When you’re talking about movies about batman and Superman, as well as characters related to Superman, this seems to be the one everyone has forgotten about. It’s completely disconnected from every other DC superhero movie ever made, and while the same could be said of Catwoman and Green Lantern, people tend to remember they exist. At least those movies are remembered for their poor performance, and in Catwoman’s case, being notoriously bad. But Steel seems to have completely slipped through the cracks.
Then again, it earned a measly $1.7 million worldwide, on a $16 million budget. Ouch.
There doesn’t seem to be too much behind the scenes details. The producers, Quincy Jones and David Salzman, were known more for their music production than their movie work. Jones in particular produced Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall”, “Thriller”, and “Bad” albums. He’s also known to be heavily involved in the jazz music industry, both as a producer and in playing multiple instruments. Kenneth Culver Johnson signed on as the writer and director, having been involved with TV shows such as “The Six Million Dollar Man”, “The Bionic Woman” and “The Incredible Hulk”. He also helped write D3: The Mighty Ducks the year before, and directed Short Circuit 2.
One could argue that his experience with The Incredible Hulk TV show would help him with a superhero movie, but pretty much all of his feature length work has been poorly received. Since Steel, he’s pretty much been reduced to TV movies and scattered TV episodes. Then again he was in his late 50’s (78 now), so he probably wanted to slow down anyway.
For the cast, you’ve got Shaquille O’Neal as John Henry Irons Aka Steel, Annabeth Gish as Susan Sparks, Richard Roundtree (from Shaft) as Uncle Joe, and Judd Nelson as the villain, Nathaniel Burke. There’s also a brief voice cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who happens to play Mr. Freeze in the next Batman movie I’ll be looking at.
The filming schedule needed to work around Shaq’s training schedule, as he already committed to competing in the 1996 Summer Olympics. This left the film crew only 5 weeks to shoot all of Shaq’s scenes. He read through the script once before the Olympics, worked with acting coach Ben Martin in-between games, and then returned to act with the rest of the cast, having memorized all of his lines. Say what you will about his acting talents, but that takes dedication. On that note, he helped the United States take home the gold medal.
That’s really all I could find about Steel’s production. The movie released in August of 1997, and as I mentioned earlier, it bombed hard. Critically, the movie got panned, earning 12% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average of 3/10. Critics generally agreed that the movie as a whole is badly acted, indulges too much in superhero clichés, and feels more like a TV movie than a theatrical release. Variety called the movie “too broad and episodic to attract anything other than the most undemanding crowd.” Shaq got nominated for the Worst Actor Razzie, but lost to Kevin Costner for The Postman. Despite the overall negative reviews, Gish’s performance as Susan Sparks did receive some praise. The San Francisco Chronicle’s comment on her performance says that she “becomes the first woman-in-wheelchair action hero in a Hollywood movie, too. Gotta give Steel some credit for that.”
In the comics, Steel is a genius level engineer who builds himself a suit of armor that gives him Superman-like abilities. He does so to help fill the void left by Superman after Doomsday killed him. After Superman returned to life, he accepted Steel as an ally. John eventually retires as Steel, and his niece takes over.
This movie is lame, and in more ways than one. It doesn’t feel like a theatrical release on any level, be it the weak acting from most of the cast, the basic special effects, or the forgettable music. Shaq is a man of many talents, and in his prime he wasn’t just a great basketball player, but a great overall athlete. He also seems like a genuinely nice guy, and although a lot of people make fun of his rap career, he did come out with some genuinely great, and kind of inspirational songs. With all that said, he cannot act.
The only cast members who show any real level of talent are Roundtree as Uncle Joe and Gish as Susan Sparks. But even then, they’re hampered by the movie’s weak, unfocused writing and direction. Uncle Joe, who helps John develop his Steel suit, overplays his charm factor on a regular basis. Gish shows moment of greatness when she’s completely phased after becoming paralyzed from the waist down, or when she struggles to pull herself back into her wheelchair after falling out. Her proud smile when she succeeds is a great moment in an otherwise weak movie. Then of course there’s the scene where her upgraded wheelchair reveals a bunch of weapons in the climax, and she starts wrecking Nathaniel Burke’s gangster allies.
Everything about the plot suggests that there may be a good idea for a story somewhere in here, but it’s too disjointed to work, and the stakes just aren’t big enough for a theatrical movie. After Nathaniel’s arrogance causes an accident in a weapon’s test, and he’s discharged from the army, he starts working with gangsters to recreate the weapons to deal them out to criminals. John, who was pretty much in charge of the sonic weapons, works with Uncle Joe and Sparks to create a special battle suit in order to stop them. In-between tracking down the criminals, he does bits and pieces of superhero work, while also running from the cops (who believe he’s working with the criminals). That’s it – that’s the plot.
There are also some silly sub-plots, like how Shaq’s character can’t make free throws … at least until his life depends on it. There’s his grandmother, who he still lives with despite having worked in military weapons research, spending most of her screen time desperately trying to make a soufflé. There’s his younger brother, falling in with the gangsters despite John’s warnings to keep straight. That subplot goes nowhere. There’s a cop who is initially chasing after Steel, but after Steel saves his life, he refuses to identify him in a lineup after John is arrested at home under suspicion of being Steel. Out of all the subplots, the only one that works is Sparks basically taking on a role very similar to Oracle in the comics.
There’s not much else to say about this movie. It’s lame, forgettable, and cliché. With only two exceptions, the cast cannot act, and even the good actors are held back by a weak script and an overall cheap, cheesy feel. That’s a shame, because John Steel is a good character, and he deserves a good on-screen portrayal. With that said, this movie won’t offend anyone. It’s not painfully bad, nor is it disrespectful to the characters. It’s just an overall lame movie that’s impossible to recommend. I wouldn’t even recommend this for a bad movie night – there are much more entertaining bad superhero movies, like Superman IV.
You can’t even give Steel credit for being the first superhero movie starring a black character, because Spawn did that two weeks earlier. There was also The Meteor Man in 1993, but that was a comedy not based on a pre-existing character.
Next up is the legendarily bad Batman movie, Batman and Robin which also released in 1997. Technically it released before Steel, but I wanted to divide the Schumacher Batman movies up. Then we’ll go forward to 2004 with Catwoman, before we get back to the good movies with Batman Begins.