Warner Bros. dumped The Iron Giant into the crowded film landscape of 1999 with terrible promotion and minimal confidence, letting it wander off to be ignored like a neglected ginger in a mall. Brad Bird's Cold War-era story about Hogarth, an adventurous boy with an unfortunate name who discovers a robot in his backyard and tries to keep him, was rescued on home video thanks to scenarios like: "My kid likes robots. This has a robot in it. It's five bucks on VHS in a bin by the checkout counter. Why the hell not."
Then the film, full of so many amazing moments that every viewing is like a tiny miracle of storytelling, works its surprising magic and (so long as you're not a Cylon or a Replicant or some sort of lizard person) you wipe your eyes and snuff back your last sniffle and smile at the great time you just had.
So the conventional wisdom (which is almost always broken when it comes to Hollywood) morphed from "It's a plain looking trifle" to the following lofty-yet-heartfelt sentiment:
"Iron Giant is the best Superman movie ever made."
I understand that sentiment. Especially in the face of divisive films like Superman Returns and Man of Steel, not to mention the confused Superman III or the earnest shoddiness Superman IV. It's easy to look at Iron Giant and say "That's what I'm supposed to be feeling when I watch a Superman movie."
But The Iron Giant is not the best Superman movie ever made.
It's better than that.
To get the pedantry out of the way: Superman isn't a character in The Iron Giant. "Iron Giant is the best Superman movie ever made" only works if the alternatives are so poor you're willing to settle. Not that "settling" for The Iron Giant is a bad call, but this is the first and most obvious stop.
It does fit on the face of it, though: a literal man of steel from outer space who, through the kindness of caring, open-minded folk, becomes a protector of humanity. But the Giant's journey is not the focus of the movie; the Giant isn't the main character. Hogarth is the one we're invested in, his arc is the one most developed, and his acceptance of what the Giant has to do is why the the film hurts so good.
(Aside: I've seen some argue that you can easily say the Giant is also a stand-in for the T-800 in T2: Judgment Day, providing a gentler spin on Cameron's story of a boy and his homicidal pet robot stopping a nuclear apocalypse. I don't really like that reading, but it's not without merit.)
The Iron Giant is instead the best essay ever delivered on why Superman works, why he's lasted as long as he has in the public consciousness, why after 75 years of fumbled stories, ridiculous conceits, and poorly told tales, he still maintains the capacity to inspire little kids to tie a towel around their neck and place their hands on their hips, adorably jutting a jaw out. Or at least, they used to. God help whatever eight year-old is stumbling across Man of Steel or Flashpoint or any of the New 52 offerings in the last couple of years.
The Giant is very much a confused animal in the beginning. It's only after hanging out with Hogarth, going through his stack of comics, and discovering Action Comics, that that an ideal of hope is awakened. Hogarth himself doesn't see it at first. Superman's just a really cool power fantasy, a guy who kicks ass in awesome ways.
While role-playing, Hogarth typecasts the Giant as the evil robot Atomo, and the Giant refuses, like a proud puppy would shed a ridiculous dog sweater you dressed him in. Instead, he spins around, with his hands on his hips, a piece of scrap fixed to his chest, and confidently proclaims "Me no Atomo. Me Superman!"
He could be a gun. He's been programmed as such. He's a scary, powerful thing. So is Superman. It's why so many artists choose to draw this beacon of hope in the shadows, frowning, his eyes glowing red with death. But his friendship with Hogarth, and his exposure to those stories, help cement the Giant's true role in the film: an example of pure inspiration, applied to a person (or robot) willing to believe that people are good. That inspiration can be transformative. It definitely changes Hogarth. He learns you don't have to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of your eyes in order to do heroic things.
The Giant isn't an analog for Superman. He's an analog for every kid who's ever read a superhero story and been affected by it. He explains why people still spend time caring about "that boring-ass Boy Scout." The Giant gets to act out the daydream many fans, young or old, longtime or lapsed, have lost many an hour indulging; and when given the choice, he does not choose to be the gun. Brad Bird is using pop-culture shorthand to get at the heart of real heroism, and it's hard not to feel every ounce of that truth in the three syllable decision the Giant makes as he closes his eyes.
The Iron Giant screens in 35mm this Saturday and Sunday, 2:15pm, at the Hollywood Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here.