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The Broken Brotherhoods of Post-Pandemic Cinema

Back in April, I saw two movies in theaters: CREED III and the theatrical re-release of the Indian blockbuster RRR at the magnificent Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. If you’ve never heard of RRR, it’s an overwhelming and rollicking piece of epic historical fiction that quickly became the highest-grossing movie of all time in India last year–and you can watch it on Netflix. The story follows two real-life Indian revolutionaries who fought against colonialism, imagining the two of them as near-mythic heroes who go from the worst of enemies to the best of friends.

More to the point, seeing RRR and CREED III back to back got me thinking about an emerging pattern within many of the blockbusters we’ve received since the pandemic. Let me explain.

The plot of CREED III hinges on a long-lost friend (he’s described as being ‘like a brother’) who resurfaces in Adonis Creed’s life after a betrayal years earlier tore them apart. The enigmatic Damien, played by Jonathan Majors, feels let down by Adonis’s lack of loyalty to their friendship and wants to offer payback in a myriad of ways. The ultimate fight in the third act is a near-Shakespearean confrontation between Adonis and Damian, not just feuding as wrestling opponents, but doing battle as former brothers torn apart by the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other.

Watching that brutally engaging, anime-inspired final fight, I was hit by something: we’ve been seeing this a lot recently.

My favorite movie of last year, The Banshees of Inisherin, might best be summarized as a movie about broken brotherhood as well. Pádraic Súilleabháin and ColmSonnyLarry have been “the best of friends” for years, going to the pub at 2 pm every day to idly chat about Pádraic’s donkey, until one day Colm decides that he’s done denying the obvious: Pádraic is not an interesting friend, and Colm has better things to do with his time than listen to his nonsense. Pádraic is, of course, deeply wounded by this betrayal—and the movie’s central conflict spins out from there.

Top Gun: Maverick might have more of a father/son-type relationship than a friendly one, but Maverick and Rooster certainly have brotherly conflicts. Rooster resents Maverick for his involvement in his father’s death, and for holding him back from flight academy at his mother’s request. Maverick doesn’t know how to make things right.

Then there’s Avatar: The Way of Water, where the tension between Lo’ak and his older brother Neteyam—and their tension with the other boys in the reef tribe—drives much of the drama in the second act. Not to mention Jake Sully and Colonel Quaritch, who were in some sense military “brothers in arms” in the first film and have since taken completely opposing sides in a war.

Even AmbuLAnce, the first great movie Michael Bay has made in 20 years (!), has a fascinating adopted-brother relationship (and conflict) between Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

And then there are the movies that have come out this year, like Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy, which imagines Peter Pan and Captain Hook as former best friends who betrayed each other and eventually find a way to reconcile. Or John Wick: Chapter 4, where the sinister High Table forces one of John Wick’s former allies (Cain, played by Donnie Yen) to attempt to track him down and kill him. I won’t spoil John Wick: Chapter 4, but that friendship plays an interesting role in the finale.

When I think about a movie that best exemplifies the ideal concept of brotherhood, though, it’s definitely RRR. Indian revolutionaries Ram and Bheem are mortal enemies who don’t know it, and through a seemingly coincidental twist of fate, accidentally become the best of friends. There’s a montage set to a song called “Dosti,” which literally means “Friendship,” including lines like “an unpredictable gust of wind has erased the distance between the two of them,” and “won’t this friendship break one day in the form of betrayal?” As their bond grows, the lingering threat of their eventual conflict does, too—and it all culminates in the second half.

I think it’s pretty clear: there’s a pattern of brotherly conflict and betrayal in all of these movies. In most of them, both ‘brothers’ are somewhat sympathetic to the viewer; sometimes the conflict comes from misunderstanding, or difference of priorities, or unresolved pain of the past, or a sense of masculine duty. But in all of them, things eventually come to a head. The brotherhood breaks. And then something new rises from the ashes.

Maybe, in some sense, these movies resonate deeply with audiences because they acknowledge that male friendships can be just as difficult and complex, and just as integral to human flourishing, as romantic relationships. Houston Coley

The masculinity in these movies is interesting to dissect. It’s been a season of bromances—even in movies like The Batman, which doesn’t quite have the ‘broken brotherhood’ element. I think what’s so refreshing about bromances is that they go hand in hand with sincerity; male friendships in the real world are typically defined so heavily by their irony and sarcasm and macho-posturing, and to see two guys onscreen earnestly expressing non-romantic affection for each other requires a total lack of that sardonic self-mockery, both from the characters and from the artist portraying them. One of the reasons RRR felt so fresh to American viewers was that the friendship between Ram and Bheem was pure and wholesome and affectionate in a way that we’re rarely bold enough to depict in our own blockbusters.

Speaking as a guy myself, it’s the kind of ultimate-bro-friendship I’d dream about having, but have never fully managed to attain. Even with my closest friends, there’s still a level of self-deprecation and posturing that has to be breached to have a truly sincere conversation. It’s taken 14 years for me and my best friend to be able to say “I love you, man” every now and then. Maybe, in some sense, these movies resonate deeply with audiences because they acknowledge that male friendships can be just as difficult and complex, and just as integral to human flourishing, as romantic relationships.

The role of the female characters in some of these films is an equally interesting component. Kerry Condon’s Siobhan in The Banshees of Inisherin is probably the most reasonable and even-tempered character in the film, intuitively reading between the lines of the juvenile and stubbornly masculine conflict around her. Eiza González’s character in AmbuLAnce has a similarly clearheaded disposition toward the macho insanity of Danny and Will. When the boys fight for her sake in Avatar: The Way of Water, Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri just rolls her eyes and laughs at the absurdity of it all. In Top Gun: Maverick, Penny provides Maverick with the parenting knowledge he needs to realize that he can let Rooster make his own mistakes. And even in RRR, Ram’s fiancee Seetha is the one who selflessly saves Bheem’s family and provides him with the revelation that Ram is not a traitor, catalyzing their reunion and teaming up in the third act. The women in these movies, then, are often able to see the ways that the men are seeing past each other—and kindle something that looks like a true relationship.

It’s always important to me to ask why a certain theme might be resonating through such a huge set of movies in a given period. When I ponder this “brotherly conflict” playing out in the real world, I can only think about the countless friendships and family relationships that have been impacted by the contentious events of the last few years. The pandemic felt like a time when everyone was pushed to the brink and showed their true colors; I don’t have the stats to back it up, but it feels like we could all probably think of at least one person in our lives who has, intentionally or not, become more distant from us post-2020. I guess some people came out of the pandemic feeling like we “beat it together,” but I think for the majority of people in the US especially, the world feels more divided than ever before. The tension had been bubbling beneath the surface for years, but COVID brought it writhing and wriggling into the light, and nobody has been exactly the same.

The good news about these movies, though, is that they all seem to suggest one thing: conflict built on honesty is better than peace built on denial. Colm and Padraic’s conflict reveals the way that Padraic’s ‘niceness’ has been intertwined with the repression of negative emotions, and brings Colm’s true struggle with depression into the light, forcing him to decide that he has something to live for. When Ram and Bheem finally learn the truth about each other after multiple butt-kicking misunderstandings, it allows them to team up and wreak havoc on the imperial forces like neither of them could’ve done alone. Rooster and Maverick being forced to sit in the same cockpit together and fight for their lives—and accept that they have been saved by each other—ultimately brings closure for both of them around Goose’s death. I don’t know exactly what all of this says about our current world, but maybe it’s an encouragement that actually facing our division and conflict with honesty and clearheadedness (like Siobhan in Banshees) could lead to something more livable, even if it’s not exactly friendly. “Can’t we all just get along?” isn’t working.

I’m not exactly advocating for a simplistic “both sides” narrative where we’re all just completely reasonable people seeing past each other for exclusively innocent reasons, but I do think that our division often comes from willful misunderstanding or mischaracterization of what the other person is trying to say or communicate. I’m particularly drawn to 14-year-old Kiri’s summation of the brotherly brawling in Avatar: The Way of Water: “This is so stupid!” Maybe we need some kind of divine mediator who can see through the stupidity.

Fascinatingly, I think the real revelation of these movies is that seeing two brothers fight is just as integral to the experience as watching them join forces. Watching Damien and Adonis punch each other in the face at the same time, anime-style, in CREED III was awesome. The “fire and water” standoff between Ram and Bheem in RRR is profoundly cool, but seeing them both riding a motorcycle and a horse to fight an army together is even more gratifying when it comes an hour later.

Maybe, even in our personal relationships, we need to embrace conflict to truly earn those epic team-ups. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand.


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