The Spandex Retrospective: Steel (1997)

With June 14th quickly approaching, DC fans may feel compelled to dust off their 14-disc Collectors Tin Box Sets and marathon the classic Superman films; at least until 'The Quest for Peace' whose disc will likely remain dusty for all but the most ardent completionist. However, here at The Spandex Retrospective we ask 'why stop there'? Why not explore all of the cinematic treats that Hollywood saw fit to add to the grand Superman tradition? Well, there's a perfectly good reason why. It's called 'Steel'. If you aren't a fan of DC Comics you might not even know the titular hero of this film exists. John Henry Irons was a former military weapons developer who quit his job, disgusted by the abuse of his designs. During a work accident Superman saved his life, and and at a later time Irons was present at the hero's death at the hands of Doomsday. Feeling he owed the man who saved him, Irons built himself a suit of high-tech armor to combat the now unchallenged criminals of Metropolis, and called himself Steel.

Surprisingly, quite a bit of this was retained for the film despite an absence of other elements from the DC universe. Irons was still a weapons designer, who due to an accident caused by a fellow designer quits the military to return to his old neighborhood. Like in the comics, the local gangs become armed with the very weapons he developed and he has to find a superpowered solution to disarming them. However, the film they actually made based on this premise was a magnificent disaster.

Steel Pic (1)

For the hero they cast the late Shaquille O' Neal, who shortly after making the film suffocated in a paper bag he was unable to act out of. One of history's great failed attempts at trying to manufacture a movie star, O' Neal was dreadfully miscast, his role as a supposedly brilliant inventor reminiscent of Denise Richards' nuclear physicist from 'The World is Not Enough'. His height, 7' 1”, didn't help his appearance as a superhero as much as you might think. With his babyface, soft voice, and physical awkwardness on camera his attempts at being intimidating looked more like a giant infant threatening someone. In one of the film's greatest scenes, Irons has an after-court face off with the villain, played by 5' 10” Judd Nelson,  who is reduced to Hobbitdom whilst trying to be threatening.

Steel Pic (2)

Nelson's villain was the rival weapons designer responsible for the accident, using his dishonorable discharge from the army to sell stolen futuristic weapons to street gangs. No matter how many people Nelson's bad guy killed with impunity he never came off as evil,  more so just a massive dick; a relic from a simpler time when screenwriters thought sarcasm translated as sinister. However he did get some menacing villain lines to terrify us with like “If you floss too much your gums bleed” and “Eat the hot dog, don't be one”.

Steel was joined by allies like veteran blaxploitation star Richard Roundtree as his wise glittery-eyed uncle, future Kardashian sex-tape star Ray J as the annoying kid sidekick, and TV actor Annabeth Gish as Susan Sparks, his tech support and love interest.

Sort of.

I don't think I've ever come across another film where the romantic relationship is unsettling because of the lack of intimacy. As Irons helps rehabilitate Sparks, who was paralyzed from the waist down by the film's opening accident (which left her with some very pretty legs post-pulverization for some reason), they share dozens of uncomfortable meaningful looks that fail to develop to even first base. The final scene rolls around, the day saved, and Irons and Sparks come together for a passionate...hug? If the filmmakers wanted them them to be 'just friends' they might have wanted to cut back on the longing gazes; instead it just came off like they had Ken and Barbie's flat featureless crotches.

Steel Pic (2)

The Steel costume itself might be the worst in superhero film history, even without rubber nipples. They removed the cape and the Superman 'S' from the comic book's design, choices that sound good until you're just left with a giant man in an otherwise featureless faux-metal rubber suit with a large fake looking hammer; less Batman, more Iron Gimp. No real attempt was made to foley in metal clanking sounds when Steel moved around, resulting in a surprisingly quiet suit of plate armor. The illusion of metal was damaged even further when the 'metal' mask we saw him pull molten red from the forge frequently flexed at the mouth when he spoke.

Steel Pic (3)

In another bit of weirdness, the film was produced by legendary music producer Quincy Jones. In an interview Jones said he had intended the film to be an inspiration to kids in ways other films at the time that depicted the world as a dark place didn't. This was an admirably idea, but the result was a film with all of the excitement and grit of an after school special.

The film is littered with attempts to moralize to kids. For some reason the villainous arms dealer uses a video game company as a front, smuggling guns out to buyers in arcade cabinets. As this detail never becomes important it feels like it was only included as a way to get kids to associate playing video games as a negative thing, as it came out at a time in the 90's when games were blamed for turning kids into 'shiftless punks' and 'vagabonds' (to the best of my memory they did, in fact, use the word 'vagabond'). Apparently the marketing department was out to lunch that day, as DC licensed video games could clearly be seen as one of the villain's principle wares. There was an anti-gang message centering around little Ray-J, but he was in the film so infrequently it barely registered as important. Since none of this had a direct bearing on the plot it felt like a clumsy way to preach at children, made less effective by how boring the movie around it was. The film also sends a mixed moral message as our hero leads the police on two unnecessary car chases, evading them by littering the streets with tire-popping caltrops, destroying a water truck to knocks a cop off of a speeding motorcycle, and switching street light signals, nearly causing a multi-car pileup. Steel might actually have spent more time punking the police then he did fighting crime.

Steel Pic (4)

In spite some of the sublime ridiculousness, alas, 'Steel' wasn't actually fun to watch even as a bad movie. The climactic fight, despite containing both a rocket wheelchair and Shaq using his basketball free-throw skills to get rid of a grenade, was bland and shockingly cheap looking, using the money they saved by hiring Judd Nelson to buy some discount pyrotechnics to set off. It's a real shame that it wasn't even accidentally enjoyable for the most part; rather just very boring, with minute upon minute eaten up by poorly edited action and saccharine character development. It's almost enough to leave you wishing you'd have watched that 'Quest for Peace' DVD after all.