The Iron Giant isn’t the first movie I ever saw. It is the first movie I remember wanting to see. In fact, I wanted to see it so much that I overcame my trepidation surrounding movie theaters (the loud noise made me anxious) and convinced my parents to take me twice. I remember buying the VHS as soon as it came out, and I remember my dad exchanging it for the fullscreen version because he thought the letterboxing was a mistake. Though the prevalence of other movies from that time in popular culture drowned it out, The Iron Giant was an undeniable influence on my childhood and my early film education.
I think I’m in the minority on that. The Iron Giant was a financial disaster upon release. It surprised me to learn that many of my colleagues here at Audiences Everywhere have never seen it. Why was it such a bomb? Looking back, it’s not hard to guess. The film presents ideas that were still raw for an America only a decade removed from the Cold War. The third act’s melancholy take on nuclear warfare may have hit too close to home. America wasn’t interested in reliving its paranoia through the lens of an animated children’s film.
More importantly, the film doesn’t use that nuclear context to affirm American values. The film associates Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) with the color red, our first indication of the film’s dismantling of jingoism. Antagonist Kent Mansley’s (Christopher Macdonald) paranoia regarding the “other” is an exaggeration of an idea that may seem perfectly reasonable to some — that the things we understand the least should be treated with the most precaution. The film reveals the problematic logic there by portraying the titular Giant as dangerous only when provoked. It’s unclear whether his mission was to destroy humanity or just their weapons. America tends to like it when films assert our greatness by showcasing the legitimacy of our ideals. The Iron Giant is far more interested in tearing down that patriotic cover and pointing out the violence and xenophobia inherent to so many of the things this country holds dear. It’s also strongly anti-gun. It’s no wonder this movie was such a disaster at the box office.
The film is set in Rockwell, Maine, a not-so-subtle nod to Normal Rockwell, whose paintings remain a strong influence on our collective memory of the time period. The conflicting attitudes of Hogarth and Kent set the stage for America’s coming culture war. With his trenchcoat, fedora, and pipe, Kent is the old world personified. The Giant’s arrival pushes Kent’s disgust for non-American cultures to the forefront, and the fact that these feelings carry over to Hogarth (a sympathizer with this foreign “culture”) allows the first blows to be struck for and against the counter-culture movement. Hogarth’s young age makes him something of a blank slate — something he and the Giant have in common — so any opinions he has aren’t muddled by politics and personal biases. After his first encounter with the Giant, he draws a sketch that shows him frowning sadly. In reality, the Giant’s face has little emotional range, but Hogarth can intuitively read emotion out of it. Kent later reads the Giant’s neutral stance in the middle of town as an attack. Hogarth is compassionate where Kent is fearful, frustrated where Kent is indignant. And why shouldn’t he be? Hogarth is aware that he lives in a society that suppresses individuality and difference. At one point, the Giant imitates Hogarth making a funny face, and Hogarth says, “That’s the kinda stuff that makes ‘em shoot at you.” Hogarth’s knowledge of the danger of dissent makes his stand against “the man” even more heroic.
The Iron Giant’s commentary on 1950s culture extends to its pop culture. In the simplest ways, the film is an homage to 50s sci-fi B-movies. A scene early on has Hogarth watch one of those movies, and the stilted, wooden acting is an amusing wink to the film’s ancestors. The film is about a mutant brain that is last seen eating the scientist that created it, so the scene also serves as a reminder of the world Hogarth lives in. Science is scary and dangerous, and the people who practice it are hoisted by their own petards, clearly reflecting the anxieties of the time. Of course, it’s not all negative. The junker/artist Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), whose name evokes James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, owns a junkyard whose slogan is “Where art and junk meet!” This seems to acknowledge the ability of science-fiction to transcend the cheesy thrills that seemed inherent to the genre at the time. Nowadays, sci-fi is the dominant genre. No one bats an eye when an auteur director makes a sci-fi film. Dean is sort of the proto-Kubrick, making enigmatic works of art with pure genre elements. Kent is also very reminiscent of the villain of one of the great films of the 1950s: The Night of the Hunter. Both the Reverend Harry Powell, played so indelibly by Robert Mitchum, and Kent are adult men in typically trustworthy positions of power who menace children in search of information. Both win the favors of single mothers to get close to those children, and both fall into slapstick goofiness when they are thwarted. The similarities in the films’ antagonists represent an important archetype to the 50s — the powerful man whose social status masks sinister motives.
It’s such a shame. The Iron Giant should have been a generation-defining myth, and it sets itself up to be. The Giant’s Christ-like sacrifice in the film’s climax comes not out of duty or instruction, but selflessness. Think about all the superhero movies that have been released since 1999. How many of them featured truly altruistic heroes? In more recent years, humanity seems to have entirely faded from these films. Superheroes have forgotten what they’re fighting for in the first place, and their conflicts have become more and more personal. Imagine the last fifteen years of cinema with the influence of The Iron Giant. Heroes now are more marketing tools than myths. The Iron Giant directly hearkens back to the days when superheroes weren’t driven by muddled human emotion but by basic universal ethics. Its blatant references to Superman recall that character’s blatant references to Jesus, and in doing so the film positions its titular character to pick up their baton. In a perfect world, the Iron Giant would be as vital a cultural myth as Superman.
On the other hand, the film might be better off this way. It sounds cruel, but history looks kinder on under-seen gems than massive successes. Had it been a pop-culture phenomenon, would people look back on it so fondly 15 years later? Ultimately, it’s irrelevant. The film is the film, and quality always wins in the end. Fifteen years from now, perhaps it’ll be the universally beloved classic it deserves to be. For the moment, it’ll have to be content with being universally beloved by everyone who has seen it. As reputations go, it doesn’t get much better.