Superheroes for kids can be tricky these days. It will be a couple of years before my children watch a Marvel movie, and a few more before they see anything in the DC universe. I might let my oldest son watch the original Christopher Reeve, Richard Donner, Superman. Those original movies are so innocent and goofy or at least more so than anything we have now. It’s quandary if you’re looking for something that will impart a lesson or start a conversation about something you feel like is more important than an Easter egg for the next movie in the series, or why Iron Man has only powers when he wears the suit. My five-year-old is too young for metaphor. That’s not to say you can’t have a great conversation about things like race, subjugation, bigotry, and civil rights with these movies, you can, they’re just probably better for a 15-year-old rather than a 4-year-old. If you want to find a good way to introduce a Superhero into your child’s life, may I suggest The Iron Giant?
Base on a book The Iron Man (Not to be confused with the aforementioned Marvel property) written by poet Ted Hughes, the husband to poet Sylvia Plath, it is a movie that in a very simple way, gets to the heart of what a hero really is on a human level that kids can apply to themselves. Hughes wrote the book for his children after Plath took her life. It was intended to be an act of healing and comfort for his children and himself. The movie is very different from the book and I will address the book in another post. The movie however is one of those delights you can relive over and over again. Like E.T. it has the ability to find its way into your heart with a universal quality that seems to say to adults, “Remember, stories can still teach and heal you.” And to kids, “Here is what hero means?”
The story takes place in 1957 at the height of the cold war and revolves around a boy name Hogarth(Eli Marinthal) who lives with his mother (Jennifer Aniston) in the fictional town of Rockwell Maine. One night during a storm a meteor streaks through the sky and lands in the Atlantic Ocean near town. Turns out it was no ordinary meteor but a giant metal man from another world (Vin Diesel in the best use of his voice ever). When Hogarth’s power goes out the next night he wanders into the woods to investigate a glow he sees beyond the trees. What he finds is the metal man making a snack of a power station. At first frightened he quickly discovers the giant has the disposition of a very friendly, very big, dog. He follows Hogarth home but on the way accidently derails a freight train that gets the attention of Kent Mansley (Christopher Macdonald) a snide, fearful, official from the government. Hogarth hides the giant at a junk yard owned by the local beatnik, Dean (Harry Connick Jr) an artist who uses scrap metal to ply his trade. Here the giant can eat, he only eats metal, and use the junk as camouflage. However, it gets harder and harder to hide him, and Kent, manages to call in the army to investigate. It isn’t until after the army is in town we see what the Giant was before he came to earth, a war machine. In a game, Hogarth brandishes a fake gun and aims it at the giant who recognizes it as a weapon, locks, on and fires a laser at Hogarth who is pushed out of the way by Dean at the last second. Horrified by what he has done the giant runs away with Hogarth hot on his heals trying to stop him. This leads them to the center of town where the army attacks the giant based on Kent’s lie that he is has killed Hogarth. When the giant attacks back they realize it is only because some part of him automatically reacts defensively. Once the giant understand that he does not have to react this way he stops, but not before Kent manages to have a nuclear missile launched off the coast to come directly to town. The giant knows that he is the only one who can save the town, but he must do that by sacrificing himself, and flying into the missile.
There are several parts of the movie I want to address. One is a scene where Hogarth and the giant are sitting in a barn reading comic books. On one comic, the giant sees a menacing robot, that looks a lot like him, shooting lasers and creating general mayhem, and on the other, he sees Superman. The giant has an immediate reaction to the image, his eyes go red, and he something in him changes for a moment the violent thing he was, the thing we have never seen, comes to the surface. Hogarth moves the comic and replaces it with Superman. He says “Oh, that’s Atomo, the metal menace. He’s not a hero, he’s a villain. But you’re not like him. You’re a good guy, like Superman.” The giant repeats the name, “Superman.” imprinting a basic idea of the kind of hero, or villain, he could be; an idea that the character adds to as he develops. After he loses control of himself and literally becomes a weapon Dean tells Hogarth “He’s a piece of hardware, Hogarth. Why did you think the army was here? He’s a weapon, a big… big gun that walks.” Then Hogarth explains to the giant that guns kill, he says; “It’s bad to kill. Guns kill. And you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be. You choose. Choose.” Guns and the notion of choice come up over and over again. The giant is a child taught by a child, and he learns like one, developing his own moral code based on who taught him his. When it comes to love he all he knows at this point is that he loves his Hogarth, his only friend and he can protect him or hurt him. He of course chooses to protect. At the very end of the movie, right before the giant sacrifices himself he understands that the missile headed toward them is the ultimate gun and that the only way to stop it is to choose what he is once and for all. It is at that moment he decides his own fate; he is not a gun. As he flies through the air toward his own destruction he hears Hogarth’s words echo through his head. “You are who you choose to be.” The giant says out loud to himself, “Superman.” and smiles.
This is a great movie for ages anywhere from 5 and older but…there is some pretty heavy and potentially frightening stuff scattered throughout. The fear presented in the cold war elements can be pretty existential and scary if a kid gets thinking about them. It is all laid out right down to the school desk drills in case of an atomic attack. So if you watch it be prepared for questions about such things. It is a great movie to open up conversations about choice, death, love, and the use of violence. Check it out with the whole family.
Oh, also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the animation. It’s old school, hand drawn cells, that are really beautiful. Also, this was director Brad Bird‘s break through film. He is the same guy who brought you Pixar’s Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Deals with choice, death, love, violence, and heroism
Appropriate for ages 5 and up (Depending on your child of course)