Dev Patel as Kid, wearing a monkey mask, in Monkey Man (2024). Credit: Universal Pictures

What does the end of Monkey Man (2024) mean?

MONKEY MAN is a John Wick-like action flick where Wick isn’t motivated by the death of a cute dog, but the rage of social inequity. Instead of Keanu Reeves, we have an extremely beautiful Dev Patel making his debut as auteur. He’s been training for this. Not only is Patel’s excellent physique ready for an action vehicle, but he’s been priming us for mythic arthouse flicks with queer undertones since The Green Knight (2021).

As the story goes, Monkey Man was initially slated for a release on Netflix. Then Jordan Peele — an auteur legendary for dancing the line of metaphor and literalism — saw the movie, and he said something like, “Oh no, this is way too awesome. This needs to be seen on big screens.” There is no evidence that Peele kicked his feet and squealed with delight while watching this, but I like to imagine he did.

Spoilers ahead!

In Monkey Man, Dev Patel is known only as Kid. He witnessed the murder of his mother when police drove his community off their land so that it could be claimed by exploitative imperial forces. Since then, he’s been preparing to kill the cop who ended her life. The process of it is shown in a beautiful movie edited together like a music video, with absolutely killer needle drops, brilliant camera movement, and the most fascinating close POV.

Kid’s first attempt at revenge is admirable, but not successful. The lengthy action sequence where Kid tries to Kill The Cop is amazing. Can you imagine, being Dev Patel, writing a movie that demands getting the crap kicked out of the hero so thoroughly…and then casting yourself as that hero?

It’s viscerally satisfying to watch this first act, even if he doesn’t win (yet). It’s seeded with everything thematically important. We see how Kid is not just an underdog himself, but intimately tied to the underdogs of his community. Including a literal street dog, who he feeds using the cast-off food of the wealthy in the brothel where he works. Kid is one with the marginalized.

With no name, and with dreamy cuts between exploitation in the past and present day, it’s easy to see Kid as the very embodiment of the underclass.

He narrowly survives that first act. The second act is spent in the loving arms of hijra, who are a third-gender group in India. (In America, we would probably call them trans women, but it’s more complicated and culturally specific than that. I will be using she/her pronouns recognizing that this comparison is limited.) The leader of the hijra, Alpha, encourages Kid to remain with them as he heals. She asserts that he only survived his wounds because the gods have plans for him.

Indeed, Kid is devoutly religious. When we cut back to happier times with his mother, it’s often focused on his prayers to God, and his mother sharing the story of Hanuman.

Hanuman is shown to us as a monkey-god who ate the sun in his childhood, believing it to be fruit. As the story goes, part of his punishment is to forget his divine powers. But when it comes time to save Rama’s wife, Sita, the curse is lifted, and he remembers all that he can do. He defeats the Demon King Ravana in battle to save Sita — a story which is simplified in the movie, and I am doing my best to paraphrase from my limited understanding. (Bear with me. I’m Irish Catholic.)

A painting of Hanuman opening his chest to reveal Sita and Rama within.
A painting of Hanuman opening his chest to reveal Sita and Rama within. A version from the printing press of Ravi Varma, c.1910’s

The leader Alpha helps Kid awaken as Hanuman. She gives him a substance that essentially helps him remember his power, and there’s a sequence where he opens his chest so we may see his heart. Hanuman is often depicted opening his chest, as that is where Rama and Sita reside. Then we get a totally epic training montage where Dev Patel rips his shirt off (twice, if you count when he opens his chest), cheered on by the hijra.

And at this point, the spiritual leanings of the movie are clear. Not only does Kid embody Hanuman — the titular Monkey Man — but he goes into the brothel once again to fight with a small army of hijra at his back. As a queer person, it feels intensely meaningful for the hijra to be treated as holy like this. Obviously I’m coming at this from the wrong direction to understand all the nuance. But Dev Patel has made it clear: Kid fights for the marginalized, especially those most marginalized, and they are all holy. Hijra inclusive. No matter how “unsettling” people find them.

In the movie, our Demon King is not the man who directly killed Kid’s mother, but the man who ordered that death. He’s an enigmatic cult leader named Baba Shakti. In order to reach him, Kid has to infiltrate the brothel, save Sita (literally, there is a sex worker in this movie named Sita), and kill the cop who has become a patron of the brothel.

Although the ending makes it clear Baba Shakti is absolutely the Demon King, they don’t make it clear whether Kid survives that fight. He takes down Baba Shakti, but not before he’s gored himself.

I still don’t think this ending is ambiguous.

The second half of the movie enters mythic metaphor territory. It spends the first hour-ish showing us the ways that this fight between the holy and the demons has been repeated throughout the cycle of lives. The rich crush the small. Farmers are driven from their land. Hijra are beaten and pushed aside. Over and over again, Hanuman must save Sita from Ravana.

Thus, it does not matter at the end whether Kid literally lives or dies.

He will be back in the next cycle to fight the Demon King again: he might be back once Hanuman is once again reincarnated, OR he could arise from his wounds to fight the next Demon King (whichever individual has taken up the mantle of exploiting the marginalized). I hope it’s the latter. I would love a sequel.

Either way, the ending isn’t truly ambiguous because the Demon King fell to Hanuman, as he must. As he always will.

Monkey Man is an outstanding epic of mythic rage, and Jordan Peele was so right to pull this one out of the Netflix queue. Dev Patel has proven himself an amazing auteur as well as leading man. I can’t wait to see what he does in the next life.

(header image credit: Universal Pictures)

Leave a Reply