CLIPS: IRON GIANT We see images from the opening sequence of Iron Giant, the meteor from space. SEAN Welcome to Out of Frame. Here's a question. What's your favorite movie? For me... I've seen literally thousands of films, and when people ask me that question I always find it really difficult to give a definitive answer. But I always tell people, if they absolutely must hold my feet to the fire, it would have to be Brad Bird's 1999 animated feature, "The Iron Giant". And... In honor of Brad Bird's smashing success with The Incredibles 2 -- which is in theaters now, and which we will almost certainly talk about on this series in another episode -- I think it's time to talk about The Iron Giant and his choice to be a hero. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, I'd suggest pausing this video right now so you can go watch it in full and then come right back. You done? Cool. Just know that there will be ALL the spoilers ahead. The Iron Giant is the story of a 9-year-old kid named Hogarth Hughes who befriends a 50-foot-tall robot from outer space in 1957. Hogarth lives with his mother in Rockwell, Maine and spends most of his time watching scary movies, taking in wild animals, and just being a classic latchkey kid. One night, he's home alone staying up past his bedtime, watching a bad horror movie when he loses signal on the TV. Turns out, something broke the antennae right off the top of the house. Ever curious, Hogarth grabs his BB gun, straps a flashlight to it, and heads out into the woods to see what happened and in the process discovers a terrifying Metal Man caught in the power lines outside of a transforming station. As the Giant struggles to free himself, he is electrocuted and were it not for the help of Hogarth in shutting down the power, he might have died. Thus begins their friendship. We quickly learn that Giant actually eats metal, which is why he was at the power station to begin with, and causes considerable -- albeit sometimes comedic -- damage to the town, and so of course the government had to get involved. Enter Kent Mansley. Mansley is an arrogant, paranoid bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur working for one of the Federal government's intelligence agencies. MANSLEY (17:30) "Frankly, I'm not at liberty to discuss the particulars of the agency I work for, and all that that implies..." SEAN At first Mansley is condescending and doesn't take the rubes who live in Rockwell very seriously, but he soon realizes that something very suspicious is happening in the town. We see the huge bite out of Mansley's car, and Mansley jumping up in surprise. MANSLEY "Ohhh myy god!" SEAN Meanwhile, Hogarth and the Giant are getting to know each other. The first half of the film is filled with humor, charming sequences and wonderfully innocent moments, including one critical scene where Hogarth introduces the Giant to his comic book collection... In particular, to Superman. HOGARTH (34:46 - 35:22) "Here, this guy is superman... He started off just like you. Crash landed on earth, didn't know what he was doing, but he only uses his powers for good. Never for evil...." GIANT ..."Superman". SEAN Remember this scene. At this point, we know little about the Giant, except that he seems very childlike, and he doesn't understand much about the world or how he should behave in it. This a really existential beat for a kid's movie. We're watching the Giant develop his sense of morality -- his philosophical understanding of right and wrong -- for the very first time. A little bit later, Hogarth and the Giant follow a local artist and business owner Dean to his junkyard, where the Giant's eyes open wide with excitement when he sees an endless pile of scrap-metal to eat. Of course Dean doesn't know about the Giant yet, so Hogarth distracts him with conversation over coffee. DEAN "This is Espresso, ya know... Coffeezilla." HOGARTH "I'm hip." SEAN This scene is also incredibly important because for the first time, Dean establishes the theme of the movie outright. DEAN (40:02) "Look, it's really none of my business, kid, but who cares what these creeps think, ya know? They don't decide who you are, you do. You are who you choose to be." SEAN This is why I love this film. So many kids movies offer such meaningless and awful lessons about the world. We see some examples from other movies such as The Lego Movie, the Lorax, Peter Pan, etc. SEAN Sharing is caring, everything you do is awesome, never grow up, business is for mean boring people, obey authority... Ugh. The Iron Giant offers something unique. It presents a deeply individualist life philosophy. It says that you are not just a product of society, or of what other people expect of you. You're not defined by your instincts, your intentions, or even necessarily your raw emotions. Instead, you are defined by your own choices and your actions. And it's not enough for The Iron Giant to just state this theme, it is expressed in everything that happens for the rest of the film. In a beautifully poignant moment, Hogarth and the Giant see a hunter kill a deer and it sparks a discussion about life and death. HOGARTH "It's bad to kill, but it's not bad to die." SEAN After a lot of fun and games between Dean, Hogarth and the Giant, the movie takes a dark turn... We see the Giant's nightmare. SEAN ...when we discover that he's not just some massive benign child. He's actually a terrifying weapon of war capable of tremendous destruction. Moments later, Kent Mansley puts all the pieces together and interrogates Hogarth about the Giant, wielding his state-granted authority like a club as people with that kind of power tend to do. Mansley locks Hogarth in the barn and pushes him into a chair, shining a light in his face. MANSLEY (56:16 - 56:40) "You're mom's working late tonight, Hogarth, so it's just us guys... I can do anything I want as long as I feel it's in the people's best interest." SEAN Hogarth evades Mansley once again and makes his way back to Dean's junkyard, but soon enough they experience the Giant's dangerous side firsthand. HOGARTH (1:04:25) "Take this..." --through to-- DEAN (1:05:34) "It was defensive. He reacted to the gun!" SEAN But here's where that theme comes back. Sure, the Giant lost control for a moment when he thought he was being attacked, but once he realized what was happening he stops himself. Then he makes a choice. We see the shot of the Giant saving the kids from falling and his reveal in the town. GIANT (1:07:20) "I am not a gun." SEAN Now, by this point, Mansley has called in the military to confront the Giant, and thanks to his hysteria, they attack without realizing he's actually a friend. What follows is an incredible battle -- but not so much between the Giant and the Army, which of course he could easily destroy in seconds, but between the Giant's nature as a powerful war machine, and his choice to be a hero like Superman. It's a battle the Giant very nearly loses. HOGARTH (1:14:04 - 1:14:36) "No, wait! It's me, Hogarth, remember? ... You are what you choose to be. You choose! ... It's ok, it's ok." SEAN Finally, in a fit of pure insanity Mansley ends up launching a nuclear missile at the Giant. MANSLEY (1:15:16 - 1:15:35) "LAUNCH THE MISSILE!!" GENERAL "That missile is targeted to the Giant's current position. Where's the Giant, Mansley? SEAN With the missile headed towards the town and all of the Giant's new friends now in danger, he makes one more choice... To save everyone. We see the Giant rocket away from earth, we hear Hogarth's words one last time, and then the giant says... GIANT (1:17:21 - 1:18:04) "Superman..." The bomb explodes, killing the giant. SEAN This scene has made me cry every single time I've watched this film for the past 20 years. Not because it's sad, but because this is one of the purest depictions of what people can become if they believe in their own power to define who they are for themselves. Of course we can't fly into space or shoot laser beams from our eyes, but we underestimate the power we each have as individuals to shape our own lives. Too often, many of us make excuses and blame other people when things don't live up to our expectations. We give up at the first moment of adversity. We choose to retreat into safe spaces and avoid even intellectual challenges. We chalk our failures up to the obstacles in our paths instead of taking responsibility and working to overcome them. And we so often resort to force -- like Mansley did -- when things don't go our way instead of finding peaceful, voluntary solutions to our problems. But... What keeps me optimistic is knowing what this movie states so clearly: We are who we choose to be. And The Iron Giant is an inspiring and beautiful way to show people how they can choose to be the best versions of themselves. SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching. What's your favorite movie and why? Leave a comment about that or anything else you thought about this episode of Out of Frame and I'll try to reply to some of the comments when I can. In the meantime, check out FEE.org/shows for all the other content we're producing at the Foundation for Economic Education, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

July 5, 2018

Looking around, it’s too often that we see people who choose to retreat into safe spaces and avoid intellectual challenge, who use force against others, and who blame all their problems on the obstacles they face. It’s easy to look at all this and think that the world is getting worse.

But I’m optimistic. I know what the movie “The Iron Giant” states so clearly: We are who we choose to be. This movie shows us how we can choose to be the very best versions of ourselves.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayron & Sean W. Malone