Tor.com has done the impossible: It’s found someone who hasn’t seen The Iron Giant. But while I had never watched the movie, I was well aware of the emotional real estate it had carved into the hearts of most of my peers. I also knew that when I finally did watch it, I was going to have to walk away from the experience somehow changed: Feels, or it didn’t happen.
Despite jumping straight from picture books to reading Entertainment Weekly and becoming a pop culture writer, I have weird holes in my movie education. Sometimes it was bad timing, where I was too young when a movie came out (The Usual Suspects) to catch it. In the case of The Iron Giant, however, I should have been their target audience: I was 11 when it came to theaters, and as big a fan of animated movies as your average kid. Then again, a lot of people didn’t appreciate the movie at the time; it gained a cult following once it was released on home video, but I must’ve been too busy replaying Anastasia over and over to ever rent The Iron Giant from Blockbuster. It was also years before I would actually be interested in robots—Star Wars droids notwithstanding—and to be honest, the story just didn’t grab me.
But now I’m a 27-year-old writer who is endlessly fascinated by robots, so it was about motherfucking time that I was reduced to a puddle of emotions like so many before me. I was ready to meet the Iron Giant.
The thing is, while watching the movie, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that it was all so familiar. Not the sweet little moments—like Hogarth befriending the Giant as well as cool beatnik junkyard mechanic Dean—but the overall story arc seemed to be heading in only one direction, not unlike a… missile. (I’m sorry, I had to.) Had I spoiled myself by reading the plot on Wikipedia years ago? Or did Brad Bird’s quiet little film so influence the movie landscape that subsequent movies took on its themes and even recreated certain visuals?
My tendency to watch movies at odd points in my life means that often I experience iconic moments or catchphrases or visuals in later films, once they’ve been filtered through a more recent release paying homage. (I wrote a whole column about this, Reverse Pop Culture Primer, a couple of years ago.) And so, when we got to the climax, where the Giant embraces the missile that the U.S. Army has trained on him and carries it up away from the townspeople, instead I saw Iron Man saving New York City from the paranoid U.S. government who brought a nuke to a superhero/alien fight:
But for all the dysfunction of the Avengers, Tony Stark is still a hero, so his sacrifice—which he was even able to come back from—didn’t resonate exactly the same. For that, we would need a bad guy…
So then I saw villain Wreck-It Ralph accepting his villainous identity and diving downward to punch his giant fist through Diet Cola Mountain and create a beacon to destroy the Cy-Bugs and save the inhabitants of Sugar Rush:
OH GOD THE TEARS ARE STARTING
Yet even as the shot of the Giant taking the nuke into the stars wasn’t exactly new, the feels still wrecked me:
Crying at movies and television shows has become so performative, especially now that such experiences are rose-tinted with nostalgia, or happening in real-time and/or with a group observing your reactions. When I settled in to watch The Iron Giant with my coworkers and friends, I didn’t feel that I was allowed to get away without crying: partly because of the dear spot this movie had burrowed into all of their hearts, and partly because I’m notorious for sniffling at most anything. If this didn’t move me, was I a worse monster than the Iron Giant?
I felt that I had to nudge myself a little bit to squeeze out those first few tears; the red wine we paired with our pizza certainly helped get me appropriately misty-eyed. I thought that might be the best I muster up, but the “Superman” sequence wrenched all of the correct heartstrings, the way it has for everyone else who’s seen this movie. Actually, the dam broke a few minutes before, when the Giant believes that he’s accidentally killed Hogarth. When he prods Hogarth’s limp body—a callback to the earlier scene where he was confused over a deer’s death—and then jumped back in horror, I let out an involuntary sob.
So, my actual reactions were genuine, but I felt pressured to respond. I found myself in a similar situation a few months ago, when I finally finished Breaking Bad. Perhaps it was because I was binge-watching two seasons in mere weeks and was oversaturated with the show, or maybe it was that I felt the only acceptable response was abject misery… but at the end of “Ozymandias,” I lost my shit. This reaction was mostly genuine as well, due to the fact that for the fifteen minutes prior to the moment that truly ruins Walter White’s world, I was keeping up a running commentary of “nononono fuuuuck c’mon you can still turn back just—goddammit Walt!”, etc. Then it was just wrenching sobs that were so bad my boyfriend had to come over to the couch to make sure I was actually all right.
There can be a small measure of shame associated with being a “late bloomer” when it comes to certain cultural touchstones: You feel that no one will watch it with you because they’ve already had that experience, and watching it alone is more about getting it out of the way than actually wanting to see it. I was lucky that my friends are all about introducing old movies to new people, with more astonishment than judgment attached, because I would probably never have watched The Iron Giant on my own.
But once I did, it enhanced my appreciation of another Iron Man making a snap-decision to put his armored but still frail body between nuclear destruction and millions of lives; and of a video-game villain who embraces his imperfect programming and realizes that you only have to be a hero to one person to matter.