The Iron Giant is set in 1957 during a period of the Cold War characterized by escalation in tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, Sputnik was launched, raising the possibility of nuclear attack from space. Anti-communism and the potential threat of nuclear destruction cultivated an atmosphere of fear and paranoia which also led to a proliferation of films about alien invasion. In one scene, Hogarth’s class is seen watching an animated film named Atomic Holocaust, based on Duck and Cover, an actual film that offered advice on how to survive if the USSR bombed the USA.
The film also has an anti-gun message in it. When the Iron Giant sees a deer get killed by hunters, the Iron Giant notices two rifles discarded by the deer’s body. The Iron Giant’s eyes turn red showing hostility to any gun. It is repeated throughout the film, “Guns kill.” and “You’re not a gun.”
Despite the anti-war and anti-gun themes, the film avoids demonizing the military, and presents General Rogard as an essentially rational and sympathetic figure, in contrast to the power-hungry civilian Mansley. Hogarth’s message to the giant, “You are who you choose to be”, played a pivotal role in the film. Writer Tim McCanlies commented that “At a certain point, there are deciding moments when we pick who we want to be. And that plays out for the rest of your life.” McCanlies said that movies can provide viewers with a sense of right and wrong, and expressed a wish that the movie would “make us feel like we’re all part of humanity [which] is something we need to feel.”