Steel (1997) — Shaq hammers on the dullest of metals

“Look-it here, boy! You ain’t Superman! And you damn sure ain’t gettin’ paid!”

Justin’s rating: Let me put on my tin foil hat and I’ll be your sidekick

Justin’s review: Man, superhero movies were in a weird place in the 1990s. A weird, bad, and embarrassing place where filmmakers would slap molded plastic onto anyone and hoped that some bad stunts and recognizable casting would draw in crowds. Steel may not be the most awful of them all, but it certainly became a laughingstock from about six minutes after it released to the current day.

And that’s kind of a sad thing, in a way. Steel is a DC comic superhero who was modeled after the legend of John Henry and was one of the contenders to replace Superman when he died back in 1992. He also had this pretty cool Iron Man-like suit that mimicked Superman’s powers. So what went wrong here?

Well, a lot of fingers of blame point to Shaquille O’Neal as the titular character, and that’s not unfair. Shaq may have been many things — tall, a basketball star, a Pepsi spokesperson, a wannabe rapper — but a talented actor with range was not one of these. While it never stops being mildly entertaining watching the rest of the cast speaking to the general vicinity of Shaq’s naval, he never gives us much of a reason to look up, either.

O’Neal often has this expression that is clearly masking terror at not wanting to mess up. That, in turn, made him stiff and unnatural in pretty much all of his scenes. And speaking of stiff, for an athlete, he comes off as a guy uncomfortable with moving around quickly. Allegedly, the studio couldn’t find a stunt double for his size, so they made Shaq do all of his own stuff. Perhaps he was coached to take it easy.

But let’s not make it all about him; there’s plenty of blame for Steel to go around. The story — involving a disillusioned soldier who ends up grabbing a big hammer to fight for his neighborhood against weapons manufacturers — is so dull and uneventful for long stretches of time that I honestly forgot at points that this was a superhero movie (it takes 45 minutes — half of this movie! — before he suits up). The suit of armor plain looks bad. And Judd Nelson (Judd Nelson!) as an evil weapons contractor fails on every level to be a threat to take seriously.

I think the biggest fault of Steel is that it oozes with this ’90s mentality that comic book movies couldn’t be anything but lowest common denominator entertainment. There couldn’t be any actual artistry, any deep characterization, any amazing stunts… just generic kiddie stunts and some dude wearing seventeen pounds of plastic.

Steel didn’t have to be a punchline from a bygone era. With some better production values and a more talented lead, it could’ve kickstarted the superhero genre a year before Blade. It could’ve given us one of the first great black cinematic superheroes. Instead, it gave us a joke.

Didja notice?

  • The opening theme song is full of pep, it is!
  • Shaq, that finger move is maximum dorkiness
  • Is that a six-year-old kid with a giant mullet?
  • Shaq making a kissy face will haunt my dreams
  • Guns need surge protectors
  • Murder by elevator
  • Shaq destroys a pay phone
  • The bad guy hides machine guns in arcade cabinets. Oooookay.
  • That steel mill has a lot of good looking women walking around for no reason
  • Shaq up and destroys a window in a hospital
  • You can kidnap an unwilling woman in a wheelchair from a hospital and everyone will just applaud you
  • Let’s spend three minutes watching a handicapped lady fall out of her chair and painfully crawl back into it
  • Steel has a Superman tattoo, just in case you didn’t get the connection
  • Everyone is way too awed at a lumpy helmet
  • Steel going backwards up an escalator is the dorkiest exit ever
  • Steel seems very unconcerned that bullets might miss the giant exposed section of his lower face and neck
  • So his suit is a giant magnet?

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