ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Steel’ (1997), Part Two
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.
David Uzumeri: When we last left off, Steel had just stopped two old rich dudes from getting robbed by a poor guy, which led into a high-speed police chase which concluded in Steel driving into a junkyard on his motorcycle. Meanwhile, Steel’s old army weapons colleague Burke is selling high-tech military hardware to local gangs through a hip L.A. arcade, and Steel’s OTHER old army weapons colleague, Sparks, is his own personal Oracle, and their handshake of choice is the E.T. finger touch.
Chris Sims: Which actually looks way creepier than it should. Suit up, everybody, it’s time for the senses-shattering climax of Shaquille O’Neal’s super-heroic triumph, Steel!David: Steel arrives back home at what I’ll just call the Steelworks to try to afford this movie some measure of dignity. Shaft comments that Steel seems kinda like Jesus and Steel reiterates how important Sparks is to their operation.
Chris: Before we actually move on with the plot, I just want to draw attention to the fact that Shaft suddenly has a dog in this scene, who has never been seen before, and will never be seen again. He just shows up for Steel to throw a towel on, in what I think is the movie’s fifth joke about Shaq being bad at free throws. Also… I think it’s Air Bud?
David: What the hell are you, the dog profiler? How can you tell?
Chris: It’s a Golden Retriever in a bad movie made for children in the late ’90s. Who else could it be?
David: You know the depressing part? I’m not convinced this movie was made for children.
Chris: You don’t think the DC Comics movie with the anti-gang message starring sports hero Shaquille O’Neal was made for children.
David: Early teenagers!
Chris: That’s true. Teens and tweens love an evil Judd Nelson. I heard he was the first pick for Jacob in Twilight, but then the producers momentarily stopped huffing ether.
David: So Martin is still working at the Evil Arcade, getting shown dope new video games by Judd Nelson while he talks about how cool Steel is and basically gives him all the clues he needs to figure out Steel’s identity, namely that he’s a seven-foot black guy with the knowhow to create his own high-tech suit of armor. And what neighborhood he’s staying in. With his grandma.
Chris: To be fair to Martin, it’s not like he’s the only one who could provide this information. A 7’6″ guy in metal armor with a gun-hammer doesn’t exactly fade into the crowd when he’s done fighting crime.
David: He apparently does, according to the dumbass cops from his last great escape! Burke then goes to meet with … the one gang dude with the eyepatch, who’s wearing a gigantic diamond-encrusted gold dollar sign chain, which leads to maybe the best exchange in this movie.
David: When the gang members asks “what’s wrong with a little flossin’?” Burke replies with: “You floss too much… your gums bleed.”
Chris: This whole scene is amazing. Even beyond that line and the fact that the eyepatch makes this dude look like the dollar store version of Slick Rick, they have given Burke a jacket that has the most ridiculously gigantic collar I have ever seen. It’s huge! And then, in order to pass him the secret documents, Burke offers the guy a hot dog. When he says he doesn’t eat “pork mess,” Burke tells him “that’s turkey mess” and the guy goes at it like it’s the first food he has ever seen. Also: THIS IS A PLOT POINT THAT COMES UP AGAIN LATER.
David: Dude, it’s Nick Fury, Agent of C.R.I.P.S. As for the “pork mess” bit, I’m guessing that’s being portrayed as a religious thing?
Chris: Yeah, I got that part. Just the phrasing of “turkey mess,” which isn’t exactly what you’d call “appetizing.” You want to take a shot at explaining that collar? Is that something we as a society did in 1997? I was more into grotesque club shirts with Spider-Man on them at the time. Also: How did we ignore Burke’s parting shot, “Eat the hot dog… don’t be one.“
David: There’s a lot going on in this scene, dude. So anyway, outside of his ridiculous attire and the bizarre food aside, the scene basically consists of Burke and this dude planning an attack on the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, Grandma Odessa has seen the two rich old white people from earlier interviewed on the news in the supermarket, and likely immediately figures out that it’s John Henry just from them talking about how insanely polite he was.
Chris: I really do like the idea that politeness could be Steel’s downfall. Like how Bruce Wayne has to act like a dilettante in order to maintain his secret identity, John Henry Irons may need to take up recreational rudeness.
David: Yo, so then the gang robs a bank. The Federal Reserve, which is, in Sparks’s words, “the city’s biggest ATM.” Which makes no sense whatsoever, since you can’t walk up to a Federal Reserve with a bank card — it’s where they hold… oh, man, it’s not even worth the economics lesson. They’ve got a pretty basic plan, which is show up in a tank with a ton of military super-weapons and bust their way in. Like, this is seriously the least complicated heist in history. They fill up their duffel bags with what must be, like, a millionth of what’s inside the Federal Reserve, and when they walk outside Steel’s showed up with a gun of his own, which he uses to shoot some rock and cause rubble to fall.
Chris: One thing that I really like about this scene is that Burke is using his robbery of the Federal Reserve to lure Steel out into the open and see how he works, track his communications and confirm his suspicions. It really puts him over the top from “bad guy” to “super-villain,” in that normally, this insane robbery would be the endgame.
David: It’s oddly competent for a dude who got his resources by taking over an arcade so he can hang out with an older Bob the Goon and the keen creative mind behind the Underworld films. He’s practically got a plan out of Shredder’s playbook from the first Ninja Turtles movie: lure kids in with fun crap and train them to be your disposable ground troops.
Chris: I’m still not sure why exactly Steel’s hammer needs to turn into a gun, though. I mean, he’s a giant armored dude with a magic hammer, so when he pops the handle out and starts shooting things with it, he looks like he’s a kid playing army with a stick he found. A gigantic kid in armor, yes, but still.
David: Yeah, that’s a great point with the hammer; has he actually HIT anything with it so far? That’s kinda like a Thor flick where all he does is summon lightning. And I mean, summoning lightning is pretty dope, but you want to see hammers flying into people’s faces, man. In any case, Steel basically gets into a firefight with the Super-Crips until they blast him with their sonic cannon and “the Blues” show up, causing him to start running from the cops on the Steelcycle.
Chris: I hope whoever wrote Sparks referring to the cops arriving as “you’re about to get the blues!” got to take the rest of the day off.
David: So this copter’s approaching, the friendly cop is trying to shoot Steel with a pistol, and Steel is, as Sparks says “out of gun,” so he can no longer use his vaguely-defined energy blasts. So of course Burke tells his Foot Soldiers to shoot down the copter, right over the cop, who Steel saves.
Chris: Shaq pulls quite a few amazing mugs in this movie, but the look on his face as he looks down at the cop he just saved is… I mean it’s somewhere between adorable and terrifying. It’s adorifying.
David: Steel then evades the rest of the cops using the built-in caltrops on the Steelcycle, as well as blowing up a water tank by mounting his hammer on the front of his cycle. Wasn’t the hammer out of gun? Doesn’t Steel look phallic enough without putting the shaft of a hammer pointing out from his bike?
Chris: At this point, I’m pretty sure that he caused almost as much in property damage as the bad guys got away with from robbing the reserve.
David: In the movie’s defense, robbing the reserve wasn’t actually the point of their display, but yeah. The point, as we see, is to get every stereotyped paramilitary insurgence unit in the world, from Nazis to Mexican cartels, to find out that A) these dope-ass weapons exist and B) gangs have them, so they might be able to, too! But how can they find them? The answer, as you’ll see, may surprise you.
Chris: Seriously, Burke is maybe the most efficient villain we have ever dealt with in one of these columns. He robs the federal reserve, scopes out his nemesis and figures out where his headquarters is, and advertises his illegal super-weapons to Cobra Commander’s address book all at the same time!
David: Judd Nelson does give the guy an effortless sleaziness, except that he just seems like the bad guy in a way better action movie that has a hero who has something resembling a character arc. But this is Shaq’s Steel, and John Henry Irons remains the same damn character throughout the entire movie. The only character in the entire flick who goes through any sort of growth is Sparks, who, not coincidentally, is the most interesting character in it.
Chris: Let’s be honest, though: Being the most interesting character in Steel is a lot like being the tallest guy in the Lollipop Guild.
David: But anyway, now Sparks and Shaft are tending to Steel’s wounds after his escape from the Blues, and urging him to go home and sleep because he’s pushing himself too hard. Also now I really wish they were Steel, Sparks and Shaft. Actually, that sounds like a… folk porno band.
Chris: I love how they bring up John Henry the folk hero, and how Shaft is like 100% cool with Steel dying while he’s out there shooting crooks with his gun-hammer. Richard Roundtree literally says “sure he died, but at least he beat that machine!” Which is true, because we all know that John Henry’s sacrifice was the end of machines in industry, right?
David: Maybe Steel learned a valuable lesson from Superman: you do what you can right here, in your neighborhood, and what happens somewhere else is their problem. If Steel dies stopping this one particular gang, well… it’s worth it.
Chris: Think globally, die locally!
David: In any case, Steel goes home to get some sleep, and in an extended whispered conversation with his grandmother (I guess not to wake up Martin?) she basically accuses him of being Steel. But just as he’s going to respond, the cops crash through the window, and then… well, Grandma Odessa and Shaq fight them off really quickly because the director fast-forwarded the tape. It’s hard to describe how low-budget this scene looks.
Chris: Shaq also puts his radio earpiece in his mouth so that he can smuggle it into jail, and… guys, I’m pretty sure that’s the first place cops look when they lock you up. If it’s not, then there are a lot of people in jail who probably feel pretty embarrassed right now about how they smuggled stuff into the hut.
David: Yo, maybe John Henry Irons came in #1 in the army “swallowing stuff and regurgitating it without vomiting” course.
Chris: Let’s… let’s just move on to the lineup scene.
David: So now the cops have brought back the Aristocrats! to pick Steel out of a lineup, since they think he’s associated with the gangs because he uses the same weapons. They can see he uses the same weapons from video footage released from the robbery.
Chris: Which makes perfect sense, because I distinctly remember Burke’s crew running around with gun-hammers mounted on motorcycles. Wait, I mean the opposite of that.
David: The Aristocrats!, of course, thought Steel was pretty cool, and figuring that the cops are just looking for a scapegoat, actively refuse to identify John Henry. The cop who he saved from the helicopter crash does the same thing. So they just stick him in a jail cell, where he takes the earpiece out of his mouth and, as far as anyone around him can tell, just starts talking to his imaginary friend Sparky.
Chris: I do like the idea that the LAPD needs someone to identify the only 7′ tall super-weapon designer who lives in the area, but I guess they need to be pretty thorough.
David: The prison guards aren’t helpful, so Sparky formulates a brilliant plan to get him out of prison: call the District Attorney and record his voice after Shaft delivered a fake Publisher’s Clearing House letter to him and took his signature electronically, then use Computers! to do both voice and written authorization for Steel’s release from the holding cells. Meanwhile, the word about Burke’s super-weapons is getting out to all of the world’s paramilitaries… via a newfangled concept called the Internet.
Chris: There is a lot of truly amazing “Computers!” and “Internet!” talk in this movie, but the best of it comes from some Neo-Nazi dude who says “we can get a lot of good stuff – not just porn!” How is that not Amazon’s slogan to this day?
David: I’d like to say, credit to Steel’s writing team for realizing that any superhero movie is better when the dude is fighting even just a few Nazis. So now that Steel’s sprung from prison, Shaft’s driving him to a location that Sparks uses her LAND-SAT, which is Google Maps in Satellite mode, to discover is the meeting place for Burke and all of his international paramilitary weapons buyers. While Steel and Sparks are talking, one of Burke’s henchmen uses the signal trace they performed during the Federal Reserve raid to track down Sparks and kidnap her.
Chris: We didn’t mention it when it happened, but there’s definitely a scene where Sparks makes an offhand but still super awkward mention of “working on her chair,” so be prepared for that little bit of foreshadowing to come to fruition in a second.
David: That’s easily the highest point of this movie, but yes, we’ll get to that soon. Steel and Shaft decide to go bust up Burke’s party, and in a legitimately great exchange, Shaft advises Steel to stay safe because “you ain’t Superman, and you damn sure ain’t getting paid.” Which, I’m pretty sure, is a metaphor for this entire movie. Actually, more of a harsh truth than a metaphor.
Chris:C’mon, Shaq had to get paid for this. The budget went somewhere, and it definitely didn’t go to… well, anything else.
David: Dogg, boxofficemojo.com reports this movie had a budget of sixteen million. Note: it made one. Almost two! #26 for worst opening weekend per-theater averages. I’m pretty sure this was a passion project for Shaq, and this movie wasn’t pork, it was a turkey.
David: So now Steel’s in front of a window watching Burke deliver his badass speech to all of his weapons buyers when one of Burke’s guards sees Steel, goes “Excuse me,” and when Steel politely looks around, shoots him through the window down onto the meet, exactly where Burke wants him.
Chris: Can we just take a moment to bask in how amazing Judd Nelson’s jacket is in this scene? I’m pretty sure those are where the money went.
David: Dude, all he needs are some fake-ass medals and he’d look like a Grand Moff. Judd Nelson reveals that not only does he now have Steel disarmed and Sparks prisoner, but that his clients won’t be able to buy these weapons from him, they’ll have to lease them. Because only he knows how to recharge them. I am in no way kidding when I say that Burke has by far the most well thought-out plan of any villain we’ve seen in any of these movies so far.
Chris: That’s how you know he’s evil: Next he’ll be offering Sub-Prime Super-Weapon Loans.
David: So Burke decides to take Steel down with his own hammer gun. Steel repeatedly tells him not to turn the red switch, knowing that — as in the opening scene — Burke will use a weapon in as unsafe a manner as possible to look impressive. Except that the switch doesn’t put the hammergun on Charge Shot mode or anything, it just magnetizes it so it goes back to Steel. And then Sparky, well… Readers, I presume you’ve played the game Asteroids? You know how you can just spin around in a circle and shoot at stuff repeatedly? This is what Sparks does with her wheelchair, which is filled with superguns.
Chris: Favorite scene of the movie, hands down.
David: It’s pretty much where the entire effects budget went, and seriously, she just rolls around with the biggest grin on her face just blowing everything up and turning the abandoned warehouse into an inferno. She does more damage than everyone else in the rest of the movie combined in, like, two minutes.
Chris: I love that she’s just completely shooting indiscriminately, too. Like, she hits Steel two or three times, and while they bounce off his armor, everyone else is just getting wrecked. Sparky don’t shiv.
David: Of course, Burke decides to get the Hell out of there, but before he leaves, not only does he order his goons to get rid of the gang kids, he informs Slick Rick that the hot dog he gave him earlier was, in fact, pork. That’s how much of a dick Burke is: he will trick you into compromising your religious beliefs just to screw with you.
Chris: That might actually be his most villainous moment, because it accomplishes absolutely nothing. He just wants that dude to eat a hot dog. It’s pure evil for evil’s sake.
David: I really love villainous moments like that. Like, if you’re going to go for a stereotypical sleazy big-business weapons dealer who’s completely amoral, just go over the top with it, you know? You gave up on believability in the very first scene of this movie, so just embrace what you got.
Chris: And if that didn’t prove how evil he was, he keeps an extra hostage laying around just in case. This time, it’s Martin! Oh no!
David: I really don’t know why he didn’t just kidnap Grandma Odessa for the hat trick, but I guess all he had to do to kidnap Martin was tell him Mortal Kombat IV is totally in that cube van over there in that alleyway. Except that this backup hostage lasts like two seconds, as Shaft just randomly shoots at both Burke and Martin from the window.
Chris: It has been well established that Shaft does not give a f***.
David: Kevin Grevioux chases Steel and Martin into a room and throws a grenade at them, leading to the final, incredibly laborious, free-throw joke as Martin has to give Steel advice on how to throw the grenade through a high-up hole in the wall.
Chris: You guys: We’re not kidding. They literally have a conversation about free-throws while waiting on this grenade to explode. From the time the pin is pulled to the actual explosion, it’s thirty-six seconds. I counted.
David: So basically Steel, Sparks and Shaft take their roadie Martin and bail out of the exploding warehouse. Martin’s figured out that Steel is his cousin Johnny, and Steel asks Martin not to tell their grandma, even though it’s pretty obvious that she figured that out like twenty minutes ago. Oh, and this is after Martin almost ran all three of them over by driving a Humvee out of an exploding warehouse, a moment that, if I were that kid, I’d pretty much use to convince myself my life was awesome forever.
Chris: Then the cavalry arrives. I mean, the actual cavalry. Army helicopters descend on the meeting to arrest everyone, because we are now operating on G.I. Joe rules.
David: Well, they did make a point of contacting the army dude on a “secure line” earlier. Once the scene’s been cleaned up, Steel decides to close off business with the army by calling them in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Chris: Thus, the world is saved, Grandma Odessa gets to open up her restaurant and serve hominy soufflé, everyone wears some awful patterns, and thankfully, we are finally done.
David: Let us not forget that, in that closing scene, Sparks reveals the greatest wheelchair mod of them all: it is now an automatic wheelchair that lets her stand up against a board like Hannibal Lecter during a prisoner transfer or Han Solo in carbonite.
David: Some credit should be given to the writers for never going for an obvious John Henry/Sparks love subplot, but then I realize that’s probably because Hollywood hates interracial romance.
Chris: I gotta say, the biggest high point for me is Shaq. Don’t get me wrong, he is not very good at acting, but he’s so darn affable. It’s like you said back in the first part, even when the movie wants him to be, he’s not intimidating at all. He just seems nice, which makes it really hard to hate on his performance in what is otherwise a pretty amazingly terrible movie. That said, Charles Barkley woulda killed it in this role.
David: I think the highest point for me — besides Sparks’s wheelchair concerta of death and destruction — was probably actually the totally repetitive but oddly endearing funk/superhero theme hybrid soundtrack.
Chris: Really? I felt like it was worming into my brain like that scene from Wrath of Khan.
David: Like, Steel’s heroic theme has this weird contrast between the bass-slapping funk and the standard John Williams horns. I dunno, it was one of the few things in this movie that felt like it had character.
Chris: Also, Burke has a really solid villain plot, except for when he suddenly goes stupid in the last ten minutes. He’d be right at home menacing the hero of a better movie.
David: Dude, Burke should just be a villain in a Die Hard movie.
Chris: He made a lot more sense than the bad guy in Die Hard 4.
David: Honestly, it’s hard to believe this movie was made in 1997, since Burke’s plot feels very 1986.
Chris: This whole movie feels about ten years out of date. The plot, the clothes, everything. Like, I realize this is a function of the budget more than anything else, but you wouldn’t believe this movie came out in the same summer as Batman & Robin, from the same company. It’s hard to believe that it came out in the same decade as The Matrix, and that was only two years later.
David: It’d be easy to go “everything else” for the low points, but I think the saddest thing about this movie is that it really didn’t have to suck. Unlike with Catwoman, which was bound to flounder without a connection to the Batman franchise, they kind of got the basic approach right here: it’s pretty much a more grounded version of Iron Man. I don’t know if Steel needs Superman to make sense, you know?
Chris: When you get right down to it, it’s almost the exact same plot of the Iron Man movie: Genius weapons designer’s tech falls into the wrong hands, he decides to use it to stop the bad guys from profiting from death and destruction and builds a metal suit. The only difference is that it’s a much smaller scale with Steel, which probably could’ve worked if everything wasn’t so awful.
David: But while writer/director Kenneth Johnson, I’m pretty sure, had a legitimate passion for making a good super-hero flick — and by the way, this dude created and wrote the vast majority of the Bixby/Ferrigno Incredible Hulk TV show — I’m pretty sure budget and studio considerations got in the way. Or maybe it was just a bad, cheesy script in the first place. It was apparently produced, and presumably partly financed, by Quincy Jones, who described Steel as a “super human being” rather than a “superhero.”
Chris: I think we can both agree that this script could’ve used a few more passes. I mean, the free-throw stuff alone is terrible.
David: I don’t remember the original V and Alien Nation being this cheesy, so maybe there was a ton of ghostwriting? There doesn’t seem to be much written about this movie. I mean, I’ve never seen all of them, but Johnson has a ton of writing experience in TV and film.
Chris: We just spent two weeks watching it. Can you blame anyone else for not wanting to do that?
David: I think I can only recommend this movie to really, really, really, really jonesing Oracle addicts. That and really drunk people.
Chris: As much as this movie was awful, I kind of like that there actually was a Steel movie. I like that they went a little deeper than just the regular heroes that have made it to movies and TV – even if Steel was a member of the JLA and a character with his own ongoing series, he certainly wasn’t nearly as much of a pop culture icon as Superman or Batman. Part of me wonders if production didn’t start on Blade as a direct response to Steel, and how close Blade came to not coming out when Steel flopped so hard.
David: I think I speak for us both when I say that Steel is a really, really great character, one of the best ones to come out of the ’90s without question. In a fairly short period of time, he’s worked his way deep into the DC Universe’s DNA — hell, even Darwyn Cooke threw him a shoutout in New Frontier. Grant Morrison’s JLA, Priest’s run on his solo title, Reign of the Supermen, 52, he’s had a lot of highlights. It’s great that he got his own movie. He deserved one better than this, with an actor who could even come close to the sort of imposing King Arthur figure he cuts in the comics, instead of an admittedly endearing goofball pussycat.
Chris: Or at least an actual budget and a script with a second draft. But that brings our examination of Steel to a close, so be here in two weeks, when we finally take on… sigh… Superman Returns! Plus, your chance to pick what we watch next! Don’t miss it!
ComicsAlliance Reviews the Superman Films: