seekers, brutes, jesters, genuine athletes, and sham competitors – the titans of professional wrestling embody a myriad of personas. In the heyday of the 1980s, wrestling seemed to split the world between those who embraced it earnestly and those who dismissed it as an extravagant and absurd joke.
However, the reality was more nuanced. Even for those who saw through the scripted nature of wrestling, there was a fascination with its theatricality as a cartoonish spectacle. Many die-hard fans were in on the joke, acknowledging the staged nature of the events but still immersing themselves in the experience as if it were authentic. This paradoxical cognitive dissonance mirrors the cultural landscape that professional wrestling helped shape – a terrain where figures like Donald Trump, leveraging wrestling to enhance his fame, could base his political ambitions on artifice and still find believers who overlooked the deception.
Enter “The Iron Claw,” a true-life wrestling tale set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, boasting an ensemble cast led by Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White. Directed by Sean Durkin, the film delves into the saga of the Von Erich family, Texan wrestling legends who achieved championships, massive popularity, and left an indelible mark on the burgeoning larger-than-life world of the sport. Dubbed the Kennedys of wrestling, the Von Erichs grappled not only in the ring but also with a familial “curse” of tragic misfortune.
The story begins with Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), the patriarch who kick-started the legacy in the ’60s. A mad dog in the ring, Fritz is also a conservative family man raising his children in a manner reminiscent of the 1950s. Fast-forward to 1979, and we encounter the Von Erich sons, Kevin (Zac Efron) being the central figure. Efron’s physical transformation mirrors his character’s ascent in the wrestling circuit, presenting Kevin as a mass of muscle encased in dreams.
Unlike those who perceive wrestling as a mere joke, Kevin and his brothers see themselves as genuine athletes. The film, mirroring their perspective, takes on a tone of earnest and tragic sincerity. It unveils the workings of wrestling, illustrating how stars could simultaneously acknowledge its theatricality and treat it with utmost seriousness. As Kevin pursues success, familial competition intensifies under the watchful eye of their father, who orchestrates a ranking system that pits them against each other for love and approval.
The Von Erich curse, rooted in personal catastrophes, becomes evident as the family faces adversity. However, the true curse lies in Fritz Von Erich’s aggressive and domineering approach to family life. He views the wrestling dynasty as a business, pushing his sons to pursue championships at any cost.
Despite its seemingly timeless message about familial tyranny, “The Iron Claw” paints Fritz Von Erich with a humane touch, revealing the love entwined with his ruthless methods. The film critiques hyper-competitive male aggression, grounded in the exaggerated showbiz nature of pro wrestling. The period authenticity, unironic portrayal of wrestling theatrics, and stellar performances contribute to the film’s compelling narrative. While some characters may be underdeveloped, the cast, especially Zac Efron, elevates the movie with authenticity and depth. Ultimately, “The Iron Claw” offers a poignant exploration of a bygone era, where the pursuit of masculine strength, steeped in fantasy, led to the loss of moral bearings for the Von Erich family.