Today I re-watched the greatest Superman movie ever made. I hadn’t seen it in a few years, and I had forgotten just how well it captures the essence of Superman as a character – he’s an inspiration, a shining example to be looked up to. More recent takes (not just Superman Returns, but also the animated Superman: Doomsday) have tried to humanize Superman, to the point of making him fallible and even normal.
For whatever reason, the makers of those films wanted us to look at Superman and say “This fellow is just like me.” Today, though, I remembered once again that Superman isn’t just like me, and I would do well to try to be more like Superman. He would never think of himself before others, this movie makes a point of telling the audience. Superman will do whatever it takes to save the day, no matter how dire the situation for him.
What movie am I talking about? Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant from 1999.
No, Superman doesn’t appear in the movie. But the ideal of Superman plays a key role, and his presence is felt all over. Early on, young Hogarth shows his metal friend several comic books. One is about an evil robot named Atomo. Another is an issue of Action Comics. When Hogarth explains that Superman always helps other people, the Giant decides that he wants to be like Superman.
Another plot thread concerns the Giant discovering death. After seeing two hunters shoot a deer, he decides that he hates guns and killing.
Later on, Hogarth wants the Giant to be Atomo when they play, but the Giant has other ideas:
His defense mechanisms triggered, the Giant realizes that he, too, is a type of gun – the one thing he never wanted to be. As the picture reaches its climax, the military fires an atomic missile at the Giant. Rather than allow everyone in the town of Rockwell, Maine, to die, the Giant heroically flies to meet it in midair. As he soars up to his death, he remembers that he has a choice to make. He can be a gun, or he can be something more. He can be Superman.
More than any of the actual Superman movies, that scene sums up for me exactly what makes the Last Son of Krypton a great character – just by existing, he inspires people to give everything they can for the good of others. By focusing on the man, other movies lost the ideal. By showing how the ideal affects a big giant robot, The Iron Giant reminds us of the man.