It’s 1997, Tamogatchis are still a thing, Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” is stuck in your head, no one has really figured out how to play Pogs, and studios keep trying to make Shaquille O’Neil a movie star. A year after the critical flop of “Kazaam”, movie-goers were being force-fed another Shaq-Attack in the form of “Steel”. Based on the DC Comics property, “Steel” was brought to the silver screen after the hugely popular Death and Return of Superman comic storyline that had started in the Fall of 1992 and culminated in the Fall of 1993 which had introduced the new character of John Henry Irons to the DC mythology. In the wake of Superman’s death, John Henry dons a full-body suit of armor that gives him superhuman strength, durability, and flight. Feeling responsible for a plague of high-tech weapons that have been flooding the streets, Irons uses his new suit to clean up the streets and try to fill a void left by Superman as the hero known as Steel.
Sounds cool, right? Like a DC Comics version of Iron Man who happens to wear a cape and Superman’s S shield on his chest. I bet you’re thinking it’d make for a pretty great movie. That’s what Warner Brothers thought too, so they greenlit a feature film that hit theaters on August 15, 1997, on a budget of $16 million dollars. What may come at little to no surprise, the movie only recouped $1.7 million domestically and proved to be another critical failure for the studio after the catastrophic “Batman & Robin” which hit theaters just two months earlier that same summer. But is the film really as bad as everyone has made it sound these last 20 years?
“Steel” opens in the present day as John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neil) performs a weapons demonstration for his commanding officers and the Department of Defense. These new weapons supply superior firepower but reduce the risks of human casualties. He’s joined by his friend & collaborator Susan “Sparky” Sparks (played by Annabeth Gish) as well as the shifty looking Nathaniel Burke (played by Judd Nelson). In an effort to impress his superiors, Burke goes against John Henry’s orders and boosts the weapons to full capacity, killing multiple on-lookers and gravely wounding Sparky in the process. After seeing the destruction his weapons can cause and the military’s refusal to abandon the program, John Henry quits and returns to his childhood home in Los Angeles.
After the accident, Burke is court marshaled and honorably discharged. Blaming Irons for his fate, Burke steals the weapon designs and brings them to a Los Angeles weapons dealer, partnering to distribute the next generation of super-weapons. Once these high-tech weapons start being used on the streets, Irons takes responsibility for the destruction and enlists his uncle Joe (played by Richard Roundtree) and Sparky, who is now paralyzed from the waist down, to help him build a suit of armor to help him combat their weapons and clean up the streets.
At face value, the story itself adheres very closely to the source material of the comic books. Looking at it objectively, the two elements missing from the comics are the presence of Superman and the fact that the story isn’t set in Metropolis. There is a structured narrative that takes us through a beginning, middle, and end that makes sense and doesn’t leave us behind with broken plot threads that don’t make sense as other bad films do. The core problem with the story is poor development and growth to create compelling characters and a complete lack of stimulating dialogue. Characters are used to deliver details that take us to the next part of the story, but none of it serves to make them likable characters with unique personalities. Everyone is essentially a talking cardboard cutout, save for Uncle Joe who provides some ever so brief moments of genuine comedy.
We’re never given anything in this film that makes us identify with John Henry Irons other than that he feels obligated to clean up the streets from these weapons. The film never explores his internal struggles in taking on this challenge or how he’s processing all of what’s happening on an emotional level. Some might argue that’s due to Shaq’s limited acting ability, but other characters in the film prove to give him the benefit of the doubt as none of them go beyond the clichéd façade they’ve been brought in to play either. Sparky seems to be the only character who has any level of growth or adversity to overcome as she must learn to live with her new handicap and prove to herself that she’s still fully capable of achieving the same things she did before her injury. Her story very much takes inspiration from Barbara Gordon’s arc in the comics and proves that we would have all probably rather seen a movie starring Sparky than Steel.
This movie is a perfect example to prove that just because you adapt the surface level elements of a character’s comic book origins correctly, doesn’t mean that you’ve made a good movie. Where this movie plays more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a film, the comics gave the character of John Henry Irons a rich emotional depth and a great motivation to become a hero. He wasn’t just creating this suit to combat weapons dealers but felt that he owed a debt to Superman for having saved his life and wanted to honor his sacrifice by giving the city another hero that they could believe in and know would protect them. Instead of weighing audiences down with that “boring stuff”, instead we’re treated to 97 minutes of Shaq finger waving thugs for trying to shoot him in the crotch and running away (very slowly I might add) from the police, which happens to be the same one cop every time. Perhaps the city of Los Angeles has had budget cuts?
When looking at this movie, it’s crucial to look at the time period it was released. In 1997, Warner Brothers was fresh off the success of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever in 1995 and was enjoying the millions they were making in toy merchandise and sponsorships. At the same time, DC Comics (which is owned by Time Warner) was still making big waves with a hugely popular run of comics that started with Death and Return of Superman and the Knightfall series running across all Batman titles. Warner Brothers viewed this as a prime opportunity to bring more properties like this to the big screen that could work as established franchises and give them guaranteed hits that would sell at the box office and in toy stores.
Unfortunately, Warner Brothers had to learn the hard way that spreadsheet decisions such as this do not work. After several years of trying to get a Death of Superman movie off the ground, Warner Brothers decided to green light “Steel” as Tim Burton commenced pre-production on the never-made “Superman Lives”. Approached much in the same way “Batman & Robin” was, “Steel” was engineered to be geared towards kids from day one with a toy line and a likable sports star in the title role. “Steel” writer/director Kenneth Johnson was best known for writing and directing episodes of television such as The Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Alien Nation. This isn’t to say that television writers and directors can’t make the move to feature films, but ultimately, I feel Kenneth didn’t wholly understand the character or the world he is supposed to inhabit. He seems to have approached this more like a “made for tv” movie and just concentrated on having a beginning, middle, and end for the narrative that kids would understand and enjoy, lacking any depth or emotional investment in the characters.
The ’90s were an interesting time for movies. With computer effects starting to become more affordable and gain more of a presence, movies began to get more and more ambitious in their action sequences regardless of budget. Produced by Joel Simon (X-Men, Wild Wild West), Leonard Armato (Kazaam), and Bruce Binkow (Kazaam), “Steel” went into production with a very limited budget of $16 million dollars, significantly less than the $125 million dollars of “Batman & Robin” or the $40 million dollars of New Line Cinema’s “Spawn” which had come out just 2 weeks before “Steel”. Operating off such a limited budget didn’t provide the crew with many opportunities for a special effects film.
As mentioned previously, in the comics, Steel’s armor allows him to fly, have super strength, and near-invulnerability. All abilities that were well realized and showcased in the 4 previous Christopher Reeve Superman films and 1984’s Supergirl, but even those films which had started coming out two decades earlier had bigger budgets. So, when it comes to action and effects in “Steel”, everything is very limited. Instead of seeing him fly, he rides a motorcycle and has a grappling hook, like Batman. We also do not see any evidence of super strength. The suit does provide a good amount of invulnerability to the weapons in the film, so long as you don’t shoot him in the mouth area since he has a mouth opening in his mask like Batman’s.
Designed by Catherine Adair, the costume for Steel isn’t a far deviation from the comics but is yet another victim of the film’s limited budget. Missing the cape, Superman “S” shield, and a level of functionality, the suit really resembles something that could’ve been made by a cosplayer in their own home instead of something made by a major studio. Even the hammer, which in the comics is a massive weapon with a myriad of capabilities, looks like nothing more than a simple sledgehammer that for some reason fires laser beams and has a dog whistle (yeah, I’m not kidding on that last one. Don’t believe me? Watch the movie).
The effects of the weapons used in the film are very sufficient. Most of the weapons are either lasers or powered-sound waves, so those are all relatively easy to make believable even for a film with a limited budget such as this one. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it helps save the movie. It’s really more that it’s one of the things that are just “fine” with the movie.
The action sequences are ultimately very disappointing. We’re not treated to any grand-scale fight sequences or fast-paced chase sequences. Much of what John Henry does while he’s in the suit is grab thugs and lift them up, stand still in the middle of the street as they fire bullets at him, or stand still as he engages a function that turns his armor into a magnet and attaches their guns to his body. Even in the third act, Steel spends five minutes on his back while Burke does his evil villain monologue. We get a small handful of chase sequences, but nothing that you would equate to being in a superhero film as nothing substantial happens.
For all the bashing this movie gets on a fairly regular basis, we should give credit where credit is due. Composer Mervyn Warren has composed some great collections of music for films like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and The Wedding Planner. With “Steel”, Mervyn created a very recognizable score for the film. It uses a unique blend of an industrial-themed march with R&B motifs.
The main theme is constantly used throughout much of the film, giving the movie and the character identity. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s on the level of what we’d heard previously with other Superman family characters such as Superman or Supergirl, but it sufficiently provides a theme that is authentic to the character. It’s heroic and honest, while industrial and hard-hitting which is who the character is in the original comics.
When “Steel” opened nationwide on August 15, 1997, I don’t think anyone, including Warner Brothers, was very surprised by the poor reception the film received. With a 12% Critics Score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film was in and out of theaters relatively quickly. Given that the studio did not assist the film with an aggressive marketing campaign or even a trailer that made a clear message that this was a DC Comics character that was tangentially related to Superman, many audience members didn’t know what this movie was or that it even existed.
People who did see the trailer instantly recognized the low-budget look to the film and were still freshly reminded of Shaq’s last film “Kazaam”. Coming in at 1 hour 37 minutes, “Steel” was released into 1,260 theaters and was only in theaters for a couple of weeks until it was pulled out relatively quickly. By the end of its domestic run, “Steel” only managed to recoup $1,710,972 and was pushed to VHS soon after, which would be how most kids would inevitably see the film. In 2010, Warner Brothers issued a bare-bones DVD release through their Warner Archives Collection. The DVD featured the original poster artwork, a lackluster description on the back, and no special features to accompany the film other than the trailer. Even the menus weren’t given any level of identity or care. When you pop it into your player, you’ll likely question if you’re watching a bootleg.
1.5 OUT OF 5 STARS:
Let’s not sugarcoat this: “Steel” is a raging hot tire fire rolling down a hill that probably should not have been made, but not for the reasons that you might think. This is by no means an unwatchable movie. The story is competently told and offers morsels of interesting moments. What inevitably broke this movie was a shoestring budget and an NBA athlete trying to be something other than an NBA athlete. Growing up, I loved Shaq as a basketball player. Again, as a BASKETBALL PLAYER, not as an actor. Just because he can recite lines for an Icey Hot commercial doesn’t mean he can act in a feature film. I have no doubt that this was very much an ego project that Shaq’s representation was able to convince Warner Brothers to make because Shaq is a huge Superman fan and saw this as yet another chance to do more than just dunk on a court.
It’s clear that Shaquille O’Neil was trying very hard to bring a level of enthusiasm and energy to this project and make it something special, to which I do give him credit, but as Dirty Harry Callaghan famously said: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” “Steel” is one of those movies much like “Batman & Robin” or “Super Mario Bros” where you can put it on with a couple of friends and have a good laugh with it, but if you’re looking for something beyond that, you’ll more than likely be disappointed.
On a side note, I would like to quickly add: If you haven’t seen “Steel”, I actually recommend you do. Not just because it’s nostalgic of the 90’s, but because it will better help remind you how far we’ve come in the genre of comic book cinema. People are quick to complain about movies like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” or “Aquaman” not being everything they wanted them to be, but “Steel” will be a fresh reminder of what we used to have and how fortunate we are to be experiencing the level of care and quality we get in our comic book movies today. And for the record: This movie is also nowhere as near as bad as the Halle Berry “Catwoman” movie.