We Get The Subtext, Alright?

Being stuck in a plane for sixteen hours is only somewhat alleviated by in-flight entertainment. Which is somewhat undermined by a dismal selection of comedies. Because when you’re trapped in a flying aluminum tube, you don’t wanna have to think too hard. Also, I once watched Fruitvale Station on a plane and I was in no mood to have a repeat of that emotional rollercoaster.

So I decided to watch The Iron Giant for the first time in over a decade, ‘cuz hey, I remember it being a good movie and I wouldn’t mind watching it again. And wow.

I talk a lot about the meaning of stories, how stories — the really good ones — are saying something more about the world. But there’s a fine line here: no one likes preachifying. If you break up a story to spend a few minutes on a soapbox discussing why This One Thing is bad you’re just gonna piss off your audience. Especially if it’s only tangentially related to the story. Doesn’t matter what your genre is or who’s your audience; you give your story meaning by working it into the plot.

The Iron Giant is a great story that does this very well. Because the central dramatic thrust of is based on the titular robot’s identity — is he good, evil, a weapon? — the film’s subtext is all about identity too; is Kent a protective g-man or a power-hungry spook; is Hogarth as an over-imaginative child or a kid in need of a friend? None of these roles and identities are set in stone, each character has the agency to choose who they want to be. Hogarth chooses to befriend the giant, Dean decides to help Hogarth and the giant, Kent refuses to see the giant as anything but a monstrosity. Because this subtext is within the entire film — in addition to the central question of what is the robot — when Hogarth tells the Iron Giant “You are who you choose to be” it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Yes, it’s a pretty explicit summation of the movie’s themes, but the movie gets away with it — and not just because it’s for kids. Why?Because it’s a pointed question that the film has been building towards. For a couple moments the subtext of the film becomes overt and it punches you right in the feels because you can suddenly see the choice ahead of the characters. The Iron Giant makes his choice of self-sacrifice, bringing everything to a circle and showing how much of an impact Hogarth’s willingness to love has had.

Hang on, I’ve got something in my eye again.

Brad Bird and the others behind the movie gave the audience the benefit of the doubt and assumes they’re of the thinking sort. Which is wonderful, especially because the primary audience for the film is kids. If a movie is built around a central theme — as this one is — the meaning behind it becomes clear without having to spell it out. I mayn’t have been able to express this nearly as well when I first saw The Iron Giant back when I was eight, but I definitely understood the central themes (and the climatic heroic sacrifice is firmly etched in my mind). The subtext is so artfully done I get it, whether I’m eight or twenty-four. A story having to spell out what it’s really about is a sign that the teller isn’t sure they’re being clear enough or that the audience is smart enough to pick up on it. It’s why District 9 doesn’t have a moment where Wikus and Christopher talk about how Apartheid was bad, or Scott Pilgrim vs The World has a discussion about what’s essential in a relationship. Return of the Jedi doesn’t have Luke say “I believe Darth Vader, my father, is still good and I won’t fight him because good will win and despite my all black outfit, I too am good.” Rather the line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” and his throwing away his lightsaber speaks volumes more because it brings Luke’s arc to completion and gives voice to just the right amount of subtext. “We are Groot” is incredibly more poignant and effective than someone saying “We’re a family now, Pete!”

have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about.

Great stories have their theme woven beautifully and clearly into their narrative. But they also have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about. Don’t preachify with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil; do like The Iron Giant and work it seamlessly into the narrative so that Vin Diesel saying “Superman” in a robot voice makes a grown man all weepy-eyed.

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