Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Our next find on the rack: the largely-forgotten Shaquille O’Neal bomb, Steel!
The summer of 1997 was a dark one for superhero films. Batman & Robin assaulted us with its aggressive neon awfulness in June, signaling the death knell of the Batman franchise for nearly a decade to come. Then Spawn came out at the top of August, its rubber-monster-meets-MTV/grunge-metal aesthetic landing with a wet thud at the box office. Finally, just two weeks later, Warner Bros. released Steel—a star vehicle for basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal with a $12 million budget, written and directed by a TV producer whose greatest hits had come largely in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It, uh, didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
Debuting with a $1.7 million opening weekend before being largely forgotten, even by its own studio1, Steel is a loose adaptation of the story of John Henry Irons, a former weapons designer-turned-steelworker who—in the comics—is inspired by Superman’s example to don a suit of armor, jet boots, and a cape to become the heroic C-lister, Steel! His first adventure involved tracking down and stopping a weapons dealer who starts selling high-tech bazooka-rifles—known as “Toastmasters”, in case you forgot this was the ‘90s—to inner-city street gangs; weapons that Irons himself had a hand in designing. Surprisingly, the film hews pretty close to this initial storyline… except with a big, glaring difference.
Y’see, Steel was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, of The Incredible Hulk fame. He’d been offered plenty of superhero projects in the years since then, but turned them all down because he “didn’t want to deal with childish characters in funny costumes2.” With Steel, however, he latched onto the idea of John Henry Irons as a contemporary knight in shining armor, fighting for justice in an urban setting—a “blue-collar Batman”, as he put it. And since the project was being developed separately from the Superman film Warners had hired Tim Burton to direct, Johnson was allowed to eject most of the superhero elements of the character: no jet boots, no red cape, and no Superman influence (save for Shaq’s own “Man of Steel” tattoo).
He also swapped out Irons’ arch-enemy, the White Rabbit, for, uh, Judd Nelson.
Steel would be a more grounded adventure story, with the aim of providing kids with a positive role model—not a superhero, according to producer Quincy Jones (yes, THAT Quincy Jones), but more of a “super human being”.
IN THIS ISSUE: Pain.
This movie is insipidly stupid, written by a condescending adult to a presumed audience of slow-witted children. Dialogue is on-the-nose. Moral lessons are spelled out in giant neon letters. Bad comedy and awful one-liners abound. Characters are drawn in absurdly broad strokes—growling generals, slimy arms merchants, etc. Slats, leader of a gang of bank robbers, parades around a bar on his off-hours in BDSM overalls with a leather vest, sporting an eyepatch.
Our leading man, Shaquille O’Neal, is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination. Hired on at the peak of his popularity, three years after Shaq Fu was inflicted on unsuspecting gamers and just one after the release of the infamous Kazaam, Steel was the film that put the final nail in the coffin for Shaq’s potential as a crossover star. He’s an affable presence—decent enough in gentler scenes—but his goofy, clumsy energy just doesn’t work when he’s called upon to show deeper levels of emotion, intimidate criminals, or do anything all that heroic. More often than not, his ridiculous height is used as a gimmick to justify low-key Hulk-like acts of physical strength: breaking pool cues, destroying phone booths, tearing chain-link-fence doors off their hinges, etc. It’s kind of a shame that the one asset O’Neal had to bring to the table was the fact that, yeah, he’s tall.
And it doesn’t help that his suit itself is an underwhelming sight; it’s made up of large, obviously rubber pieces held together by a flimsy chainmail undersuit (and with a large hole in the helmet for his jaw and mouth, a la Batman’s mask). Topping it off is a massively awkward, oversized sledgehammer—Steel’s signature weapon in the comic books—except it’s actually a combination pulse blaster, sonic disruptor, laser emitter, and high-powered electromagnet. Basically, it’s able to do everything imagineable… except HAMMER things, since the handle is too wide for Shaq to grip comfortably. The overall effect is less than heroic; Steel’s outfit doesn’t look like it could protect him from a single bullet, let alone the barrage of machine gun- and laser-weapon fire he’s subjected to over the course of the film.
Lucky for him, his supporting cast is a little more up to snuff. In the film, John Henry has a base of operations in a local junkyard that’s run by his Uncle Joe, who’s played by veteran Shaft actor Richard Roundtree. Though Roundtree ends up stuck with some groaners (“I boogie around danger like a Soul Train dancer!”), he brings a nice paternal warmth to a guy who’s basically a stock mentor character.
And then there’s Annabeth Gish as John Henry’s friend/partner/quasi-love interest/tech wizard Lt. Susan “Sparky” Sparks. Sparks, John Henry’s partner on his military weapons project, is injured when a test-run goes awry, and as a result, she’s paralyzed from the waist down; she ends up joining John Henry’s crusade and becomes his Oracle, his Felicity, his “guy in the chair”. Gish is the soul of the movie, hands down; she brings a warmth and sincerity to every cheesy line that she’s forced to read, and her subplot—overcoming the depression and despair for her situation and learning to live her life again—is the only truly emotionally affecting part in the film.
… Also, she is absolutely stunning and I am totally in love with her.
(Interestingly, Steel seems to be a precursor to the “support team” model of superheroing that you see on almost all of the CW DC shows. Sparky and Uncle Joe sit down and coach Steel through his first night from their home base, watching CCTV feeds from his helmet and communicating with him through an earpiece. It’s a clever way to deliver exposition to the audience while the action is in progress, and there isn’t much live-action precedent for it before this film—but now the CW has built an entire UNIVERSE around this model. Coincidence? … Probably.)
Alas, every hero is ultimately only as good as his villain, and Steel really scrapes the bottom of the barrel for its baddies. Headlining the villains’ side is Judd Nelson (of The Breakfast Club fame) as the evil Nathaniel Burke, a renegade ex-military man who steals the designs to Irons’ weapons so he can sell them on the streets. To do this, he goes to a gun-running kingpin who smuggles weapons in arcade game cabinets to finance the prototype, and then he hires a gang of loud-mouthed morons (see: Slats, above) to rob a bank with his weapons, illustrating how powerful they are to the world. And throughout it all, he remains Judd Nelson, and there really isn’t anything more I can say3.
To be clear, Steel is a “family film” first and a superhero film second (if at all). To wit, there is a subplot/running gag involving John Henry’s matronly grandmother—an aspiring chef looking to start up her own soul food/French cuisine fusion restaurant—and her struggle to prepare a damn soiffle that runs through almost the entire movie. John Henry also has an insufferable younger… brother? Nephew? The movie never clarifies… who runs around spouting a fifty-year-old-man’s approximation of ’90s street slang and exists only to get captured by Burke in the final act, giving Steel someone personal to rescue for the climax4. All of the violent edges are sanded down to make this as safe and kid-friendly a film as possible; Slats gets shot TWICE by pulse weapons at the climax of the film, and he’s still audibly groaning when his cronies drag him away.
The worst thing about this film is that it seems like it was trying to get across a genuinely positive message. There’s a running theme about standing up for your community and choosing non-violence when possible… themes of self-sufficiency, self-respect, and personal responsibility… but the film is trying so hard to shove those messages in your face that it almost turns into an After School Special. It’s trying so hard to DO good that it kind of forgot to BE good.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Probably not. Steel is aiming for a particularly undiscriminating audience—families with easily placated children and/or low entertainment standards—and even then, it has difficulty clearing the bar of general competence. It’s a stupid, sloppy movie with a truly godawful lead… but at least its heart seems to be in the right place. Gotta give it credit for that.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.10
- The opening titles play over a completely pointless, but visually transfixing, sequence of liquid steel being poured at a foundry. The high contrast makes the brilliant orange metal stand out against a near-black background, and the funk-flavored theme song playing throughout is engaging enough to keep the whole thing from becoming boring… even though it goes on for two solid minutes.
- That incredibly jarring cut. If you’ve seen the movie, you know it: the weapons test for the senator goes horribly wrong, and a Styrofoam concrete wall collapses on top of Lt. Sparks. John Henry, screaming her name, musters all of his not-Hulk strength and starts lifting the debris slowly, painfully, as the camera zooms in on his face and the frantic music CRESCENDOS… and then we cut to a dead-silent establishing shot of a military courtroom out of friggin’ nowhere.
- Battle damage: “Oh, my God… you may be steel on the outside, but you’re just flesh and blood underneath!” Sparky worries loudly, as she swabs at a tiny scratch on John Henry’s chin with a cottonball.
- Surprise!: Sparky cements her position as the true hero of the movie when she’s brought into the big arms deal warehouse as a hostage/damsel in distress, and ends up taking out half the goons there with hidden pulse guns she built into her wheelchair. It’s a rare awesome moment, fittingly given to the movie’s best character.
- Stand-off: Judd Nelson tries to intimidate a man who’s a foot and a half taller than him.
NEXT TIME: Witness the first time Ben Affleck growled at people beneath a goofy-looking mask as we take a good, long look at the bizarre 2003 misfire, Daredevil!