The Iron Giant: Signature Edition

"What if a gun has a soul?" Reymous rediscovers the most underrated animation in the '90s and explores its complex moral themes.
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    Plot: A young boy befriends a giant robot from outer space that a paranoid government agent wants to destroy.
    Release Date: 6 August, 1999
    Director: Brad Bird
    Screenplay: Tim McCanlies
    Screen Story: Brad Bird
    Based On: "The Iron Man" by Ted Hughes
    Starring: Vin Diesel (The Iron Giant), Eli Marienthal (Hogarth Hughes), Jennifer Aniston (Annie Hughes), Harry Connick Jr. (Dean McCoppin), Christopher McDonald (Kent Mansley)

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    "You are what you choose to be."

    The Iron Giant is a cinematic masterpiece. This is the kind of exceptional storytelling I could only find every couple of years in my never-ending search for stories that resonate deeply with me. Like many other amazing films now considered to be the gold standard of cinema (such as The Godfather), it too didn't earn its much-deserve appreciation 'till many years down the road. Hindsight is a funny thing.

    Back in the '80s, animated films being profitable was literally unimaginable. But then, Walt Disney released The Little Mermaid in '89 and got the ball rolling on the aptly named "Renaissance Era." While I used to be a big advocate of Disney back then – and I won't lie, RE was a significant part of my childhood – looking at something truly unique and ambitious like The Iron Giant just evokes a tinge of sadness within me for such criminally underrated films. Due to poor marketing by Warner Brothers, the film suffered a horrifying $31.3 million box office gross out of its (at least) $70 million budget. It wasn't just a "box office bomb," it was practically nuclear. What in the blue hell went wrong?

    Let me put it in perspective for you just how shocking this financial flop truly was. In 1999, you had the latest Disney adaptation of popular literature icons; this time Tarzan, the guy whom we've seen on the big-screen countless times before this latest incarnation. That thing out-sold The Iron Giant: an intelligent animated movie that not only painted a frighteningly realistic picture of the Cold War and its paranoia, it also explored the complex subjects of morality, individualism, propaganda, xenophobia and persecution against the different and unknown. The jungle man outsold this mind-blowing human study in the guise of a children's film by over $400 million. FOUR HUNDRED MILLION. What the blazing hell? And I actually liked Tarzan too! But by comparison, it might as well have been a Transformer movie! Michael Bay, not the animated one!

    But in spite of all the hoopla and all the praise it has now received, just how amazing is this movie, really? Does it deserve its cult status as one of the most underrated movies in the history of cinema? Is "The Iron Giant" really that good? Let's dig deeper.

    STORY
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    The film is set in the Cold War period of 1957, shortly after the launch of the Soviet Union satellite, Sputnik 1. Brad Bird brilliantly established the tone for the rest of the entire film through the very first thing the audience lay their eyes on: the satellite itself circling the planet with its watchful eye, spreading paranoia and fear across the next hour and 30 minutes. But never fear, for just seconds past that horrifying sight, our hero comes to save the day in a bright shining ball of light hurtling onto Earth, in a fashion very similar to Superman's arrival on Earth. This parallel was intentional.

    Shortly after, we are introduced to our other protagonist, nine year old Hogarth Hughes, a bright and cheerful kid who lives with his single mother, Annie Hughes. You could tell the kid's a bit of an outcast; he has a tough time fitting in school, constantly finds companionship in animal friends like squirrels and raccoons than human ones, and he loses himself in the fantasies of comics and late night horror films. He soon encounters the titular Iron Giant whom he initially presumed to be an "invader from Mars."

    What follows seems to be a conventional and playful adventure with the kid teaching the grey titan (as a parent would) about forming basic words and sentences for communication and hiding from the crowd to avoid panic. He also feeds him chunks of metal from the local junkyard owned by beatnik artist, Dean McCoppin, an outcast of sorts himself who crafts art pieces from those forgotten metal scraps. This idyllic tale of a boy and his friendly giant, however, eventually delves into the provocative subject of morality and free will when the giant is introduced to Hogarth's stash of comics. One comic features "The Spirit," a comic which director Brad Bird had attempted to turn into a movie. A second comic shows "Superman," the very embodiment of heroism and righteousness across the world. But the giant notices a third comic beneath that book, "Atomo, the Metal Menace," an icon that the metal giant is more often associated with in reality: a giant killer robot that causes mayhem and destruction. The giant winces in fear and sorrow at the resemblance he shares with that menace, but Hogarth comforts him by comparing him to Superman, "a good guy," not a villain like Atomo.

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    The subject of morality is explored further when the giant and Hogarth witness a pair of hunters shooting a deer and killing it. The two grown men then flee in terror at the sight of this would-be robot killer when they themselves have snuffed out a life. Hogarth then teaches the giant about death and the inevitability of it. Furthermore, he conveys the notion that "guns kill, and killing is bad." This guileless connection from the innocent eyes of a child nurtures the giant with that same innocence, associating guns with wrongness. Later on, when the giant realizes he's the very thing he's trying to avoid becoming - a gun that destroys and kills - Hogarth stops him and says that he has a choice, that "we are whom we choose to be." It begs the question: is benevolence an inborn quality or a choice?

    What makes this theme on the notion of choice so powerful is its setting. During a period when everyone was manipulated through warmongering propaganda to serve the collective greater good of the nation – when every one of your choices was questioned as to whether or not they were in allegiance with an enemy faction – we see two individuals who were untainted by the influence of the collective choosing love over war. This is perhaps the movie's greatest strength. With this bleak and realistic world we recognize from history books as its backdrop, it's what the optimistic characters choose to be in spite of all the cynicism surrounding them that gave the movie its profound beauty.

    CHARACTER
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    There's something to be said about stock characters being subverted through either the surrounding plot or the character development. Usually, I would state something along the lines of "character" matters a lot more than "plot." In this case, however, one isn't as perfect without the other. Almost all the characters here are recognizable archetypes from other movies, but it's what happens to them and how they interact with the plot that give them depth and symbolism as part of the bigger story Brad Bird was trying to tell.

    In any other film, Hogarth wouldn't be any more special than any other child protagonist in an animated feature trying to fit in with society. When placed in this Cold War context, however, being different from everybody takes on a greater meaning than just generic high school movie tropes like a non-existent social life. Even at school, the way he stands out from the crowd was portrayed uniquely. There is propaganda abound here "educating" children about the preventive measures one should take during a nuclear attack, and you could tell that the other kids are influenced by such fearmongering when they talk about how the giant robot might have been sent by other countries as some form of weapon. Hogarth, on the other hand, has no input towards such paranoid notion and merely states what he saw the night before: a giant robot that eats metal. If he wanted to fit in, he could have simply went along with the flow of the conversation, but instead, he stuck with the facts.

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    Furthermore, considering the brainwashing done to the children at the time regarding nuclear strikes, you would think that he would flee in terror upon seeing the giant robot for the first time, maybe presuming that it's a nuclear weapon of sorts he has seen so many times in those PSAs. Instead, he saw the giant for what it was, and what it was at the time of his encounter was a creature in pain, assaulted by the electric shocks from the substation powering the city. This difference in inferring from what he sees instead of assuming the worst exemplifies the generation gap between him and those who have lived through (or in the other children's case, influenced by) the horrors of WWII.

    Then you have the titular iron giant, whose origin was kept vague and unknown in the original release of the film, and it wasn't 'till the Signature Edition's release that we find out he's part of a large robot army bent on destroying planets. Similar to Hogarth, the giant seems like your typical big friendly giant in many cartoons. He plays with the kid, the kid teaches him about the world, and he's a gentle soul who wouldn't even harm a fly – typical "boy and his non-human friend" premise. But what distinguishes him from the others and gives him greater meaning is the plot development and how he reacts to it. In fact, the giant being a stocky blank slate character is exactly what makes him far more compelling than Hogarth as a philosophical study of whether our environment influences us.

    Without Hogarth's guidance or the plotline involving the dead deer and the Superman comic, it's arguable that the giant might have turned out to be a lot less benevolent; maybe even ultimately becoming the Atomo he was programmed to be. But on the flip side, it's not that clear cut either, because we all know that bump on his head ultimately stifled any destructive nature he had within him, and there was no evidence of him being aggressive before he met Hogarth. In his first meeting with the boy, instead of attacking him, he observed him like a kid would towards an animal. This was not the nature of a maniacal robot bent on destroying the planet; this was the innocence of a child.

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    Unlike the other characters, both Hogarth and the giant tin man possessed a level of freedom from the cold reality of this world, their rationality existing outside the context of all that have happened in the world before (AKA the Cold War and the WWII that came immediately before). They are essentially a clean slate, even Hogarth whose influence is not affected by the propaganda. Therefore, they serve as the perfect foils to highlight the paranoia and warmongering mentality existing within this period.

    Compare this to an adult like Kent Mansley, the perfect example to show the kind of exaggerated mistrust that has become an abundant cliche among white male government agent types today (and this was during a time when government conspiracy types like Fox Mulder from "The X-Files" was considered a cool thing), yet he too serves a greater purpose in the context of the movie. His reaction to the giant robot was revealed to be the kind of fear and delusion a "rational" adult during the Cold War would have towards a giant robot: calling it a weapon of mass destruction manufactured by foreign countries. When he confronts Hogarth regarding the existence of the robot, he compares the machine to Sputnik, the foreign satellite watching over the world like a big giant eye – emphasis on "foreign." He conveys to him his sense of insecurity, only to be (frivolously) queried by Hogarth what he was talking about - and he snaps.

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    "What am I talking about?! I'm talking about your goldarned security, Hogarth! While you're snoozing in your widdle jammies, back in Washington, we're wide awake and worried! Why? Because everyone wants what we have, Hogarth! EVERYONE! You think this metal man is fun, but who built it? The Russians? The Chinese? Martians? Canadians? I DON'T CARE!! All I know is we didn't build it, and that's reason enough to assume the worst and blow it to kingdom come! Now, you are going to tell me about this thing, you are going to lead me to it, and we are going to destroy it before it destroys us!"

    Notice what Kent was initially angry about: Hogarth's lack of concern for the issue that sent the world at large spiraling into mass panic. All the nations across the planet were prepping for the other guy to bombard their country with the big one, and while it's an extreme view, it had its grounds for concern by the government and everyone in the world. And here we have this kid, different from everyone else, frolicking about in La La Land with his giant robot buddy who might very well trigger the next world war just mere years after it concluded! Phew! Talk about heavy. Were it not for Mansley moronically firing the missile onto the very spot he stands at the end of the movie (symbolically representing the very thing everyone living in the Cold War was afraid of, our own nuclear weapons backfiring on us), I might even have sympathized with his concerns as those of a well-intentioned extremist.

    There's a satisfaction that comes from seeing familiar archetypes subverted just enough for the audience to gain a new perception never witnessed before, especially when they are also in service to a greater plot with a thought-provoking theme. I've talked a lot about the Cold War and the paranoia that comes with it, but neither of those are the main focus or the main theme; instead, they are an accessory to something more subtle and sincere.

    THEME AND IMPACT
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    "What if a gun has a soul?"

    Like many great movies hailed as classics today, The Iron Giant isn't just about a single theme, but is instead a complex amalgam of many. Aside from its more obvious association with guns and violence (which people tend to misinterpret as a liberal agenda on gun-control), The Iron Giant is, in this writer's opinion, more about choice and the dark side of our innate nature.

    The Iron Giant came to Brad Bird after a very personal period when he lost his sister, shot and murdered by her very own husband. While it's easy to assume this personal connection as Brad's statement that "guns are bad," I feel like that's a shallow assessment of the bigger theme encompassing the movie. While it's true that both the giant and Hogarth acknowledged that "killing is bad," and even when the giant himself actively avoided becoming the very thing that kills people, neither of those things remove the fact that the giant is still a weapon of destruction. So if the statement is merely "guns are bad," then we must also state that the giant himself is bad. But evidently enough, he is not. Why is that? It's because of choice. In fact, the message itself that resulted from the giant's choices might even be pro-gun than the opposite: it's not the gun that is bad, it's how you use it.

    After witnessing the death of the deer, Hogarth said a very important line: "it's bad to kill." He didn't say "guns are bad;" he said "guns kill" and that "it's bad to kill." Later on, the giant realized that he is a gun, but he chose to use his body for protection rather than killing, beyond his intended nature. More evidence that points towards this is visible near the end of the movie, when the fighter jets attacked him and his defense mechanism kicked in, but he made the conscious decision of turning it off, choosing to evade them instead. The notion of choice here is always a more dominant theme than the notion of gun violence. The parallel between the giant and Superman himself gives this theme a far greater impact as well, and the theme makes such a parallel with Superman more than just an arbitrary comparison too.

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    As I discussed earlier, Hogarth plays a significant role in grooming the giant to be benevolent, but he was hardly the root of the giant's kind and gentle nature either during their first encounter. Compare this to Superman, who was essentially a blank slate raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent, two farmers as benevolent as young boy Hogarth, both of whom raised this alien to be a force of good. Both entities could have landed anywhere on Earth - including, yes, Soviet Russia. Remember "Superman: Red Son"? The story that argued that Superman is inherently good irregardless of his external environment? That story was published in 2003, four years after The Iron Giant's release date, and yet, the movie had tackled this notion before the comic, that our inner nature might be separated from our external environment. It's a fitting coincidence too that both stories used the Soviet Russia as a plot-device to examine nature vs. nurture.

    This similarity to Superman has also led The Iron Giant to what some would call "The best Superman movie yet," and I'll tell you why there's validity in such a statement: The Iron Giant is not incapable of killing. Unlike Superman who could do no wrong, the giant was programmed to kill and destroy, and he even almost fry Hogarth and all the army guys too with his ray guns. This killing factor adds a layer of depth that "Man of Steel" would come to acknowledge 14 years later – and even then, the latter failed to create a more powerful message in regards to Superman's benevolence. In The Iron Giant's case, the message was: he chose not to kill, even when he was capable of doing so. That was far more in line with Supeman's ideal of justice and righteousness than Man of Steel ever was, shrugging off a man's death at the end and continued on with his cheap pretense as Clark Kent ("Uh, newsflash, it takes a little more than wearing a hat and/or glasses to fool people").

    I talked a lot today about story, character, theme, paranoia, propaganda, the Cold War, Superman, nature vs. nurture and the power of choice in regards to The Iron Giant, but there's one final aspect that must also be addressed: the impact, or rather, the far greater impact that would have existed had this movie not flopped. And this brings us back to what I mentioned at the very beginning: the existence of Disney.

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    Back in 1999, The Iron Giant had to compete against the likes of Tarzan, a much better marketed movie. This wouldn't be the first time Disney had a more undeserved box office gain than other animation studios either (watch out for my upcoming review of "The Prince of Egypt"). At the time, what eventually led to the fall of the giant was something that's recognizable in the modern Warner Brothers production: imitation. WB wanted to imitate the success of Disney (now Marvel) following their string of popular animated movies in the '90s (now MCU movies). And so they produced "Quest of Camelot" (now Batman v. Superman), an imitation meant to cash in on the trend at the time, but suffered a disastrous commercial failure. History repeats itself. In fact, Quest of Camelot wasn't even the first time this has occurred. Back in the late '20s, after Mickey Mouse was created, WB wanted to cash in on the animation game as well, making their cartoons as cutesy and family-friendly as Disney. But then Tex Avery came along and encouraged WB to do otherwise, to steer away from the familiar style of Disney princesses. Three generations of executive decisions that paid a higher price with each generation.

    For The Iron Giant, the price was possibly setting back 2-D animation for a long time to come. During the '90s, another studio had made significant progress in the "animation" department through computer animation. That's right - it was Pixar, and its greatest success, "Toy Story 2," which was released on the November of '99 – just a few short months after The Iron Giant. While the first Toy Story might have revolutionized the technique of animation forever, it was Toy Story 2 that fully convinced the populace, not The Iron Giant, that mature storytelling could be incorporated into animation. I love Toy Story 2 - it's my favorite movie (not just animated movie) of all time - but that credit should have been given to Brad Bird, especially when you consider how it would have changed the 2-D animation landscape in a way we would never see today. Could you imagine if The Iron Giant was the popular thing instead of Toy Story? Think of what the animated films for the next five or ten years would have been like. It might have very well changed the target audience of animated films far earlier, turning all cartoons from G to PG. Instead, we got forgettable Disney sequels like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "The Emperor's New Groove," and the above average "Treasure Planet"; the latter of which was a good film, but its conventional "boy becomes a man" story was miles away from the provocative storytelling that's The Iron Giant.

    To be fair, it wasn't entirely WB's fault. After its test screening, The Iron Giant received positive reaction from its audience, and WB wanted to delay its release date a year after. Brad was understandably unhappy with WB's back-pedaling and admonished them to release it earlier, leaving the studio with little time to put together proper marketing material.

    THE SIGNATURE EDITION
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    The Signature Edition, a remastered and extended cut of the film released on the September of 2015, features two additional scenes. One of them further fleshes out the relationship between Annie and Dean in a pleasant conversation; another offers a far more significant context: "The Giant's Dream," a nightmarish sequence where the robot recalls fragments of his past as part of an army of killer robots programmed to destroy the planet, just like Atomo.

    While I have no problems regarding the scene with Annie and Dean (their cute banter with each other gives the movie a level of charm), personally, I think the dream sequence is a tad unnecessary. Even if it provides the audience with greater knowledge of the context, we could have easily reached the same conclusion without them. The fact that the giant's background remained vague and unknown was what made the revelation so shocking in the first place, shocking enough that it instantly grabbed the audience's attention. The impact just isn't as great when we already know of his origin.

    THE VERDICT
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    The Iron Giant shall be remembered for centuries to come as one of the greatest animated classics of all time. Like most works that were considered to be "masterpiece," the title isn't only associated with its quality, but also what it accomplished at the time. "Citizen Kane" might not seem like a revolutionary story today, but it shaped the filmmaking industry itself for the rest of history. The same could be said for what The Iron Giant could have done for the animation industry, had it not been for its poor marketing and commercial failure. And even with its flop, it's a fact that it offered a unique brand of philosophical storytelling that excelled beyond anything Disney or even Dreamworks have achieved at the time.

    The Iron Giant is cool. The Iron Giant is intelligent. The Iron Giant has heart. The Iron Giant is really that good.

    Final Rating: 5/5

    About Author

    ReymousFumes
    A big fan of Spider-Man who grew up on the '90s animated series, Reymous (Wee Boon Tang) has been following Spider-Man comics for nearly a decade. He loves talking about movies and Spider-Man. He particularly enjoys stories that defy conventions and subvert cliches.
    Tonto-banchou and Shannon Apple like this.

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