ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Steel’ (1997), Part One
As we continue our in-depth look at super-hero movies, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take on the Superman film franchise. Even this part.
Chris Sims: With 1997's Steel unavailable on DVD, we originally thought we were going to have to go ahead and move right into 2006's Superman Returns, but... well, it seems miracles do happen. Just before she left ComicsAlliance, Laura Hudson found the Shaquille O'Neal classic and sent us a digital version for review. I have to say, it's pretty fitting that her last official act as CA's Editor-in-Chief was to give us a crappy movie to watch. It's her lasting legacy.
David Uzumeri: The VHS copy really adds to the ... halo surrounding the film, since I can't imagine Shaquille O'Neal in his Kazaam!-era prime without the moving Instagram equivalent of scanlines and EP videocassette recording.Chris: Exactly. I want to apologize to all of our readers for our screenshots in this review being so grainy and not up to our usual crisp DVD quality, but at the same time, I feel like it's the only way to truly experience this movie.
David: What's funny about this movie, and the character of Steel, is that - I was always a DC guy. So it took me becoming an adult to realize that one of these archetypal characters who affected me as a child was actually just pretty much Iron Man in the DC Universe.
Chris: That's a good enough way as any to segue into a little background on the film. 1997 was a pretty weird time for DC in terms of movies. Steel is, of course, ostensibly a Superman character, but it had been ten years since Superman IV flopped, during which the character had gone on to a pretty respectable run on TV with Lois & Clark. In the meantime, the Batman film franchise had pretty much run its course: Steel came out only two months after the release of Batman & Robin.
David: There's even a Batman Forever arcade machine in Noah's Arcade as the movie goes on! Shaq was a new multimedia star and big Superman fan, and this came out in the middle of projects like Kazaam! and the Shaq-Fu videogame, which was about Shaquille O'Neal knowing kung fu.
Chris: I'm going to go ahead and say it: Probably the single best concept of the SNES era.
David: So part of it was this, Steel. Who was fairly recently coming into his own, having his own series, the creation of Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove from the seminalish "Reign of the Supermen" crossover.
Chris: I'd argue that Steel is hands down the best character to come out of the Death and Return of Superman arc. He's a really good concept, and his motivation for becoming one of the Replacement Supermen is really solid, once you get past the whole thing where he used to manufacture super-flamethrowers called "Toastmasters."
David: The thing is that John Henry Irons's story, as presented in Reign of the Supermen, was basically Tony Stark's. What made it interesting was the fact that he was interacting with Superman, and the way John Henry became Clark's friend. It's a relationship Morrison made a point of building into the very kernel of Superman's story in his new Action Comics. But just on his own, played as, and by, a well-meaning goofball, it suffers. Largely because it takes like literally half the movie for him to put on some f***ing armor.
Chris: It's also worth noting that at the time, Warner Bros. really seemed to be courting (ha ha) basketball stars. This was only a year after Michael Jordan teamed up with Bugs Bunny to stop aliens from conquering the world in Space Jam, a movie that actually came out and isn't something we made up. Guys like Shaq and Charles Barkley were huge stars, especially coming straight out of their gold-medal win at the '96 Olympics. I've never watched a basketball game in my life and I know exactly who these dudes are. Unfortunately, they're not exactly what you'd call great actors.
David: Well, at least Space Jam focused on Jordan's main talent - shooting mad hoops. Here, we're supposed to emote with, and feel for, Shaq. Including when he drags a screaming woman out of a veteran's hospital to the cheers of the populace, but we'll get to that.
Chris: Of his three major talents, the other two being basketball and, of course, rap music, acting is probably Shaq's weakest area. One more thing before we get started, something that really surprised me: Quincy Jones produced this movie. And on the long list of amazing things Quincy Jones has produced, Steel definitely falls short of, say, Thriller.
David: I think Kevin Grevioux's voice is what did me in.
Chris: Well, there's no putting it off any longer. Let's get started with Steel!
David: But anyway, we start out in the middle of Modern Warfare 2 while -[R33Lst33lJHI]- tests out the new sniper weapon class he downloaded in .wad form with his clan.
Chris: I would like to point out that the very first thing someone says in this movie is "that's enough, that's enough! My ass is on fire!"
David: So yeah, Irons's colleague Burke shows off their sweet-ass Ulysses Klaw supergun to their entire military unit, where they shoot a building and it reflects and it hits themselves and Shaq's buddy Sparks gets hurt in some rubble, which he lifts her out of like he's John Henry lifting himself out of the rubble in a good story.
Chris: I can tell how much you don't like this movie by how fast you're glossing over plot points. For the record, John Henry Irons (Shaq) is a military scientist working on developing non-lethal weapons for combat, and Sparks is a lady with whom he does a bizarre kind of handshake where they draw a circle in the air and then rub their index fingertips together. And yes: It is as erotic as it sounds.
David: I guess I assumed too much knowledge, because - the thing is, Irons is actually true to character here, for the most part. He's a man with knowledge who was young and had his research misused, and then he had a change of heart regarding weapons policy. But that's basically Iron Man. What makes Steel interesting is his context, you know? And this movie is just about Shaq hitting stuff with a hammer, and that takes like half the movie. And his conscience, which is portrayed so goofily by O'Neal it's hard to take seriously.
Chris: Right, he's more or less defined by being a living example of Superman as an inspiration. They actually make each other better characters, in a way, and when you remove Steel from that larger context, the character suffers for it. Here, his logic is pretty dubious: After a miscalibrated "non-lethal" weapon accidentally kills a senator and paralyzes his friend, he decides that instead of making better non-lethal weapons, he's going to just go ahead and leave it to machine guns and rocket launchers. The logic is a bit... lacking.
David: It's true to his comic origins, but it's also a serious about face for him in the context of the movie. Granted, he's supposedly woken up from his ethical sleep by the actions of Burke, his research partner who overloads the gun and has it reflect off of a nearby building and demolish the beam's point of origin, because he is a brilliant scientist but also a complete idiot who can't conceive two blinking, beeping red dots. Or he can but wants to overload the gun on purpose, to show how it can ... backfire? It's confusing. Shaq's buddy/love interest Sparks gets caught under some ceiling, and there's an uncomfortable amount of film dedicated to Shaq lifting it. It kind of echoes the comic book version of his origin, in that he's struggling with some concrete, I guess.
Chris: Except that he's already making non-lethal weapons for the military, so his starting point is that he's an idealist who doesn't even want to kill enemy soldiers. There's nowhere for him to go, and it makes his decision to quit the military even more bizarre, especially when he gets exactly what he wants at the following trial, when Burke is booted out. The best part of this, though, is that Burke is played by Judd Nelson, who looks to be somewhere around two feet shorter than Shaq, but still has to play scenes where he gets mad and gets up in his face. Or up in his chest, as the case may be.
David: Literally everybody in this movie is comically shorter than Shaq.
Chris: It's seriously fantastic.
David: He looks like Hodor or Hagrid or something. Like a man with giant's blood in a regular world. But he totally plays himself as a regular, put-upon dude.
Chris: And when he goes back to the old neighborhood after he quits the military, there's a joke about how he actually sucks at basketball! Get it? Because in real life Shaquille O'Neal is very good at basketball?
David: Look, he just can't make free throws, okay? I dunno, all I know about Shaquille O'Neal playing basketball, I learned from him being literally on fire in the middle of NBA Jam. And the way the movie's shot, it's worth mentioning, is like an episode of a '90s sitcom. The quick-acting music cues and funk soundtrack, the gratuitous guest stars...
Chris: On the subject of music cues, I love how there's so much mid-90s hip hop just dropped in. The theme song for Shaq going back to Los Angeles is "Bust a Move." I imagine having Quincy Jones as your movie's producer makes it a lot easier to get music clearances.
David: Shaq comes home to his sassy grandma and his rambunctious cousin, because literally everything in this movie has to be a '90s sitcom cliche. His Grandma Odessa and cousin Martin greet him back at L.A, where John Henry has decided to celebrate his newfound civilianism by wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt.
Chris: His little cousin could not be more of a walking cliche if this was done on purpose. I guarantee you that if you have seen more than, say, five movies in your life, you will be able to predict what this kid is about to say with 100% accuracy
David: He's like... look, I know I make a lot of Wire comparisons, but I really can't take any "prepubescent kid is trying to avoid getting involved into a gang" storyline seriously after David Simon's masterpiece. And this is so goddamn trite.
Chris: To be fair, I think wanting Steel to be on the level of The Wire is expecting a little much, but yeah. Martin sounds exactly like a middle-aged white dude trying to write an authentic inner-city black kid and basing it entirely on cartoons from the '90s. He's seriously one "that's wack!" away from just collapsing under the weight of it.
David: I had to stop the movie and cry in the bathroom as soon as he quoted the chorus of "C.R.E.A.M." But the original Simonson/Bogdanove story was actually pretty progressive for the time, and this is definitely based on the basic story of that. On the other hand, we get "Black and Bleu," Grandma Odessa's French/African-American fusion cuisine restaurant.
Chris: Credit where it's due: I think the idea of the soul food / haute cuisine fusion restaurant sounds amazing.
David: Meanwhile, we're told that Martin's in danger of hanging out with GANGS, the ultimate danger in mid-'90s Hollywood depiction of any inner city.
Chris: Meanwhile, despite offers from various "weapons builders," John Henry has decided to take a job in an actual steel foundry. Which...
Chris: I mean, I get that he doesn't want to build weapons anymore, but isn't this dude still an electronics genius? He made a portable laser rifle that can disable a tank and a sonic cannon that can knock down a building! Why is he working at a miserably hot foundry when he could basically write his ticket in any part of the tech industry?
David: Well, look, as we'll find out later, Shaft can get him ANYTHING he needs off the back of ANY truck. But for now, we catch up with Burke, who's decided to team up with a local videogame arcade mogul to start supplying the gangs that hang out at his arcades with these sonic superweapons. No, really.
Chris: I love this dude who is, as Judd Nelson describes him, a "hot weapons" dealer. Not only does he smuggle his guns by duct-taping them to the insides of arcade machine cabinets, but he's also the prototypical version of the '90s long-haired scumbag bad guy on every episode of Walker: Texas Ranger.
David: Like, he sells arcade machines and... submachine guns. And, of course, all the arcade machines are Warner Bros. properties, so I guess they're linking themselves to inner city super-crime with experimental military weapons?
Chris: I just love that this thriving criminal empire is contingent on the continued existence of arcades. Out of curiosity, how many arcades do you think were accidentally blown up when he tried to pack hand grenades into Dance Dance Revolution machines?
David: John Henry and an old friend who's become a police officer take Martin on a sort of 'scared straight' ridealong, and on the way there's a robbery caused by the gang outfitted with the sonic guns created by Burke, Irons and Sparks's research. And only now do I get the joke in Irons and Sparks creating the steel armor. The very obvious joke, or they'd probably call it symbolism.
Chris: Look, let's not start talking smack about puns when our starting point was a guy named John Henry Irons becoming a super-hero named Steel. That's like half a notch above "Turner D. Century," and you know it. Anyway, I question the wisdom of taking two civilians along for the ride when you're going to an actual violent bank robbery, though. I mean, the seven foot-tall former Army lieutenant, maybe, but his 14 year-old cousin? Probably not a great idea.
David: In the case of Irons's cop buddy, I'm pretty sure she expected a few idiots with AKs, though, not the amalgamation of Marlo's gang and the scientific achievement of Ulysses S. Klaw.
Chris: You've already done a Klaw joke. ONLY ONE KLAW JOKE PER COLUMN. YOU KNOW THE RULE.
David: Look, there are clearly five Klaw jokes per column, one per each finger. The cops manage to round up most of the gang members, but one of them, Cutter, keeps bagging loot and runs off on his own, followed by Shaq. What follows is basically the train graveyard sequence near the end of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII, as trains move at glacial speeds in a like five-minute sequence of nothing but dudes jumping over, and avoiding, couplings. And I really think we need to take a second to recognize the soundtrack of this film, because it's seriously just awkwardly-cued generic funk music over badly directed action sequences.
Chris: You say Final Fantasy, but there is no way that this entire sequence was not based off a platformer. They seriously went into this thinking "how can we make a movie that we can translate directly to the Super Nintendo?" And this was their solution.
David: You sound like a man who never beat Final Fantasy VII.
Chris: Son, I beat Emerald Weapon so don't come in here with that.
David: But seriously, Irons moves through the joining train couplings like Mega Man dodging the laser beams in Quick Man's stage. Shaq basically fakes his death by letting a train car "drop" on him, open doorway first.
Chris: I genuinely hope that was an idea Shaq brought to the set. "Guys, I'd really like my performance to be inspired by Harold Lloyd."
David: Because the kid he's chasing is an idiot, Shaq just threatens him with more punching and finds out that the random street gang outfitted with Modern Warfare 4 weapons has leaders that hang out in the back of a random arcade.
Chris: You say that as though you wouldn't confess to any crime you were suspected of if a man the size of Shaq was going to punch you. I mean, look at this way: When the dude shoots Shaq from behind, it's with the rockets that we've seen take out a tank. For Shaq - or at least, for John Henry Irons - it presents a minor inconvenience. I don't even really see why he needs armor at this point.
David: Or why he has to protect his identity. He has no problem pissing off everybody he's got a beef against as John Henry Irons, why even bother pretending to be a dude named Steel? Like, "I'd better protect myself to prevent these guys I've already pissed off from thinking I've pissed them off!"
Chris: It's a pretty great disguise, though. How are they ever going to figure out which truly gigantic person is messing with their operations? We're still a ways out from that, though.
David: Sparks is feeling sad in a veterans' hospital, so Shaq makes her do things by forcibly picking up her wheelchair (that he apparently bought) and carrying her out of the hospital to the ongoing applause of everyone else in the building.
David: I really have no idea what to make of this scene, since the camera actually lingers on the celebrating residents as Irons carries her down the stairs. It's utterly bizarre.
Chris: I like that due to Shaq's slightly limited acting ability, he comes off as immediately confrontational and pissed off towards his friendly who's dealing with being paralyzed. "Didn't you get my letters?!" And then he gets up a few seconds later and punches a window open. It's hilarious.
David: It's like, apparently just introducing her to fresh air wakes her out of what I can only call her post-traumatic stress disorder? She thought she was going to die, I'm pretty sure you can't fix that AND everything that comes along with losing the use of your legs just by belting a Venetian blind.
Chris: And then there's the fact that while he's picking her up, she's struggling and yelling "No! Let me go!" It is the weirdest damn thing. Like, you're exactly right, there is no sane way to interpret this scene.
David: But apparently, forcibly abducting her and dragging her to a junkyard to hang out with Shaft is the missing raison d'etre she needed to keep on moving. That said, if I were any age between zero and like forty, being abducted to live in a junkyard with Shaft sounds like the beginning of the world's greatest adventure. I mean, or the world's most macabre Madame Tussaud's exhibit.
Chris: That's right, everybody, we haven't been typoing all this time. Meet Uncle Joe, as played by the star of Shaft, Richard Roundtree. In a beret. For reasons I do not quite comprehend.
David: Uncle Joe actually lives in what I can only describe as a Fallout 3 trading outpost. While John Henry Irons ventures out into the wasteland to glean bottlecaps from radscorpions, Sparks is stuck trying to acclimate not only to living on her own in a wheelchair, but doing so in a junkyard palace which her ex-coworker had made wheelchair accessible before abducting you from a veterans' hospital.
Chris: As much as I love to see Richard Roundtree getting work, there's no getting around it: the old junk-man who can produce anything you need because it "fell off the back of a truck" has got to be the most uncomfortable cliché in the entire film.
David: The thing is, Uncle Joe doesn't only produce an uncomfortable cliche, he provides a reason why two ostensible supergeniuses could build what's basically an Iron Man suit out of scrap armor. And here's the thing: this is a story about a dude who develops a conscience after his inventions are used for dangerous and destructive purposes, so he fashions himself as a modern-day scientific knight to right his former creative wrongs.
Chris: This movie wouldn't really lose anything without him, though. I thought for sure that the reason they had John Henry Irons working in a foundry was that he was going to literally build the armor there, but it all happens in Uncle Joe's junkyard. All things considered, I'd rather have Jeff Bridges shouting "Shaquille O'Neal built this in a cave!"
David: Well, let's be fair, all things considered, I'd rather have the first Iron Man flick than a whole lot of summer blockbuster movies. Or planned blockbusters, as in this case. Either way, similarities to Iron Man aside, Burke's long since taken control of the entire arcade / superweapon amalgamation business by sticking everyone but him and future New Warriors writer Kevin Grevioux in a sabotaged elevator. Martin's friends have recommended he get a job at the arcade, and Irons is happy, because this means a straight job as opposed to whatever gangs do in PG-13 movies from the late '90s. This leads him to become Burke's right-hand man, I guess because Burke wants to keep an eye on Irons.
Chris: Clearly, paralyzing his best friend, injuring his cop buddy and then selling his weapon designs to street gangs wasn't enough to make things personal between Burke and Irons. After that, we get a suit-building montage set to this genuinely awful song about how you need to "steel yourself" that includes a slow close-up on Shaq's Superman tattoo. It also says "MAN OF STEEL" around it. You know, just in case you didn't quite get it.
David: Well, what were they supposed to do, cover the text up? That tattoo's for real. The best/worst part is that it transferred itself into Irons's character in the comics.
Chris: Did it really?
David: Yeah, I'm pretty sure he even had the S-symbol arm tattoo in 52. And at least it didn't cut from the tattoo to Shaq's junk like it would have in a Schumacher joint.
Chris: Huh. I guess there's no reason for him to not have one. Hell, If you saved me from the Black Racer during a battle against Mongul and Darkseid, I'd probably get "U Z U M E R I !" on my knuckles.
David: Shaq is now Steel, and he looks pretty much like the comics version, except without a cape and with a ridiculous MF Doom mask that exposes his mouth and, well, looks kinda cheap in comparison to the rest of the costume and the general conception of the character, even in this movie. And he gets a big hammer because, as Sparks says, "a man named John Henry's just gotta have a hammer." Roundtree states that he "especially likes the shaft." Get it, guys? Shaft? Richard Roundtree? Weirdly uncomfortable phallic subtext?
Chris: The best part is Shaq's reaction shot.
Chris: I take back everything I said about him being a bad actor
David: I wonder if that line was actually ad-libbed, and that was genuine surprise.
Chris: I'm pretty sure it wasn't, if only because I feel like Shaq would've cracked up at that line. I'll admit to groaning through a laugh myself.
David: If nothing else, I think this movie passes our consistency test. It's written and directed by the same dude, and while it's not particularly... ept, that shows. And sometimes that comes across in ridiculous moments like that shaft line.
Chris: Oh, it's very consistent. Unfortunately, it's consistently awful.
David: It really can't be stated enough how awful Shaq's performance is. He's the least intimidating guy in the world, and never is this more clear than when he saves the Penguin's parents from Batman Returns from the tyranny of an indie guitarist with a switchblade.
Chris: This is our first look at Shaq in costume, too, and if you've ever wondered what would happen if Phoenix Jones and RoboCop had a baby, it would look exactly like this:
David: Oh my Lord, I've been trying to place what the costume reminds me of, and you're dead right, it's Phoenix Jones. Steel goes after the thief and nails him to a shipping container in a generic dockyard, leading to his assistants remarking that the thief must now be "born again." He then apologizes to the really rich people on behalf of the people of Los Angeles, returning their money.
Chris: And then, in the single most amazing moment of the film, he steps backwards onto an escalator that seems to appear out of f***ing nowhere and says "Y'all be cool, now." I cannot tell you how hard I laughed at this. It is the greatest thing.
David: Seriously, was the escalator written into the script? I have to wonder if it was originally supposed to be jetpack boots, like the comic version.
Chris: I swear, it's like they were in a meeting going "What do super-heroes do after they do a good deed? They fly away, right?" "Well, we don't have the budget for that. What if he just rode up an escalator instead?" It's shot in the exact same style of the classic "Superman flies away" scene, and there's even a gust of wind as he goes up the escalator. It's... I love it. Pure, unironic love. It's the best.
Chris: Well, okay. Maybe a little ironic.
David: And then, right after saying it, he just spins around and starts walking up. As John Henry fights crime, he's helped out by Sparks and Uncle Joe, and I can pretty easily see why so many commentators compared Sparks to Oracle for a while now. She basically sits there on comm and tells John exactly what to do, just like Oracle did to Batman for like a decade.
Chris: Wait, are you saying you think the redhead computer genius in the wheelchair who guides the super-hero from her headquarters is comparable to Oracle? I'm not sure I follow your logic there. Or maybe I'm just distracted because Shaq has to hold his right arm in this weird position because, if he doesn't, something will definitely fall off that costume. Really, guys? Sixteen million bucks in the budget and you couldn't slap some duct-tape on it for the shoot?
David: To be fair, maybe it was just to hold himself up after absorbing the treat of being "smoked like a blunt." Steel's armor is also so bulletproof that it doesn't just, like, protect him, he can actually just stand there like Superman and wag his finger at the vintage luxury sedans.
Chris: The fight with the gang members is pretty rough, but -- aw dammit, you had to mention Joel Schumacher earlier, didn't you? That's like saying "Bloody Mary" into a mirror, except that you've conjured up a close-up shot of Steel magnetizing a gun and some knives to his ass.
David: Can I just say how great it is that he magnetizes his own hammer? Well, I mean, it's already magnetized, but he just stands there like "yeah, whatever, I can take it." I'm sure this was practiced over years on the court, but Shaq's pretty good at a smug, patronizing grin.
Chris: Eventually the cops show up and Steel escapes with a grappling hook in a shot that completely justifies the movie's decision to go with an escalator earlier.
David: The cops just stand there and watch, too -- isn't this LA? Aren't they supposed to just unload their clips at anything that looks even slightly suspicious? Steel's jumping from rooftop to rooftop, ineptly, when the cops corner him and he seems to jump off, actually just grappling down, except the grapple line frays and breaks and he conveniently lands in a pile of garbage.
Chris: Then he gets on a motorcycle - and I'm honestly not clear on whether it's his motorcycle or if he just found it in the garbage, no kidding - and makes his escape. The cops give chase, but fortunately for Steel, whoever wrote this movie was under the impression that the police had to stop for red lights when they were chasing a suspect.
David: Sparks helps him escape the cops by manipulating the traffic lights, leading her to declare that "it ain't easy being green." Because Kenneth Johnson thought that was a clever Muppets reference, apparently. Of course, Steel has a sweet junkyard secret entrance for his motorcycle like he's one of the Three Investigators.
Chris: And naturally, the police don't think to investigate the junkyard. You know, the junkyard full of bizarre metal sculptures? Why would you look there for a dude wearing bizarre metal armor?
David: They even remark on how he might have escaped to "the Batcave." Like, did none of the helicopters catch the secret door that opened into the junkyard?
Chris: With that, we have our hero (sort of), our villain (more or less), and our plot (such as it is). So join us next week as we finish up what I can promise you is the Internet's most exhaustively in-depth review of Steel!
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