Note: This movie was recently covered on our podcast, Media Obscura, which is linked at the end of this post.
Oh boy, do I love The Iron Giant. Look, I’m not gonna waste anyones time with this post. Watch The Iron Giant. Stream The Iron Giant. Crush The Iron Giant into a powder and mix it into a protein shake. This movie is fantastic.
And honestly, most people know this. While it was initially slept on upon it’s release in 1999, The Iron Giant has since gone on to become a cult classic due to the popularity of it’s home release, as well it’s expanded/remastered Signature Edition, and for good reason; the film is a dynamite story with themes of pacifism/coming of age, which manages to tell its story without resorting to preaching or superfluous, long-flowing scenes of dialogue. It’s also gorgeously animated, using a mix of cel and CGI techniques and features a gorgeous color palette, a classic-as-all-hell soundtrack and all the nods to 1950’s culture and the cold war a man could hope or dream for.
Unless you like to add metatexual references to every movie you watch, of course. If so, you’ll also love The Iron Giant for a whole other reason (see below, spoilers and all that stuff).
A lot of the praise that The Iron Giant gets is over how it handles it’s titular character, an alien visitor that is quickly depicted and pinned as being an allegory for Superman. Much like The Man of Tomorrow, The Giant is shown to be a kind hearted and immensely powerful being. And, much like Zach Synder’s 2013 effort Man of Steel, he’s also greeted by a confused and concerned US Government that believes that he’s a weapon of mass destruction. Comparisons like these (which were bound to happen, given the fact that the movie itself compares The Giant to Superman) have since led to the movie being, perhaps somewhat jokingly, referred to as “The Best Superman Movie,” by its fans.
And honestly, while I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I feel that it glosses over a huge point of the movie itself.
See, for all the good that the Superman comparison does for the movie, I can’t help but feel like it undervalues the fact that The Giant chose to be a hero. While Superman also made this decision at some point of his life, especially if we look at the DCEU’s interpretation of the character, Superman’s decision to be a hero was never the focal point of the character. Superman’s MO, to my understanding, has always been that he’s been the ultimate immigrant story. Superman’s about coming to a new world and adopting it as his new home. While he ultimately represents being the purveyor of what’s good/just in humanity, he has always held onto his Kryptonian heritage.
And it’s with that in mind that I feel like considering The Iron Giant a “Superman movie” falls flat. If we want to look at it in terms of being a movie about a being with incredible power using it to protect those around him… Well, wouldn’t Spider-Man be the better analogy? I mean, that sounds an awful lot like that franchises mantra of “With great power, comes great responsibility,” doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we, like, get The Iron Giant in the next MCU Spider-Man movie? After all, The Iron Giant was an adaptation of a book that was originally titled The Iron Man… Just saying.
I’m not the only one to ever point that out, by the way. Movies With Mikey actually brought this up several years ago in a phenomenal video essay he produced on the film, and I’m sure this interpretation of the movie has come up before. While I am genuinely okay with interpreting the film as a take on Spider-Man (or even Superman for that matter), I think it’s important to remember that the film *isn’t* an adaptation of either of those characters or their story. Yes, Superman and him being a hero factors into the story of the film, but that hardly means it’s trying to be a Superman story.
If anything, I view The Iron Giant as an incredible story that uses the Superman reference due to the bold timelessness that one gets out of bringing the character up. Simply put, Superman is universal. He’s been around since the early 20th century and, for better or for worse, the publics perception of the guy has hardly changed over the years. The reference is a simple act of plot utility as far as I’m concerned. The movie wanted to define what a “hero” is and Hogarth used Superman to do so. This was perfect because it cut out a bunch of monologuing about what defines good because everyone already understands who Superman is. The climactic peak of the movie isn’t saying that The Giant wants to be Superman himself, it’s saying that he chooses to be a Superman-type. You know, a good person. It’s just kinda hard to see that when you get all the other Superman references that are in the movie and then hear The Giant’s last words are “Superman.”
Then again, it would’ve been weird to have him articulate that he really meant that he wanted to be a hero that lives in the mold of superman. I dunno, I would’ve been here for it personally but I see how it would’ve killed a very emotional moment in the movie.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Iron Giant isn’t a Superman movie, nor do we need it to be. It’s just a really, really, really good movie in general that has climbed its way to cult status and deserves that title.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post! If you wanna hear more of my thoughts on The Iron Giant, perhaps consider checking out my podcast, Media Obscura? We did an episode on the movie there and you might learn a few additional things about the movie! You can listen to it on every major podcast player!
Alternatively, you could listen to our episode (with Full Video!) from the comfort and glory of the good ol’ YouTube: