Steel [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #24]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #24.  Spoilers ahead.  


Directed by Kenneth Johnson

Release Date:  August 15, 1997
My age then:  27 year old

What it is about:  Military weapons designer John Henry Irons is devastated when his inventions are misused during a test, resulting in the death of a senator and his friend Susan Sparks becoming crippled. He resigns from the service but his designs start being used by street criminals because of the activities of his former colleague, Nathaniel Burke. To combat this threat, John Henry recruits Susan to assist him in building a suit of armor with which he can become a superhero who comes to be known as the “Man of Steel”.

Starring Shaquille O’Neal as John Henry Irons, Annabeth Gish as Susan Sparks, Judd Nelson as Nathaniel Burke, Richard Roundtree as Uncle Joe (a man who owns a scrapyard who becomes one of John Henry’s confidantes), Irma P. Hall as John Henry’s grandmother, and Ray J. as John Henry’s little brother Martin. With Charles Napier as John Henry’s former military commander, and other Kenneth Johnson regulars like Kerrie Keane, Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint in small roles.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  My only impression of this movie has been that it is genuinely terrible. It came out only a few years after Steel was introduced in the comics as a supporting character for Superman, and before Grant Morrison started using him in JLA, which is where I began to really like the character.

Reality: Yes, it’s bad. Like, really bad. I mean, all respect to Kenneth Johnson, who has done some really cool stuff on TV, like creating The Incredible Hulk and the original V miniseries, but Steel is not one of his successes.

Really, the whole thing feels like a TV movie which might have been quite cool if it had aired in, like, 1982. 12 year old me might have thought it was really cool some popular athlete running around on his motorcycle in his suit of armor that doesn’t look completely like rubber carrying his big goofy sledgehammer and fighting a former teen actor whose career didn’t really go anywhere else. Unfortunately, with the benefit of years of film-watching experience, including tons of superhero movies, as well as a fully developed brain, it’s hard to not see this as a complete failure on almost every level.

Shaquille O’Neal never really strikes me as plausible as military weapons designer John Henry Irons. He doesn’t convey the intelligence one would expect from the character, nor the anger that should be at the heart of his story. If I was fan-casting, I’d have picked Avery Brooks from the same time period–he looked a lot like the character when he was appearing in the JLA as a thinking hero / engineer.

The villain Nathaniel Burke is a bit of a nothing character, and so Judd Nelson has got very little to do but to be mildly evil. Annabeth Gish is earnest as the crippled would-be Oracle character, but it’s hard to look past the jet-powered wheelchair she uses in the climax. And Richard Roundtree, Irma P. Hall and Ray J are all fine, I suppose, but fairly predictable as a pretty stereotypical “black supporting cast” (an older sassy guy, an older sassy lady, and a young sassy kid).

The biggest problem is probably just how uninspiring the action sequences of the film are. In what’s supposed to be one of the signature sequences, Steel interrupts a bank robbery and then runs after one of the crooks (who is too stupid to know that his friends have left already) on an endless and lumbering foot chase through a train yard. Then later there is an endless motorcycle chase, and finally a completely ridiculous final fight scene that includes a wheelchair full of rockets and lasers that the secondary hero decides not to use for a long time for some reason, plus the jet-powered wheels that I mentioned before.

That final scene also includes the villain being one of the stupidest bad guys I’ve ever seen–he has Steel dead to rights but falls for his trick to pick up his weapon and then press the button Steel wants him to (“Whatever you do, don’t turn that big red switch.”). It also features Shaq saving the day by making a free throw with a hand grenade (apparently, free throws were Shaq’s big weakness as a basketball player. )

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? If Steel had been the pilot for a cheesy 80’s superhero TV show–or even from the early 90’s–I might have been able to forgive it’s failings. But as it is, no it’s pretty terrible.

But, it is evidence that DC beat Marvel by over a decade to making a film about a weapons designer who uilds himself a suit of armor and becomes a superhero when he finds out his creations are being used for nefarious purposes. And to rub it in, they also gave him a great big hammer to fight with! Take that, Marvel!

Yes, his big hammer really does double as a gun

See here for the Master List.

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