The groundbreaking animation spectacle The Iron Giant (1999) culminates in a well-known climax wherein the titular 60-foot robot saves the sleepy town of Rockwell, Maine by flying into low orbit and absorbing the full brunt of an atomic warhead. As he rockets towards what appears to be a megaton-heavy demise, he scrunches up his emotive mechanical face and announces “I’m Superman.” In the character’s final moments this line reiterates the core connection between the Iron Giant and his companion Hogarth Hughes, a plucky Mainer every-boy who bonds with the misunderstood robot through 1950s pop culture. It’s an emotional scene that launched a thousand prepubescent tears and a formative moment for many millennials who dreamed of telling and drawing stories themselves.
It all rested on a fundamental understanding of Superman and of storytelling that’s self-evident to any 5-year-old. A hero, whether they’re Superman or a robot pretending to be Superman, is goodness in the Platonic sense: an embodiment of Good-with-a-capital-G who always does the right thing, even if that means making the ultimate sacrifice.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) featured a climax that involved the actual character of Superman doing nearly the exact same thing that the Iron Giant did in 1999 – flying into space and absorbing a nuclear detonation to save countless innocent lives. Yet, the moment lands with as much cinematic weight as a dry cough in an empty theater. The mere mention of Superman’s name in The Iron Giant is weighty and momentous. But in his own movie, despite the hundreds of millions of studio dollars behind him, Superman fails to mean much. Even when Superman achieves verisimilitude with The Iron Giant in his actions, the soul is missing.
The point of contrasting The Iron Giant with more recent super hero spectacle is not to lament the lost ways of the Hollywood Blockbuster but to dig deeper and appreciate what is fundamentally great about The Iron Giant. The Iron Giant is one of those cult films that you’ll hear certain types describe as a “masterclass.” Whether in storytelling, animation, or filmmaking on a budget, followers of this film will tell you that The Iron Giant is not merely a film to look at, but a film to learn from. All this means is that, like its eponymous protagonist, there’s something that’s unquestionably valuable about The Iron Giant. It doesn’t matter that he looks like a massive killing machine or that the film grossed less than half of its budget.
The film’s story and themes are inexorably linked with its own aesthetic and production. The Iron Giant is an objectivist parable about the soul – how to extrinsically determine whether something has a soul and how such a soul can be acquired. Hogarth teaches his gentle giant the importance of a soul and in the end, after the Iron Giant’s soul has been tested through the hellfire of Cold War military aggression, it proves itself by making a sacrifice. The moral calculus is simple and effective.
The philosophy of animation and storytelling that Brad Bird implemented at Warner Brothers Animation for this feature is likewise simple. Operating on about a third of his regular Pixar-sized budget, Bird and his lead animator Richard Bazley developed a look and feel for the film that allowed them tight control without interfering with creative expression. The film is a veritable walkthrough of the history of animation leading up to it, pioneering Adobe After Effects and computer animation while also using talent from the legendary CalArts program and employing early-Disney-style production methods. The result is a world of shapes and colors that’s both naturalistic, Americana nostalgic (the town name Rockwell is no coincidence), and highly engineered, befitting the film’s themes and characters.
The film consciously asserts its place within the larger legacy of animated cinema in this way, and that’s not ancillary to its story or message. This is animation with a soul. Remember how important Superman is to the Iron Giant? Consider the fact that the robot’s boxy Futurama look is an homage to the robots that Superman fights in the 1941 Max Fleischer animated short The Mechanical Monsters. The animators who made The Iron Giant discovered their love for their craft in part because of Fleischer’s highly influential innovations with his Superman shorts, and perhaps even bonded with other enthusiasts in the same way that Hogarth and the giant do. But there’s something even deeper here.
The Iron Giant doesn’t resemble a hero even though, through Hogarth and Superman, he recognizes what it is to be a hero. When the U.S. Military attacks the Iron Giant, his character design shifts dramatically. He loses his friendly eyes and goofy smile and unveils a massive arsenal hidden inside of himself. He is poised to become the classic villain he looks like, but because he has found a soul he rejects this narrative. The Iron Giant is actively combating his own archetype by doing good.
The Iron Giant repeats a mantra throughout the film: “I am not a gun.” His animated ancestors, like the mechanical monsters Superman fought, were weapons, but he is not. The Iron Giant is both the culmination and the subversion of decades of animated popular cinema. By sticking to its true guns – heroism, the soul, and doing good – it teaches us just how good a film can look and feel.