The Iron Giant Signature Edition hit theaters this past month for a mere two days to celebrate its 16th anniversary and first release on digital formats. The movie, directed by Brad Bird (the Incredibles, Tomorrowland, Disney’s Ratatouille, among others) was always a wonderfully done take on common modern myths and pop culture, ranging from Superman and ET to the Terminator. It keyed in our paranoia of government and foreigners, and the familiar ideology that the people who raise us are vital to what we become.
The Signature Edition, however, includes a short but key new scene that adds an incredibly ominous layer to the seemingly kid-friendly veneer, where we–the audience–learn the Giant was unquestionably created to be an indestructible destroyer of worlds. Set amidst the height of the cold war in 1957, the themes of the relationship between a 9-year old boy named Hogarth and the robot are at odds with the intensely paranoid and destructive realities so many of the adults around him are dead set on inflicting.
The army’s willingness to utilize extreme measures (including nuclear weapons) against a foe they know nothing about is still a telling picture of American society, both now and then. In the original version, there was no doubt the Giant was an impressive and seemingly unstoppable being. Here, thanks to the added flashback, we witness the brutal reality of its purpose and are left with the thought that the Giant is a doomsday device that can actually survive a direct nuclear strike. The movie, once we move past awesome childhood fantasies of having a giant robot buddy, becomes more than slightly terrifying.
So, how much do we delve into the analysis of this (or any other movie really)? There’s never been a film sequel (and really, what would it be, if done up true to the story?), so we can only speculate. The robot either holds on to the life lessons it learned from Hogarth and his comic books, or it succumbs to its nature thanks to the inevitable onslaught of adults intent on pursuing their aggressive and paranoid agendas right to their inevitably bitter end.
Iron Giant’s roots stem from the children’s science fiction novel, The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights, written by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes in 1968. Pete Townsend of the Who would later go on to write and perform a rock opera of the story in 1989, before co-producing this film in 1999. So, clearly, there’s a fair amount of people out there thinking about giant warbots.
The original novel, however, is vastly different. The giant is never given an origin and remains happy in its scrap heap, after reaching a compromise with the locals of a small English farming village it was razing for metal food. The book ends in a bizarre twist when the giant outsmarts a space dragon the size of Australia. The Iron Man was, at heart, an anti-war piece done up in a fairy tale motif. Bird and company used the basics of the story and heavily Americanized it, to create one of the most interesting revisions of the Superman myth.
It’s easy to think of the film as a reversed version of Superman’s origin, taking the usual comic book (and professional wrestling) clichés of face and heel roles. Almost all comic book characters–especially the villains–inevitably temporarily switch sides at the convenience of the story line. The Signature Edition of the Iron Giant shows us this robotic super hero clearly started out as the villain (or the ‘heel’) of some now-dead world. Worse, it’s a world the giant destroyed.
Now on Earth, suffering from amnesia and guided by the fatherless Hogarth whose main male role models are comic book characters, the giant can switch roles in a near vacuum. After all, no one on Earth really knows its true nature and the only beings that would are all dead or, presumably, his fellow robots far off in space probably still destroying other worlds. We seem to collectively love stories of redemption, but how far gone does a wannabe hero have to be before they’re completely written off?
On Earth, the giant (voiced with amazing emotional sincerity and grunting by the lord of grunting actors, Vin Diesel) evolves to have a conscious and the desire to be a hero–both for Hogarth and itself. The film mirrors Terminator 2 closely in this regard, essentially showing rather than telling us that 'hey, if machines can change, maybe we can too.’ It’s not a bad lesson to learn from an animated movie, where most of the competition is still obsessed with princesses, fart jokes, and song and dance numbers.