If you are going to see The Iron Claw, make sure you are in your seat for the very start of the film. The best part of the movie is arguably the opening shot, a dramatic, black-and-white, slow-motion image of Fritz Von Erich working in the ring. One of the greatest heels in pro wrestling history, Von Erich methodically works over his hapless opponent, while mercilessly playing to the crowd.

“I’ll break his damn neck!” Fritz shouts.

While he is playing the role in pro wrestling, the real-life version of Fritz Von Erich would serve as the defacto antagonist in the movie. While the Von Erich boys are put up against some legendary wrestlers, including Harley Race, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair, it is their father’s dominating personality and unflappable focus on success that is their greatest enemy.

The Iron Claw will often be compared to The Wrestler, the last time an auteur director took a crack at portraying the pro wrestling industry. However, The Wrestler is ultimately not really a movie about wrestling–wrestling is merely the vehicle to showcase a timeless story of a washed-up entertainer who refuses to give it up. The Wrestler could pretty easily be about a musician, a comedian or a former TV star.

The Iron Claw is about the wrestling industry. Sure it is about brothers who have an unshakeable bond that is eventually torn apart by personal tragedy, but all of that is shaped through the prism of the wrestling industry, a strange and unique place that can provide moments of wealth and fame, but also corrupts and destroys.

In the opening scene, the audience is presented with a classic lesson: Fritz, portrayed as a still-struggling wrestler trying to make it while having a wife and two kids, purchases a new car despite being unable to afford it.

“The promoter said you gotta act like a star to be a star,” Fritz reassures his doubtful wife, Doris, citing one of the numerous sacrifices the pro wrestling industry demands without any shot of success.

As the movie jumps forward into the 80s, Fritz has achieved that success–he went on to have an incredibly successful wrestling career and now runs a major territory in Dallas. But paranoia and the quest for power and control is still dominating his personality, and ultimately how he raises his sons. Fritz is obsessed with his sons becoming NWA World Heavyweight Champion, a title that always eluded him during his career. He has forced that dream onto his sons, who are various levels of enthused about getting into the pro wrestling industry.

At the center of the film is Kevin Von Erich, the oldest remaining brother, who is portrayed as the most loyal member of the family, constantly keeping an eye on his younger brothers while also dedicating his life to pro wrestling. Kevin represents another lesson in the pro wrestling industry–he’s good, but he isn’t great, and falters when put in the biggest spotlight.

He struggles during a match against Harley Race and fails to deliver a competent promo, and is overshadowed by his younger brother David, who has emerged as a rising star. David ends up getting the NWA World Heavyweight Championship shot, not Kevin, and David heads off for a worldwide tour of matches. It’s a bitter pill for Kevin to take, who, despite his sacrifices, is on the short end of the stick, another brutal lesson from an industry that rarely gives dedicated performers what they deserve.

David dies while on tour in Japan. The movie portrays it as the family story, that he died of a sudden illness, while most historians believe that he died of a drug overdose. Either way, the grim reaper of wrestling could claim him—he either went to Japan knowing he was sick (the family story, and the way it was portrayed in the film, because he didn’t want to let his family down) or he died from the use of painkillers or recreational drugs, something the wrestling industry forced on nearly every star of that time period.

As the movie progresses, the body count rises, all with pro wrestling to blame. Mike Von Erich, who debuted only a few months before David’s death, struggles to live up to family expectations and the pressure to replace David. A shoulder injury forces him into surgery, which leads to toxic shock syndrome and puts him in a coma, causing brain damage. Mike eventually commits suicide in 1987.

For Kerry Von Erich, the story is different but also common in pro wrestling. Kerry achieves tremendous success in pro wrestling, winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and accomplishing his father’s dream. Despite the loss of his foot in a motorcycle accident, he continues to have a successful career in wrestling. While Kevin sees his career wind down during the end of the 1980s as the Dallas-territory dries up, Kerry gets work in the WWF and wins the Intercontinental Championship.

Yet despite this success and the fame of continuing to work at a high level in the pro wrestling industry, Kerry is lonely. He’s on the road and doesn’t feel connected to anyone, especially following the suicide of his brothers. The pain, both internally and externally, is drowned in pills and alcohol, and he eventually commits suicide on his family’s ranch. Chalk another one up for the grim reaper of wrestling.

The movie even spares audiences by not including Chris Von Erich, another brother who struggled to make it in pro wrestling due to his small size, who killed himself in 1991, when he was only 21.

While the movie portrays Fritz as the ultimate villain, whose paranoia and obsession with success in pro wrestling pushed his sons to the degree they felt like they had no choice but to sacrifice everything to join it–the real villain in the film is the wrestling industry itself. All of the deaths shown in the film could be attributed to the pro wrestling industry—whether it’s David’s use of recreational drugs, Mike’s battle with injuries, or Kerry’s loneliness on the road.

The movie gives off the impression that if Fritz had chosen to do anything else with his life, like run a car dealership or a landscaping business, all the brothers would have been happy living and working together in safety. But Fritz didn’t do that–he got involved in the crazy, out-of-control, carny, pro wrestling business that chewed up and spit out people like the Von Erich boys on an almost daily basis. The Iron Claw is a story about family tragedy, but it’s also an expose on the absolute terror of pro wrestling.

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