Twenty years ago today, director Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant arrived in theaters, lending unexpected poignance to a gravelly uttering of the word “Superman” and bringing audiences to tears as it charmed them utterly.
Unfortunately, the audiences in question were very small—though the movie is justifiably beloved in 2019, its initial impact was limited: the people who saw it loved it, but hardly anyone saw it in theaters. Despite near-universal critical acclaim (Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote that the film felt “like a classic even though it’s just out of the box”), an indifferent studio and a bungled marketing campaign resulted in a total worldwide gross of $31 million, well below the estimated $70 million production budget.
But when it comes to a film’s success, box offices grosses only tell half of the story. Bird’s film started gaining fans as soon as it arrived on DVD, and has never stopped. Certainly its pointed warning about fear as a self-fulfilling evil is at least as relevant today as it was in 1999; its suggestion that mutual understanding is harder but more worthy than mutual destruction remains both courageous and wise. That it took a while for audiences to find and listen to what the film has to say means little in terms of the power of its message.
The story behind The Iron Giant is nearly as interesting as what wound up onscreen. It began life as a children’s novel penned by the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, widower of American poet Sylvia Plath. Published in 1968 as The Iron Man (a title quickly changed for American audiences who were already familiar with the Marvel character), it sees the mysterious title character emerge from the sea, fall from a cliff, and manage to rebuild himself before disrupting a small agrarian town by eating all of its farm equipment. A boy named Hogarth first traps the Iron Man, then later helps him to find a new source of food in the local scrap heap. When a “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” from the stars threatens the entire planet, Hogarth’s new friend comes in handy, passing along to the invader the help and understanding that was offered to him. The space creature, drawn to the excitement Earth’s violent conflicts, really just wants to sing—and its song has a calming effect on all of humanity.
A product of its time—in 1968, both the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were in full bloom—the book is simultaneously a parable of the misunderstandings that lead to war, and a consideration of the still evergreen conflict between man and machine. Hughes’ more heated 1993 sequel finds The Iron Woman stepping out of the polluted seas to take vengeance on the men who’ve accumulated wealth by destroying the natural world. Young Lucy sympathizes with the Iron Woman and the animals being killed by pollution, but her father works at the local factory, and she’s desperate to save him from the creature’s rage. Lucy turns to Hogarth for help finding a peaceful solution.
The book developed something of a cult following, even inspiring a rock opera composed and performed by The Who’s Pete Townshend—which is how the film version began life: originally it was envisioned as a musical adaption of Townshend’s show. That version of the story never made it to the screen, supplanted by a script from Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird, who is now famous as the director of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol., but was then a disgruntled ex-Disney animator who’d found success working for The Simpsons and director Steven Spielberg.
McCanlies and Bird’s take sets the story firmly in Cold War-era America, tying into the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. Now explicitly an extraterrestrial, the titular space being crashes down near Rockwell, Maine, and causes tremendous (though unintended) damage by eating power lines and train tracks to sustain itself. It finds an unlikely friend in a space-obsessed, monster movie-loving 9-year-old boy named Hogarth, who hides the Giant from his doting but distracted single mother, keeping the creature distracted with a stack of Superman comics. The Giant is possessed of enormous power (and, we eventually discover) even concealed weapons, but ultimately, whether due to damage or by design, it is childlike in nature. Government agents fearful the crash landing represents a Soviet threat flood the small town, and eventually force a confrontation between the Giant and the military in which Hogarth is injured, bringing on the mechanical man’s wrath.
Highlighting the fear of the other than defined the Red Scare—and finds echos in occurrences of xenophobia throughout history—it is not the machine’s programming but the paranoid and fearful natures of the humans that bring about the violent scenario they hoped to avoid by destroying the Giant before it could act. A missile launch aimed to annihilate the perceived threat endangers the entire town, and it’s at this moment that the creature reflects on Hogarth’s words from earlier in the film: “You are who you choose to be.” It’s also at this moment that tears will start to well up in the eyes of any viewers without hearts of stone as, inspired by Superman, the Iron Giant realizes that sacrifice can be a far more noble pursuit than vengeance, however justified.
The Iron Giant exists in an increasingly unusual state of grace: because of its disastrous box office during its initial run, there’s never really been any interest in sequels, tie-ins, or spin-offs. Even after it developed a cult status (early in the aughts, Cartoon Network made it a tradition to play the film for 24 hours straight over holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, the same sort of tactic that helped make The Wizard of Oz into a cultural institution), toys and related merchandise remain relatively rare, giving it the air of something novel rather than something ubiquitous—its still a movie those in the know press others to see, knowing it will change them, too. Somehow, a movie featuring the voices of the likes of Vin Diesel and Jennifer Aniston, directed by the guy who has helmed one of the most successful superhero films ever made, still feels quaint, if not quite obscure—the Giant did, after all, recently receive star billing in the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
Money and merchandising are the usual barometers of success for movies, but The Iron Giant has become beloved without ever growing exhausting, and without ever having made a whole lot of money—which is doubtless disappointing to the talents behind it, but also assures (for the time being, anyway) that it will remain self-contained, and that its story and messages will never be watered down by cash-in sequels.
Twenty years later, the Giant still out there, reminding us that we can choose to be something other than what we were born to be, and that anyone can be a Superman.
What are your memories of The Iron Giant?