tn_steelIn 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.

mp_steelWhen 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.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 16th, 2017 at 10:35 am and is filed under Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

37 Responses to “Steel”

  1. I had both Shaq’s albums on cassette. I’ve never seen him play a minute or basketball, but his unique voice and excellent taste in collaborators make him alright in my book.

  2. I seem to recall he had a minor role on THE STAND miniseries as well

  3. Damn vern you almost make this one seem at least half-decent and that I didn’t give it a fair shake. Think I’m still okay with not re-watching it though.

  4. Re: Shaq’s Tracks

    CAN’T STOP THE REIGN is a legitimately great song
    I KNOW I GOT SKILLS isn’t.

    I never saw STEEL but the least they could’ve done is tie it into the Reeve Superman movies like SUPERGIRL.

  5. Supposedly Superman was supposed to be part of the movie (at least his death was) but Warner Bros. wouldn’t let them. Could’ve sworn I read that somewhere (in a magazine) but I can’t cite my source so I may be mis-remembering that and thus you should take that with a grain of salt.

    They were developing the weird-sounding Tim Burton SUPERMAN movie at the time so it seems to pan out that they wouldn’t want to potentially confuse the audience. Pre-shared universes and whatnot. Not to mention the open secret for decades that Warner doesn’t understand their DC characters. Just read stories on WONDER WOMAN’s road to the screen. Also how they almost made a raunchy Jack Black comedy out of GREEN LANTERN.

  6. I can’t swear to this, but I think STEEL is mentioned in the recent – and awesome – doc, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES, aka Holy shit, I wish Burton and Cage had got to make SUPERMAN LIVES.

    (Somewhere out there in some parallel universe we could’ve gotten one seriously fucking weird JUSTICE LEAGUE flick.)

  7. Broddie: Yeah, “I Know I Got Skillz” had that store-bought Casio keyboard fake G-Funk beat that sounded dated in like five minutes. What you know about this jam though?

    Shaquille O'Neal feat. RZA & Method Man - No Hook (HD) Best Quality!

    Shaquille O'Neal feat. RZA & Method Man - No Hook (in High Definition) from the album Shaq-Fu Da Return [1994]

  8. The real answer I want to know is where this film stands in the great pantheon of “Steel” movies? Is it better or worse than Real Steel, Steel Dawn…?? We need to know!

  9. Does STELLE JUSTICE count?

    What I want to know is why is Steel wearing a mask? Is he trying to disguise his identity?

    “Can you describe the suspect?”
    “I’m afraid not. He was wearing a mask.”
    “Any distinguishing physical characteristics?”
    “Well, he was more than seven feet tall and weighed about 350.”
    “Dammit! That could be anybody!”


  11. Well, it’s not as good as Steel Magnolias.

  12. It’s definitely better than DICKS OF STEEL, but only because none of those dicks was really made of steel. I guess it was safer for the actresses that way, because some of those dicks had an admittedly impressive size, but they didn’t even paint any of them silver!

  13. CrustaceanLove

    May 16th, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    “In the comic books I guess…”

    One of my favourite things is when Vern prefaces any kind of deep cut comic book nerd knowledge with “I guess”, like he’d never want to imply that he cared enough to do any serious research or that he’s capable of pulling these kind of comic book facts off the top of his dome.

  14. geoffrey that’s pretty interesting. Would’ve been an interesting approach and paved the way for a new Superman without stepping on the toes of the Donnerverse. Of course since they were adamant on a “DEATH OF…” movie due to the comic’s massive success I see why they shot it down.

    All I remember about WONDER WOMAN on the solo non-JUSTICE LEAGUE MORTAL tip was the Whedon project. Which was very misguided and off the mark so I’m glad it never got off the ground. That and the David E. Kelley WONDER WOMAN TV series.

    I do remember the rumors of the Black GL movie and some fanboys trying to justify it by stating: “Maybe he’ll play Guy Gardner”. Say what you want about what WB ended up with. At least it was superficially a lot more like the comic book and not some Ivan Reitman 80s comedy approach.

    Mr. Majestyk that just further proves the theory that anything with peak era Wu-Tang members on it was always worth the listen on account of featuring peak era Wu-Tang members in all their rugged prime.

    As I said before I never saw STEEL but somehow I doubt that it’s better than BLUE STEEL.

  15. “Their perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don’t believe in the future.” I’m always fascinated going back and hearing people in the ’90s talk about how bad things are (at that time) — during a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity — if only because they have no idea how bad things are actually going to get soon. This kind of thing always reminds me of the beginning of “Reality Bites,” in which Winona Ryder gives a speech, as apparently the valedictorian of Rice University, about how there just aren’t any opportunities for people like her in America in 1994. That being said, yes “Steel” is horrible, and it probably represents the last time a professional athlete was allowed to headline a major comic book franchise during the pre-season. For instance, I can imagine them doing a “Steel” now but I’m guessing they would probably want Chiwetel Ejiofor rather than James Harden

  16. Crustacean – Almost always when I write it like that (including this time) it’s because I just learned this fact from Wikipedia or something and I don’t want to be some asshole pretending to know everything. You will see me doing the same in reviews of movies based on non-illustrated books that I haven’t read. If I’m ever truly being an asshole about comic books or whatever I don’t mind being called on it, but in this case I feel strongly that you are unfairly projecting on me.

    And I’ll have you know that I wrote this comment on a break from reading a making of book that I bought to research a comic book movie I’ll be writing about next month.

  17. I’m enjoying this growing list of Steel rankings.

    And to upset Vern further, I believe his beloved Michael Jai White preceded Shaq and Snipes as being the first black super hero in 97’s Spawn. Sorry Vern.

  18. But to my knowledge Spawn is neither DC or Marvel. Vern was simply saying that DC beat Marvel. Whoever published Spawn beat them both.

  19. (by 2 weeks)

  20. CrustaceanLove

    May 17th, 2017 at 3:49 am

    Vern: Not trying to call you out for being insufficiently respectful of my beloved childrens’ illustrated picture strips, I honestly think it’s a funny quirk of your writing style. If you state it as a fact nobody is going to accuse you of being a fake geek or start quizzing you about comic book minutiae, they’ll just assume your are doing some background research, like real Writer.

  21. The review Vern is teasing has got to be a 20th Anniversary BATMAN & ROBIN spectacular, surely?

    I wasn’t wowed by THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth watching for both comic book fans and Nic Cage, which covers a good 75%-90% of us here, but judged as documentary film-making it seemed pretty tacky for something which got so much attention and positive reviews. I found the Filmmaker/Host grating, and his (much mocked I know) habbit of standing there nodding his head during interviews seemed egotistical, fawning and amateurish all at once.

  22. I meant to say “well worth watching for both comic book fans and Nic Cage fans”, but I’m sure Nic himself would get something out of it too.

  23. Toxic, you’re totally right. Spawn is an Image property. However, I stand by right to mention the great MJW wherever possible!

  24. Grimgrinningchris

    May 17th, 2017 at 8:18 am

    Dude, Pacman… totally. Why did he feel the need to insert himself in everything.

    I mean I guess it avoids the overused talking head syndrome, but yeah. He had no spark or charisma on screen and was just a doofy dope agreeing with everything everyone said.

    That said, there’s still a lot to get out of the doc and I’m glad it was made and I’m glad I watched it.

  25. No mention of the embarrassingly bad amateur fan-film-level ‘recreations’ of scenes from the script?

    Like you two I still enjoyed it and had a lot of great information in there regardless the extreme lack of quality filmatism. Still not sure I agree with him that it would have been a great movie though.

  26. Shoot McKay – You’re thinking of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in The Stand.

  27. My bad. I guess all basketball players look alike to me

  28. You’re sportist!

  29. I just wanna say that this has been a fun comment thread so far.

  30. Grimgrinningchris

    May 17th, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    It definitely would have been interesting and likely far better than the old costume test photos and Kevin Smith movies would have led us to believe.

    But still pretty debAtable if it would have actually been any good.

    At 21 I might have thought it was cool. At 41, I’m sure I’d have the same tired “not my Superman” reaction as to MoS and BvS… but x10.

  31. Great, now all I can think about is the fact that I’ve seen Ray J’s dick (and Kim Kardashian sucking it)

  32. CrustaceanLove

    May 17th, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES seems a companion piece to JODOROWSKY’S DUNE. A bizarre confluence of artistic talent (and Kevin Smith) coming together to make a huge, crazy film that you’re sad never had a chance to exist, even though it would likely have been a disaster.

  33. Obligatory off-topic plea for Vern to review a certain movie: the 1989 Kris Krisofersston film MILLENNIUM is on Netflix now. Hoo boy. It’s not good by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a pretty interesting misfire. It’s one of those movies that’s surprising that it got made in the 80s because it’s sci-fi but not the actiony type, it tries to be more thinky. But it’s mired by poor execution and way behind-the-times visual effects (and the most embarrassing robot I’ve ever seen on film).

    It also has a can’t miss moment of dialogue near the end: “Single file, into the light! Single file, into the light!” I won’t spoil what they’re talking about, but when you see it you’ll laugh because under the crazy circumstances and the extraordinary “light” we’re dealing with here, you’d have to be world-class anal retentive to insist that people move into it “single file.”

  34. The thing that makes the “hug” at the end even more awkward is that we get closeups of all the supporting characters like Ray J and Irma P. Hall going “ooooohhh!!!” when Shaq and Annabeth Gish hug, which doesn’t really make any sense. It’s pretty obvious they filmed an actual kiss at some point and switched it out unfortunately.

    Like Vern, I’m not going to pretend this is a good movie but there’s alot to recommend. Pretty much everything involving Gish is legit good. There’s a breezy runtime, and lots of old-fashioned explosions and practical effects (i’ll never get tired of seeing actual sets get destroyed). There’s a surprisingly good performance by Shaq and his likable, nice-guy character. A funny role for Obama buddy Hill Harper, and a rare non-Underworld role for Kevin Grevioux. And a surprisingly prominent appearance by Oscar-nominee John Hawkes! (I think you’ve got a tag for him if you wanna use it, Vern). Sure the villain is underwhelming and the action is clunky, but graded on the same kiddie-superhero scale that you would grade the original TMNT trilogy, you could do alot worse than this.

  35. ‘…reading a making of book that I bought to research a comic book movie I’ll be writing about next month.’

    Which one was it?

  36. It was BATMAN AND ROBIN!

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