In 1998, we got the first ever black Marvel super hero on film, Wesley Snipes as BLADE. An important milestone in pop culture, a breakthrough for Wesley Snipes, one of the great films of the decade and of the comic book genre. It’s momentous no matter how you cut it. For the record, though, DC was ahead of the curve. They had their first black super hero on film one year and one week earlier than Marvel.
But, uh, to be clear it was… Well, it was STEEL. There’s no other way to say it. The movie was STEEL. That’s the only thing about it.
Shaqille O’Neal is Steel (Christian name John Henry Irons), an inventor of experimental weapons for the U.S. military. We first meet him demonstrating a sonic cannon test model with his friend Sparks (Annabeth Gish, WYATT EARP) and some fucking asshole named Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson, NEW JACK CITY). We know John is a nice guy because he’s telling a senator about his weapons being non-lethal.
“You like that?”
“Not killing? Yes ma’am, I do.”
But Nathaniel is not a nice guy, so he cranks the power up way higher than you’re supposed to (don’t make a dial that goes higher than you want somebody to turn it, in my opinion) prompting John to yell “NATHANIEL, NOOOOOOO!!!” and leap toward it, too late to stop it from exploding, killing the senator, injuring Sparks so she can never walk again, and getting them court-martialed.
When John goes to visit Sparks in the veteran’s hospital they apparently haven’t gotten around to telling her that she’ll never walk again.
“I’ll come see you. As soon as I’m back on my feet,” she says. She doesn’t see her nurse shake her head and give John the “ooh… awkward” look.
Later there’s kind of a painful but ultimately sweet scene where she falls out of her chair and John purposely stays back and doesn’t help her. She manages to fight her way back up and looks very satisfied with herself, and this makes John smile.
John leaves the military, and Nathaniel is kicked out. But Nathaniel brings some of the weapons to arcade game manufacturer/arms dealer Big Willy Daniels (Steven Mattila, LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO[!]). When an executive there doesn’t like that his prototype burns one of their guy’s faces, Nathaniel deals with the criticism by sabotaging an elevator to kill her and three other suits. Unethical in my opinion.
Then he gives powerful weapons to a gang and has them rob banks and blow up buildings, basically a street team promoting his products before he auctions them off. But Irons witnesses this and recognizes the weapons so he realizes the only honorable thing to do is build a suit of armor and a magnetic sledge hammer and a grappling gun and stop them from robbing more banks. He’s just a high tech vigilante, like Batman, unless you count making Judd Nelson look like a tiny child as a super power.
It must be said, this is a silly looking super hero. The armor seems terribly cumbersome and clunky even though it clearly is made of plastic. As a genius inventor on the cutting edge of advanced military technology there really is no excuse for him not having armor that protects him better, is easier to move in and doesn’t make his enemies laugh at him.
The hammer is cool though. Most vigilantes and super heroes don’t have the audacity to just have a giant blunt object to bash a motherfucker’s skull in with. Except Thor I guess.
Anyway, he only gets away with it – to the extent that he gets away with it – because it’s cool to see a giant guy towering over all the regular sized people. In my opinion O’Neal’s acting is not the slickest I have seen, but his unique physical presence is worth putting on film, probly.
In the comic books I guess Steel was a guy who was saved by Superman when he fell off a building so he filled in for him while he was dead. So I like to think this takes place after BATMAN V SUPERMAN (spoiler for BATMAN V SUPERMAN).
In this version Steel has a whole family helping out. Sparks is his computer expert who talks to him over a headset and tells him where to go and stuff (I wonder if she knows the comic book character Oracle and if they exchange tips and stuff?). His Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) and a dog also help. And he has a little brother (?) Martin (Ray J, MARS ATTACKS!) and they visit their grandma (Irma P. Hall, THE LADYKILLERS) but she doesn’t know about the vigilantism.
The movie is actually produced by Quincy Jones. In the press kit he’s quoted as saying, “I have seven children and, as a parent, I’m really aware of the lack of role models for today’s kids. It’s really left a hole in the world, and I don’t mean just for black kids. Their perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don’t believe in the future.”
So STEEL is sorta Rashida Jones’s fault.
But it seems like Steel being a nice good guy role model for little kids was a higher priority than him being a good character. Ironically that kind of makes him a fun character because he’s so out of step with what’s normally considered cool that it’s kind of a novelty.
Musically I wouldn’t say the movie’s up to Quincy Jones standards. It’s funny how ’90s it is, with an abrupt usage of “Bust a Move.” There’s also a song that has Shaq rapping with Ice Cube, B-Real and KRS-One, and… I didn’t know this, but he’s pretty good. (See below.) But the score by Mervyn Warren (original member of Take 6) is clearly going for a super hero/urban meld. The main theme evokes John Williams’ SUPERMAN over cheesy wah wahs and guy-who-did-the-score-for-THE-WEDDING-PLANNER-emulating-hip-hop beats. It’s impressively catchy the first time, but it replays enough that you start going “jesus, are you using this again?”
The tone of the movie is not overall comedic, but there are a few somewhat distracting meta jokes. One is a recurring reference to Shaq being bad at free throws. Just like Dennis Rodman in DOUBLE TEAM (which came out four months earlier), he has to throw a grenade away and sees it in basketball terms. The weirder one is when Sparks presents Steel with his new hammer, and Uncle Joe says that his favorite part is “the shaft.” Sparks laughs and Joe says “What?” Is this supposed to mean that Sparks knows that this is a movie, and that Uncle Joe is Richard Roundtree, the actor who played Shaft? Or is she laughing because it sounds like he’s talking about a dick? Did the filmatists intend the weird dick joke, or did they seriously not notice it? I honestly can’t tell.
Ray J, who plays the little brother, is in real life the brother of singer Brandy and cousin of Snoop Dogg, but he is most famous as the guy who made and leaked a sex tape with Kim Kardashian, leading to her fame and reality show and all that that entails. If there were ever a STEEL 2, it should be about Steel convincing The Flash to go back in time and tell his brother to erase that damn tape and save us from our current dystopian timeline.
Writer-director Kenneth Johnson comes from another era and another medium (television). He was a writer and producer on The Six Million Dollar Man who created The Bionic Woman, developed The Incredible Hulk and Alien Nation for television, and created V. He’s known for putting thoughtful allegory in his stories (especially Alien Nation), but not for being cinematic. His only other theatrically released directorial work was SHORT CIRCUIT 2. So it’s not that surprising that this seems like a TV pilot trying real hard to be almost as good as M.A.N.T.I.S.
There’s no way around this being a shitty movie. I’m not gonna try to convince you it’s misunderstood. But I will say that it has a sort of pleasant good-heartedness that’s kinda cute. I like that the super hero team is a 7 foot tall black man, his little brother, Richard Roundtree, and a white lady in a wheelchair. There are black gangsters as villains, but they are betrayed by the white weapon maker who’s the real villain. He never comes out and says anything racist, but seems on the verge of it when he refers to his gangster pawns as lab rats and when he gets in pre-Steel’s face and says “you stupid…” and Shaq stares him down as if daring him to say what we all know he wants to say.
I think we can blame Hollywood’s fear of black male sexuality for the lack of a love story between Steel and Sparks, but even so it’s kind of a nice novelty to have male-female best friends in a movie. That’s something you rarely see depicted, and if you look at it that way it’s sweet, but at the end when they hug I did have to wonder if that was supposed to mean they were a couple. Because that would be a pathetically chaste way of showing it. I hope that wasn’t the intent.
It almost makes Steel seem like some kind of sexless manchild, but there’s a part earlier when he’s with a female cop friend and she implies that they engaged in some form of heterosexual activity in a car before. So I don’t know.
STEEL is a bad movie but if it were a person it would not be a bad person.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.