‘The Iron Giant’ and the Superman Moment
In 1957, after the Russian’s put Sputnik into orbit, a mysterious giant-sized robot falls to Earth, splashing down off the coast of Maine and befriending a nine-year-old boy.
Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) is your typical kid, who just happens to have a not-so-typical day. Discovering a giant robot (Vin Diesel) chewing on power lines one night, he rescues the mechanical beast from electrocution by switching off its power. This somehow gives the robot a case of amnesia, prompting Hogarth to show his new king-sized friend some valuable life lessons while keeping a nosy, nasty government agent and the massing U.S. army from destroying what they believe is something sent to obliterate humans.
While amnesia is one of the most tiresome tropes in cinema (Wikipedia lists no less than 85 films in their subcategory for the affliction), it does at least have the advantage of allowing the audience to learn as the protagonist (or antagonist for that matter) does, even if that protagonist is a 50 foot, alien, flying robot with the laser gun hands and optional hydra heads. And sounds just like Groot.
Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), The Iron Giant isn’t a loud, clunky kid’s cartoon with lots of action and meaningless special effects. Instead, much like anything Bird does, is a remarkably rich and personal story that is more interested in developing characters and relationships. The robot is a highly likable figure who is much more than he seems, and the importance of being discovered by a child rather than an adult makes a huge difference in how Giant evolves. Hogarth’s kindness to the weaponized machine has great impact on the robot, one we watch and appreciate just as much as Giant.
Story is key and The Iron Giant has plenty, with a great cast providing excellent dialog, including Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr. A fun family film, there is a lot of depth while both children and adults can relate.
The Superman Moment
The Giant is actually a deadly weapon that lost its primary programming when it crash landed on Earth, which turned it mostly docile, unless it suspects there is a danger and then automatically activates defensive measures, which, under the right light, seem downright aggressive. When it saves the lives of two boys, the town is surprised by its peacefulness, though the army isn’t so convinced and attacks the robot, eventually shooting it down, where it (and the army) thinks it has killed Hogarth. But when Hogarth appears unharmed, the army stands down except for the twisted government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who defies orders and sets off a nuclear missile aimed directly at Giant and by extension, the town.
Mansley is arrested (once Giant captures him) yet it becomes clear that there is no time for evacuation before the town will be obliterated. Hogarth explains to Giant how the missile is tracking him and will destroy the people in the village. Earlier, Giant discovered that he loves Superman, deciding that he wants to be the man of steel, though worried that, because of a similar looking evil robot in one comic book issue, he is better suited as a villain. Hogarth assured him that no, “You are who you choose to be,” and it the recollection of this sentiment that inspires Giant to take to the sky and sacrifice himself for the boy who saved his life in more ways than one.
Why it Matters
The bond between Giant and Hogarth is formed on trust and innocence. The boy understands a little about adult human nature, but not enough to be cynical yet. Giant is exactly like a child. Unaware of how the adult world operates, he is confined to the isolation of the forest he lands in and the good-natured heart of his companion. The two bond because each recognizes the other for what they are, not for what they could be.
Superman is a hero and has been the most popular one since his debut because he is, above all, a righteous being. His abilities make him godlike on Earth, yet he uses these powers to protect and preserve justice, endlessly putting himself in danger for the betterment of mankind. Giant recognizes he himself is unlike the tiny inhabitance of this strange planet, and while he might not have the gifts of the Man of Steel, he does possess his courage.
Sacrifice in film can be one of the more emotional moments in a story. Done right, it can give the audience a powerful sense of humanity to a character or situation, especially if the act is linked to something we are already invested in. Here, it is Hogarth, who doesn’t ask of his friend to save the people, instead willing to stand beside him to the end. It is the growth in Giant that completes the arc, standing in the street looking down at the doomed people. He knows he must act. His design is to destroy, and so he shall, but not as he was once programmed to do. Time to be a hero.
His farewell to Hogarth is immensely touching because we know what he is about to do and for what reasons. His tender goodbye is very emotional. And very human. That’s because Hogarth has been a great influence. Giant lacks the capacity to express but his gestures and sentiment are so genuine, his feelings are perfectly clear. Diesel’s voice work is incredibly emotive, despite the limited dialog, and it’s certainly because of the limitation that makes it so effective, the broken English reduced to the most powerful words, given great depth by Diesel’s baritone delivery.
While Giant zooms toward the approaching missile, the magnificent score by Michael Kamen rises up to meet the flying robot. He then smiles believing (rightly) that he has become a true hero as the weapon speeds toward him. And how is that related to the audience? With a single word: Superman. It’s a credit to the writing, direction, and actors that so much can be understood with so little as that one word carries much weight and hits with the same impact as the missile. It’s great movie making.
Tim McCanlies (screenplay), Brad Bird (screen story by)
Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel