New Kind of Firepower: Steel (1997)
The 90s were the testing ground that made the golden age of superhero films we are living in possible. The gigantic success of Tim Burton’s Batman showed Hollywood that there was an audience for these movies, and so they began greenlighting adaptations more often.
Music legend Quincy Jones was an instant fan of DC’s (at the time) recently introduced hero John Henry Irons a.k.a. Steel. Jones also recognized the severe lack of representation for African-Americans and “positive role models” for kids. So Jones took it on himself to bring the character to the screen. While the passion for the character was clear and the motivations behind the project were admirable, the execution was, unfortunately, severely lacking.
Steel opens on a military testing ground during a demonstration of non-lethal weapons developed by Lieutenant John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) and his partner Susan “Sparky” Sparks (Annabeth Gish). Soldier Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson) sets the weapon to the untested maximum setting, killing a U.S. Senator and paralyzing Sparky. Burke is court-martialed but instead of being imprisoned, is only dishonorably discharged. This injustice, and the fact that people were killed and injured, causes Irons to leave the military and return home to Los Angeles.
Burke also goes to Los Angeles, where he is reunited with his childhood friend who now runs an arcade game company, which - of course - is a front for illegal arms dealing. Burke takes over this part of the company basically because he shows up (this movie has plot problems), and starts giving the weapons to a street gang that has been terrorizing the city. When Irons learns about this he and Sparky decide to - with the help of Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) - create Steel to fight back.
Steel was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, the creator of the TV series The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk and the famous - or, more accurately, infamous - miniseries V. So it’s no surprise that the movie looks and feels like every made-for-network-TV movie you’ve ever seen. The writing is painfully hokey, the dialogue is wooden, and there are oh so many puns. There are at least three moments where a character tells a “dad joke” and another character stares at them knowingly.
The acting is just as hopeless. This came out a year after Space Jam, so one has to assume the casting of Shaq as Steel was an attempt to do with him what that they did with Michael Jordan. O’Neal fares a touch better than Jordan in the acting department, but that touch isn’t enough. At the time of production Shaq was preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympics, so only did one run through of the script and shot all of his scenes in 5 weeks. The lack of preparation shows. Yet Shaq doesn’t even give the worst performance in the film. Judd Nelson gives new meaning to the term phoning it in, and every scene with him is a chore.
The film isn’t wholly without merit. Unsurprisingly for a Quincy Jones production, the music by Mervyn Warren is a solid 90s action score and in some spots is genuinely great. Johnson had a good 2nd unit so the action is serviceable with some fun moments. And the whole thing has a weird sort of corny charm that makes the movie watchable, even if you’re cringing through it. On the off chance you forget Shaq is a basketball player, there are plenty of reminders in the movie. Including a pivotal climactic scene that involves Steel making a free throw. Seriously.
So while Steel is a misfire on virtually every level, it was still a groundbreaking film as it was the first comic book adaptation starring a black superhero. Following soon after, came Blade which was a box office success and spawned two sequels. Hopefully, after the sure to be smash hit Black Panther is released next week, we get more than four of these films in 20 years. Representation matters, even when said representation is wearing spandex and a cape.