Okay, so let’s put some context around the comic book film, Steel. Steel was released in 1997, which was not a stellar year for superhero-themed films. This was the same year that the infamous Batman & Robin (also a Warner Bros. film) came out and many similarities exist among the two movies. That same year, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie and Spawn were also released.
At this point in time comic book movies weren’t as prevalent and popular as they’ve become in the past decade. Starting with the first X-Men film in 2000, the genre has evolved from being overly campy or geared toward a specific audience to mainstream entertainment. No longer are Batman and Superman the only superheroes that attract a mass audience; today audiences of all ages flock to comic book movies.
So, now we have some idea of what was going on with this particular genre in 1997. But what else was going on around this time? What makes this movie stand-out (or should have) was the presence of Shaq as the main character. One year earlier, Shaq hit the big screen in the kid-friendly flick, Kazaam, which grossed $18 million at the box office. This was also the same time period as the Michael Jordan vehicle, Space Jam, which was a box office hit raking in $90 million.
Someone must have optioned the Steel comic book, seen Michael Jordan do well in Space Jam, thought of NBA star Shaq dressed in a metal suit, put the pieces of the puzzle together and decided to adapt Steel into a feature starring Shaq. This is mere speculation, but I think it may be close.
Here’s the problem: the film isn’t good. I’m sure you already figured that out since I danced around saying it for so long. Granted, the special effects for a 1997 film are impressive, and there are some interesting set pieces used throughout. But neither of these can mask the sloth-paced story, the atrocious dialogue, or the bad acting not only from Shaq, but from seasoned film vets like Judd Nelson, Annabeth Gish, and Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft).
If you look at it as a genuine superhero film, it fails on all levels. If you look at it as a campy action-comedy it does become tolerable. Not great, but tolerable. But if you want to give it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, it would be even more fun to watch.
One thing that did come to mind as I was watching the film was the revelation that there are very few African-American superheroes. Blade counts. You could even say Shaft to some degree. And we do have Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (white in the comics) in the future. And Storm. So why aren’t there more films with African-American superheroes? Surely Steel’s lack of box office success couldn’t have scared people away from the idea. But this a question and a concept worth exploring. If anyone has any thoughts on this matter, please leave a comment and let me know.
I like Shaq. I loved his cameo in Scary Movie 4, but as a lead actor he just doesn’t have what it takes. At the same time, I can’t think of any actor who could have stepped into that role with that script and made it a box office success. I think that’s where the root of the film’s problems can ultimately be found: if the script sucks it’s hard for the rest of the movie to cover for it. If you’re a screenwriter, watch this movie and see how you could have improved the screenplay. Trust me, it’s an easy assignment.
What we end up with after all of this jabbering is that Steel is a cheesy movie that could also be defined as dorky at certain moments in the film. I only recommend it as an alternative to the standard superhero/comic book fare we’re so used to seeing now, and also as a camp classic of the highest order.
And speaking of order, the film is exclusively available through the Warner Archive Collection. The Warner Archive Collection contains hundreds of rarely released films that can be ordered exclusively from Warner Bros. For a look at their catalog, or to order Steel, click here.