It’s kind of hard to imagine the modern day comic book medium without Alan Moore. From his work on V for Vendetta to the landscape redefining Watchmen, Alan Moore has probably had a bigger influence on the medium than any other writer in modern time. Yet for all of his work he’s only ever done one relatively mainstream reoccurring series where he wasn’t the creator. And since the show recently began and was sadly canceled on the DC Universe streaming service, what better time is there to take a look at said series? This is Comic Book Spotlight shining a spotlight on the first volume of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.
Published from 1984-1987, Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is often cited as the reason why anyone cares about Len Wein’s 1971 creation. What makes his run on the book particularly interesting, however, is that it’s an Alan Moore comic that doesn’t really feel like an Alan Moore comic while still absolutely being an Alan Moore comic. Confused? Well, it’ll become clear soon enough.
You see the thing about Alan Moore stories is that they’re distinctly his stories where he controls the beginning, middle, and end. Sure, he’s worked on other mainstream superheroes like Superman and Batman but typically speaking those stories were written on his own terms. Unlike many other contemporary comics, they were stories that felt like their own self-contained tales as opposed to being just another arc of an ongoing series. Take Batman: The Killing Joke for example. By modern standards, it’s very much a typical Batman vs Joker story but it tells a story that was wrapped up by the time the book reached its end. We had the Joker break out of Arkham, his kidnapping of Jim Gordon, and the final confrontation between the two that came to a rather conclusive ending. Sure, you have to be familiar with the relationship between the two to really get what is going on, but it’s not a story that is led into from a previous arc nor does it try to build up to any future stories. See also Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: For the Man Who Has Everything for further examples of this. This, however, is where Swamp Thing is profoundly different.
When Alan Moore jumped onto the series it was well into its initial run with the first 19 issues having been handled by another creative team that had already established and/or created the main supporting cast of the series. By the time he wrote his first issues in the series the majority of the plot points that we normally associate with Swamp Thing, (mainly his conflict with Anton Arcane), had already been resolved with Alec Holland emerged triumphant over his arch nemesis. So, it begs the question as to what can Alan Moore do with such a story that was more or less already finished. Well, for a lack of better words, he Alan Moored it up!
The volume in question starts right after the apparent final battle with Anton Arcane. As he looks through the wreckage of Arcane’s machines another organization goes after Swamp Thing and apparently kills him and this is where things get interesting. When tasked with performing the autopsy, a relatively unknown DC villain named Doctor Jason Woodrue makes a troubling discovery. You see up until this point, Swamp Thing had been going on the assumption that he was his alter ego, Alec Holland who had been transformed into a plant creature. The truth, however, was a little more unsettling.
As it had turned out Alec had in fact been doused with an experimental chemical that was meant to help plant growth. When Alec ran out into the swamp while he was on fire he did, in fact, die. The plant life within the swamp, however, affected by the chemicals, ended up consuming Alec’s body and how took on his conscience as well giving this plant creature, or Swamp Thing, the impression that he was, in fact, Alec Holland. From then on, the story is all about Swamp Thing deciding what this actually means for him and how he will go forward with his life.
In this Alan Moore does what he always does with almost every property he touches. He completely reinvents said character and, in the process, recontextualize all of their stories since their inception. See also Miracle Man, The Joker in The Killing Joke and the classical literature characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for more examples of this. In this case, it takes Alec Holland’s previous struggles and hopes to reclaim his humanity and says that they were, in fact, all for not and takes away any hopes for the future that he and the readers may have had for that. It’s a fairly dark twist that subverts our expectations of stories like these that either make or break one’s perception of it. It’s just a shame that they don’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it in this volume.
Now to be clear the first volume is not bad. When all is said and done Alan Moore very rarely writes objectively bad books. But unlike his most underwhelming or offensive books, there is something that feels relatively generic with this volume. You, of course, have the big reveal involving Alec’s identity but the subversion sadly doesn’t go any further than that. The way Swamp Thing goes about deciding what he wants to do involves a supervillain and him fighting him off to reaffirm his identity. Again, it’s not bad but it almost feels like the story is a bit beneath him; almost like he had to do something a bit more traditional in order to get his more interesting stuff approved.
For example, Alan Moore had done these kinds of stories before but there is usually more to it. In Watchmen, for example, this kind of arc was there with Night Owl but it also tied into his feelings of impotence in the current world that directly contributed to his erectile dysfunction. It’s only after he puts his cape and cowl back on and, in a sense, takes control of his life back, can he actually get it up again. In Miracle Man, flawed as the series was, the midlife crisis metaphors were obvious and showed just how destructive they could be to those around you. Unfortunately, Swamp Thing lacks any kind of subtext that comes close to this level making the titular character’s arc feel rather by the numbers. Once again, it’s not bad but it feels extremely underwhelming when compared to his other works like Watchmen or V For Vendetta.
In the end, the first volume of Swamp Thing is just fine. It has the mechanical qualities you come from a writer like Alan Moore but sadly lacks the depth that he is otherwise associated with. Is it the best place to start with Swamp Thing? Probably not. By it is an otherwise decent read that you’ll go through quickly and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. Perhaps the later volumes are better but, as it stands, volume one is a perfectly adequate book.
In September 2018, DC Entertainment launched its own streaming service, DC Universe. Built as a private platform, Time Warner Media and DC Entertainment would not only be offering fans a service where they could watch DC Comics live-action movies as well as animated and live-action television series from years past but would also allow them to read digital comics and receive exclusive news updates through DC Daily. But the most attractive selling point for this first-of-its-kind platform: Original content in the form of new television series available exclusively through the DC Universe streaming service. Unveiling a very ambitious assortment of shows including a third season of the fan-beloved Young Justice which was unfortunately canceled a few years ago after a two-season run, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and a Harley Quinn animated series, DC Comics fans everywhere were thrilled by this new prospect. But the show that would be leading the charge was Titans. Covering the full 11-episode first season, this review will be breaking down the series by the story, characters, production value, and it’s potential moving forward into future seasons.
The series debuted in the Fall of 2018 and is executive produced by DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer & writing legend Geoff Johns, DC television veteran Greg Berlanti who developed the various CW TV shows, and Akiva Goldsman. If that name sounds familiar, it should as this is the same man who wrote Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and 2005’s Constantine with Keanu Reeves. But don’t let that scare you as Titans is about as far away from Batman Forever as The Dark Knight. Taking a darker and meaner approach to this iconic team, Titans is an adrenaline shot to the heart that never lets up.
The series starts in the pilot episode aptly named “Titans” where we are first introduced to Rachel Roth. She lives with her mother in Traverse City, Michigan and is a very gothic looking teenager who has dark, supernatural abilities that she doesn’t understand and fears what she’s truly capable of. So much so that she asks her mother to lock her in her room at night while she sleeps to protect her from herself. Rachel’s life quickly comes unraveled when a mysterious figure kills her mother in front of her after forcing her to reveal that she’s not really her birth mother. Rachel escapes to Detroit where she finds Dick Grayson, a detective working with the police department and has spent the last year or two solo having decided to leave his past with Batman behind him. It’s quickly revealed how disturbingly violent Dick has become when he mercilessly takes down a group of drug dealers single-handedly as Robin, beating one within an inch of his life.
Dick is quickly entangled into Rachel’s life as he tries to help her escape the mysterious group that is looking to abduct her. When he witnesses Rachel kill a man by injecting her soul-self into him and crushing all of his internal organs, he takes her on the run to regroup. As the conspiracy continues to unfold, Dick and Rachel encounter other characters from his past including the new Robin/Jason Todd, Hawk/Hank Hall, and Dove/Dawn Granger, Beast Boy/Gar Logan, and Wonder Girl/Donna Troy. They soon meet a mysterious girl named Kori Anders/Starfire who doesn’t remember her past and possesses metahuman abilities including enhanced strength and solar-based energy blasts. In order to survive and find out why this mysterious cult is after Rachel, Dick must focus the team to work together while facing his own inner demons.
For anyone who has read the legendary 1980’s run of The New Teen Titans and Tales of the Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, then you can more than likely ascertain that this first season is an adaptation of the first 8 issues of their run as Rachel is revealed to be Raven, the daughter of Trigon, a demon from another dimension who is a longstanding villain of the Teen Titans and has the ability to end the entire world. Minus the addition of Kid Flash/Wally West and Cyborg/Victor Stone, the team in the television series is very similar to the original line up used in the comic series. In this regard, it’s sure to be a very exciting experience for fans to finally see these characters brought to live-action in such a realistic way.
Clocking in with an 11-episode run, the story greatly benefits from the restricted runtime. Often with the network shows such as Flash and Arrow, a 23-episode season necessitates “filler” episodes that help in dragging out the season-long arc to fill the required episodes. This is often met with restlessness and loss of interest in the fan base, but by keeping the season trim with just 11-episodes, there is no fat on this bone. The writers skillfully keep the driving narrative marching along at a brisk pace, while simultaneously introducing all of these new characters with their backstories to explain who they are to both long-time fans and newcomers. However, it must be pointed out that even though the series succeeds in keeping your attention, it does become very formulaic by consistently having new people who find Raven, take her to where they reside, then show Dick Grayson and Kori having to track her down. This happens a couple of times throughout the season with a rogue police officer, Starfire, the Doom Patrol, the Nuclear Family, and the Cult of Trigon.
Overall, the storytelling is very tight and compelling, guaranteed to keep your attention and get you invested in these characters while moving the plot forward. It would have been better to see more sequences where the team comes together to fight as a single unit but does not fall short in providing good character building moments of dialogue and interactions. This first season certainly feels more focused on establishing these characters and their world and less on the action spectacle that most superhero team-up shows attempt to go for.
While the season-long arc of Titans focuses on Raven and her role in Trigon’s plans, the clear star of the series is Dick Grayson/Robin played by Brenton Thwaites. Coming into the series, many were skeptical of how this interpretation of the character would be received. When they released the first trailer, fans were immediately pushed out of their comfort zone when they saw how brutal this adaptation of Dick Grayson was, but also by his simple statement of “F*&^ Batman.” If this is shocking to you, then brace yourself because this series makes a regular habit of using colorful vulgarities throughout the season, clearly aiming to capture the attention of the more mature audiences.
Brenton does a good job of physically embodying the character and certainly looks the part when he’s suited up as Robin. The costume is very well realized and is an amalgam of the classic Tim Drake suit from 90’s comics and the more recent DCEU movie costumes worn by Batman. He brings the leadership and impressive combat skills from the comics, but I would argue that he lacks a lot of the humor and charm that has been synonymous with the character for decades. I understand that his more serious approach is reflective of where this Dick Grayson is in his life and trying to overcome the intense violence and anger he feels when he’s in the costume, but as he even mentions in the season finale “Bruce doesn’t have a conscience, he has a code. I was the conscience.” It shows me that they fundamentally understand the character, but decided to go with this darker interpretation. I think given a second season and more time to grow, Brenton can eventually evolve his character to more accurately reflect what we see in the books.
Rachel Roth/Raven is played by Teagan Croft, who is still a fresh face in the industry. She does a great job of humanizing the character of Raven and getting the audience on her side as we travel with her in uncovering her origins and discovering the darker purpose she is destined to serve in Trigon’s plans. She never wears an actual costume but does sport a unique hood that is very reminiscent of her cloak in the comics. Her powers are also very brilliantly realized in live-action in how they show Raven’s soul-self and just how powerful she is. I was most particularly impressed with the effect they did whenever she peers into reflective surfaces and she is confronted by her darker self. Not only does it look cool and a horror movie element, but it gives Teangan a great opportunity to flex her acting chops and gives her the broadest range to play out of the entire cast.
Kori Anders/Koriand’r/Starfire is played by Anna Diop. From the moment she first appears on screen, she just oozes badassery. At no point does she go for any cliché shortcuts to prove herself to be a strong female character, nor is she ever objectified to be a sex symbol or something to chase after for male characters. Instead, we are along for the ride with her as she works to piece together her fractured memories and learn where her powers come from and why she and Raven are linked. The closest parallel I could draw would be to say it’s like The Bourne Identity if Jason Bourne had superpowers. Starfire’s powers are brilliantly brought to life through stunning visual effects. Everything from her green glowing eyes, flame-like hair, and the fire-based energy blasts she emits, this is very much the Starfire we know from the comics and not the more recent anime-styled animated series. I was most pleased that they added in the additional effect of showing how the solar energy pulses beneath her skin as it adds another level to creating the realism of this character.
Last, but certainly not least is Gar Logan/Beast Boy played by Ryan Potter. Ryan masterfully interprets the character from the pages of the comics, capturing the fun-loving and humorous personality of Beast Boy. If Robin is the brains of the team, Starfire is the muscle, and Raven is the soul, then Beast Boy is most definitely the heart. His personality and genuine caring for the other members of the team acts as the glue that keeps the team together. His powers are also well done through visual effects as we get to see how he shifts from human form into a tiger. The biggest complaint will likely be that we only ever see him transform into one animal (a tiger), but he still seems relatively new and inexperienced to his powers, so this may play into his growth as a character in later seasons. It’s true that he does not have the green skin while he’s in human form, but that becomes less bothersome as you start to realize how he perfectly captures all of the other aspects of the character in the season.
One of the biggest treats for DC fans in this show is the revolving door of supporting characters that jump in periodically. Hawk and Dove are very well performed by Smallville alum Alan Ritchson as Hank Hall and Minka Kelly as Dawn Granger. We also get to see Jason Todd/Robin played by Curran Walters when he steps in for 2 episodes to meet Dick Grayson and help him solve a case involving Haley’s Circus. We’re also treated to the first appearance of the Doom Patrol and the involvement of Wonder Girl/Donna Troy towards the end of the season played by Conor Leslie. Looking through this impressive roster of characters that appear throughout the first season, this is an all you can eat buffet for seasoned DC Comics fans who will no doubt enjoy seeing these characters brought to live-action for the first time in a way that is very loyal to their comic book counterparts.
Filmed in Canada, Titans brings a very real-world aesthetic to the small screen series. You very much feel that you are seeing these characters inhabit real spaces and not sets or soundstages as we often do on network shows such as Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, or Legends of Tomorrow. To draw a comparison, Titans feels like it has taken a page out of the Marvel Netflix shows playbooks and brought a real honesty and realism to the characters and their world as we’ve seen with Netflix’s Daredevil, The Punisher, and The Defenders.
As mentioned previously, established characters/heroes such as Robin, Hawk, Dove, and Jason Todd’s Robin all have legitimate costumes. Designed by Joyce Schure (The Boys, 12 Monkeys) and Laura Jean Shannon (Iron Man, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Blade Trinity), the costumes are very well realized and representative of the comics. You can very much look at them and know who you’re seeing on screen as they are all very comic book-accurate, especially Hawk and Dove. The suits bring a level of real-world functionality and purpose with the flair and presentation of the comics.
The biggest plus for Titans is the fact that it’s shot on location. By shooting on real streets and in existing locations, the series holds a level of reality and believability. Some sets were constructed on sound stages, such as some interiors of Wayne Manor and the Batcave, but that was about it. Not to keep drawing comparisons, but this is very similar to the Marvel Netflix shows as all of those series were shot predominantly on real locations to bring the city of New York to life and make it another character in the cast. Titans achieves this, as well, giving us all the sense that the heroes are really on the run and visiting all these places, giving the audience the sense that they’re on this journey with them. It also eliminates the cliché that many other shows have where you set up a specific set location for exposition. For example, The Flash uses the command center in STAR Labs and Arrow uses the bunker as a space for the characters to unload exposition. This is not the case in Titans, so the scenes feel much more organic and real to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching a television show.
Where the series could benefit from some improvement is in the fight sequences. This will prove to be a tad challenging in future seasons as the vast majority of the characters are superpowered and require expensive effects. As we’ve seen with The Flash, effects done on a television budget don’t always possess the best quality and can come off looking rubbery and cheap. Achieving the level of scale that the original Wolfman & Perez stories had will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the production team, so this will prove to be an interesting challenge moving forward. I would also say that the crew should be careful when it comes to getting the other characters in costumes: They shouldn’t go the Smallville route and keep everyone in civilian clothes that match the colors of their comic counterparts for very long, nor should they go over the top as they’ve done with the CW shows as many of those more recent costumes have received poor reactions from fans for being a bit cheesy and campy looking.
Overall, the production value of Titans is comparable to that of a Netflix or Amazon television series, but would greatly benefit from an infusion of more team-based action sequences and a little more presence of visual effects. With a second season being inevitable, I’m sure they will get an increase in the budget and will be able to achieve more as the series develops.
POTENTIAL MOVING FORWARD:
Season one of Titans was a very strong introduction to the series and the characters. They were very ambitious in rolling out this new series in a way that would attract long-time DC Comics fans as well as newcomers who had perhaps never heard of them. Where the series succeeds most is in crafting likable characters that the audience can identify with and become invested in. By realizing these characters accurately from the comics and focusing on developing them as people, you are able to create that connection with them early on.
Titans also ends with opening a whole new dimension (quite literally) to the universe that these characters exist in. The stakes are raised to such a point where you question how the team will be able to react and overcome the adversity set before them. The season finale ends where the pilot episode began in that Robin and Raven very much take the priority of the narrative, with the supporting characters such as Starfire, Beast Boy, and Donna Troy being sidelined. Many fans may take issue with this, however, I feel it was ultimately a wise decision on the part of the writers as it creates a sense of continuity and consistency for the audience to finish the season-long arc in the same way it was started. It is also well-positioned to open the story up to a wider team effort in the season 2 premiere to deal with the outfall from Trigon and the hint of a presence from a certain Kryptonian courtesy of CADMUS Labs come this Fall.
Titans is certainly worth your time if you’re a fan of comic book movies and television shows. It’s very entertaining and well crafted, and best of all it’s a short run that a viewer can enjoy without necessitating a huge time commitment. You can comfortably work your way through the series in a matter of 2-3 days.
What this will ultimately come down to is HOW you choose to watch it. Many casual fans may find it difficult to justify paying $75 for the year to the DC Universe subscription, but if you feel that you would be intrigued enough to see their other original content such as Young Justice: Outsiders and Doom Patrol, then the subscription is definitely worth the fee as it comes out to less than $7 per month. With that, you’ll also get access to all their other movies, TV shows, animated series, animated movies, and a vast library of 20,000+ comics. However, if you feel that Titans is the only series you find yourself having any interest in, then the price of $25 on iTunes is a good investment as you not only get the 11 episodes, but you also get a good 40-minutes worth of extra features.
If you’ve been on the fence about subscribing to DC Universe, I hope this review helps you to make a choice. I think this plus the other original content is well worth the subscription fee and you get access to so much more. Ultimately, I look forward to seeing the progression of Titans and of the platform moving forward.
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.