This year’s Disney/Pixar release, Onward, is a love letter to table-top role-playing games: two brothers bond over their journey of overcoming shared grief by going off on a fantastical and zany Dungeons & Dragons adventure. As much as the film is a delightful pastiche of high fantasy TRPGs, it ponders more delicate issues about masculinity and the expectations of stoicism and toughness that attend to it. It poses some interesting questions about the place geek culture occupies within masculinity, while also reflecting how things are changing very gradually.
In TRPG terms, the adventure hook for Onward is that two brothers, Ian and Barley, go on a quest to find a MacGuffin that will bring their dead father back for a day. Ian is a shy, nerdy, awkward sixteen-year-old and his older brother Barley is a well-meaning, bumbling oaf whose heart is in the right place. Barley really loves Quests of Yore, the film’s equivalent of D&D: he has painted miniatures, the spell cards, the manuals, and even an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the game’s lore. As the quest he and Ian go on mirrors the adventures of a role-playing campaign, it is clear that these fantasies are the only outlet he gets for his creativity and his energy. He is otherwise written off by those around him — his brother, his mother’s new boyfriend, and even the town’s authorities with whom he has had many a scrape — as a pitiable embarrassment.
But Barley reveals later that throughout his life he has been harbouring a secret: when he had the opportunity to see his father in hospital before he died, he felt too scared and didn’t go, and he lives with the regret of never having said goodbye as well as the guilt for feeling too scared. His brash, fearless, over-protective, and caring exterior as he acts like the older brother are a response to this guilt in order to mask his fear and vulnerability. Chris Pratt seems to have nailed the very specific niche of grief-stricken manchild going on wild adventures to escape his feelings. Having repressed his feelings for so long, his fantasy adventures are the only place where he can express how he really feels or feel connected with other people. A similar premise was the plot of an episode of Community where Abed plays D&D to communicate with his family, and the use of table-top role-playing as a form of therapy to help people develop empathy, theory of mind, and communication skills is a burgeoning field. But Onward questions the expectations of stoicism and toughness on young men, as well as the limited contexts in which it is acceptable for them to express their vulnerability and emotions.
For both Ian and Barley, the quest that they are on allow them to not just bond with each other, but also to empathise with the vulnerability of other men in their lives. There is a moment when the boys disguise themselves as Colt, their mother’s centaur policeman boyfriend, and as Ian roleplays as Colt — channelling his own awkwardness and fear of his situation — he learns to empathise with Colt’s anxieties around being accepted by his partner’s sons and the trepidations and challenges of becoming a step parent. None of these are fears that Colt himself expresses, but it is clear from other people’s responses that they are understanding of his vulnerability, and they validate his feelings and support him through a difficult challenge in his relationships.
Table-top role-playing becomes a medium through which the boys communicate their feelings and empathise with each other. Both Ian and Barley are on very different journeys: through their quest, Ian develops a respect for his brother and an understanding of his grief and trauma, while Barley opens up to someone about the guilt that he has carried with him all his life. The ways in which their characters grow mirror each other, as Ian becomes more self-assured and confident and Barley allows himself to cry and be vulnerable. But at the same time, the film shows how these expectations around masculinity are also changing. There is a doubleness in its setting, as it leans heavily into an aesthetic that is nostalgic of American suburbia of the 1980s — with D&D, cassette tapes, minivans with heavy metal decals, and a cop straight out of Stranger Things — and at the same time a very present sense of technology with the ubiquity of smartphones. This doubleness of its temporality shows that times are changing, and this is reflected in the various characters’ acceptance of the men’s vulnerability. Both Ian and Barley are met with kindness and empathy for expressing themselves. The adults in the film are accepting and supportive of their grief, even going as far as to aid them on their quest.
Both boys learn what it means to be strong for each other in very different ways: Ian has to make a stand against a monster, having to make a difficult choice between fulfilling his life-long desires and the healing of his brother’s trauma, and Barley has to allow himself to be vulnerable, and to make peace with long-standing regrets. Ian’s heroic fight against a monster is as much an act of courage as Barley’s opening up about his feelings and reaching out. At the risk of sounding like Jonathan McIntosh of the Pop Culture Detective Agency, I feel like this is a dimension of geek masculinity that is really refreshing to see, one which runs contrary to the other kind of this trope that is often used to excuse, mask or minimise misogyny in pop culture.