The summer of 1999 saw the release of a charming animated fable with a heart of iron. The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s feature directorial debut, is about childhood innocence, an unlikely friendship, and a hulking mechanical man with a penchant for eating scrap metal. And yes, it’s one of the Best Summer Movies Ever.
The Iron Giant, like many sci-fi stories, is a parable about the Other, about the dangers and injustices that accompany an implicit rejection of the unfamiliar. The film develops that theme by showing us the heartwarming bond that forms between kid-protagonist Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his extraterrestrial best friend, the titular Giant (Vin Diesel).
The bond between these two characters grows through a number of madcap adventures, from days spent clomping around the forests of Maine to a harrowing attempt at hiding the Giant’s detached metal hand from a prying FBI investigator. But the two also find common ground in another way: through the admiration that they share for their favorite superhero, Superman. The film uses Superman as a framework to describe the Giant’s plight as an immigrant extraterrestrial and in the process illustrates the beautiful connection that can form between kids and the heroes they admire.
From the start, we see Hogarth taking enjoyment in escapist entertainment; he stays up late watching B movies on his rabbit-eared TV and owns an impressive comic book collection, with 10-cent issues of Mad magazine, The Spirit, and Red Menace cropping up throughout the film. He’s also a lonely kid, a fact expressed by Hogarth himself during an espresso-fueled rant; it turns out that he skipped a grade and doesn’t quite fit in at school.
After his first encounter with the Giant, we see this dynamic in action. Hogarth slouches in class, scribbling in his notebook while “Duck and Cover” PSAs flash on another rabbit-eared unit. When his classmates’ conversation turns to him, he ignores their ire by completing a caricature of the Giant in his notebook. Here, drawing comic characters is a telling form of escapism, providing Hogarth with an outlet through which to express his feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s also telling that Hogarth immediately sees the Giant as one of those characters, as a hero.
Hogarth comes to understand the Giant through explicitly connecting him to Superman. As Hogarth describes of his favorite superhero, “He started off just like you! Crash-landed on Earth, didn’t know what he was doing, but he only uses his powers for good, never for evil. Remember that.” This moment reads like an origin story of sorts; here, Hogarth latches onto his perception of the Giant as one of the “good guys,” despite his physical resemblance to the villainous robot Atomo, a character in another one of his comics. In turn, from this moment onward, the Giant himself embraces this perception of heroism. He’s fascinated by Hogarth’s description and endeavors to honor his friend’s admiration by rejecting his more destructive impulses to become a hero himself.
While it’s easy to frame this connection as a dichotomy between child and hero, there’s also something to be said of how the Giant embraces heroism through his own childlike sensibilities. Throughout the film, we see the Giant learning to speak and “Superman” is one of his first words. Additionally, when Hogarth introduces the Giant to the hero, he does so by using his comics as a “bedtime story.” And of course, as the Giant and Hogarth engage in imaginative play, there’s an innocence and earnestness to his desire to perform as one of the “good guys.” Dressing himself with a giant “S” from a pile of scrap, the Giant puffs out his chest, strikes a pose, and proclaims: “I am Superman.” Here, the film not only frames the bond between these two characters as one between child and hero but rather it depicts two lonely kids who bond over a shared love of a particular character, over a story that makes them feel less alone.
Ultimately, the conclusion of the film perfectly delivers on these notions of heroism, showing us a moving convergence between childhood innocence and adult responsibility. In a touching exchange before the Giant flies off to save the world, Hogarth offers a powerful expression of love. The Giant before him is not only his hero, he is also his best friend. Additionally, for the Giant himself, he no longer performs as a hero; instead, he becomes a hero. Recalling the film’s mantra of “You are what you choose to be,” the Giant utters his most memorable line, and finally accepts himself for who he is: “Superman.”