So, finally at the end of our months-long journey through the films of Superman on the big screen, the final crappy truck stop meal before pulling into home. I promised you the “forgotten” Superman movie, and I give you… Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal.
Here’s the deal: in the early 90’s, DC Comics, in a very controversial and greatly hyped move, killed Superman. But the Superman books continued. And after a couple of months for grieving, they then filled each of the four (four!) monthly Superman books with a different substitute Superman. All were called Superman, though each had a subtitle, based on a different Superman nickname.
Action Comics featured the Last Son of Krypton, who looked just like Superman, but acted more like an alien Terminator. Superman featured the Man of Tomorrow, purporting to be Superman rebuilt as a half-man, half-robot cyborg. Adventures of Superman featured Superboy, a teenager in a leather jacket with all of Superman’s powers, but none of his maturity.
And Superman: The Man of Steel featured, appropriately enough, the Man of Steel, really black inventor John Henry Irons wearing a suit of advanced armor with the Superman logo on the chest. Irons had worked for a weapons manufacturer and saw his secret advanced designs appearing on the streets in the hands of gang members. So he built a suit of super-armor to clean up the streets, and used the Superman shield as a tribute to the hero who inspired him to take action. And of course, given a name like John Henry, you know he also had to carry a hammer (kind of silly, though, to link your superhero persona to your secret identity name that way).
Irons fought crime for about a year [ETA: looking back at the comics, it was actually closer to six months] as “Superman” until the real Superman returned, at which time the character was redubbed Steel. And in 1997, Steel got his own movie.
Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, a man with a long career in television including the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk series and the original V, Steel stars NBA star Shaquille O’Neal (fresh from his triumphant performance as Kazaam) as Irons, who is introduced in the opening of the film as an Army lieutenant who designs advanced weapons.
And right there, alarm bells start going off, because as far as I know, the Army doesn’t actually design its own weapons. It produces specifications for what it needs, but the actual design work is performed by civilian contractors. However, in this movie, Shaq is part of a team of three lieutenants–along with Irons, there is Burke, an ambitious sleaze played by Judd Nelson, and Sparks, played by the cute Annabeth Gish. And Charles Napier plays their commander, in a role very similar to the one he played in Rambo, so you know he’s got to be the bad guy.
In the course of a demonstration of laser and sonic weapons, Sparks is crippled in an accident caused by Burke, and Irons decides that he doesn’t want to design weapons anymore, because they hurt people. So he quits the Army (there’s a convenient line inserted that his “tour was over,” lest audiences who have ever been in the Army or know anyone who has realize this early on that the script is completely ignorant).
And there’s a scene with Irons visiting Sparks in the hospital, where there is obvious affection between the two, but it is not allowed to blossom into romance. Although they do have this bit they do where they touch fingertips…
They do it four or five times during the course of the movie, and it sort of takes the place of the kiss that you keep expecting but which never appears. Maybe Kenneth Johnson was so used to working in network television that he just self-censored any romance between the black man and the white woman, because he didn’t want to be accused of promoting miscegenation or something. Who knows?
So Irons goes back to his old neighborhood in Los Angeles, where he attempts and misses a free throw.
So, ok, a throwaway meta-joke on the fact that the real Shaquille O’Neal had a notoriously poor free throw percentage. Good to know he can laugh at himself. Also good that they got it out of the way early.
Just by coincidence, the disgraced Burke, having been booted out of the Army by court-martial, also shows up in Los Angeles to work with an illicit arms dealer.
The role is pretty awful, but Nelson at least tries to give it some gusto.
Long story short, Nelson and the arms dealer give their new super-weapons to a local street gang to test, and Irons just happens to be in the neighborhood for their first outing. He immediately recognizes the weapons as the top secret designs he built for the Army, and when the Army won’t help him get them off the streets, he decides to do it himself.
He tracks down Sparks, depressed and wasting away in wheelchair at a VA hospital, and physically carries her out (to the applause of the other patients, don’t ask me why). With the help of Sparks and madcap Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree, best known as the star of Shaft), he gets to work on “counter-weapons” to fight the gangs.
There’s more finger-touching and more meta-jokes. When we first see the hammer, for instance, Uncle Joe mentions how he particularly likes “the shaft.” And Shaq misses another free throw. Finally, he makes his big debut in the less-than-totally impressive armor.
He fights some gang members and runs from the cops, which give him plenty of opportunity to show off all the gadgets in the armor. But he doesn’t get any closer to finding the source of the weapons.
Of course, because this is a stand-alone movie, there’s no real Superman to inspire him. But there are a few references to the source material, such as calling Irons the “Man of Steel” and a close up of Shaq’s actual Superman tattoo.
Which isn’t a joke, exactly, but does take the meta to a new level.
Anyway, the gang uses the super-weapons to rob the Federal Reserve Bank. Steel tries and fails to stop them, and in the aftermath, Irons is framed and arrested, while the bad guys use video of the robbery to publicize their weapons, which they are now ready to make widely available.
Sparks and Uncle Joe free Irons from jail and get ready to crash the super-weapon auction, which is attracting a wide range of bad guys, from Nazi skinheads to jungle revolutionary guerillas to Central American drug lords. And Shaq misses another free throw. Man, are they milking this gag or what? I mean, once was kind of funny, but three times?
Anyway, Steel goes to the auction, where he is forced to surrender because Burke has kidnapped poor, helpless, wheelchair-bound Sparks. All seems lost, until Steel pulls a trick straight out of Uncle Remus on Burke, who stupidly falls for it, and Sparks reveals that she has souped up her wheelchair into an Engine of Doom.
This would be seriously awesome if it weren’t so silly.
There’s a big battle with lots of explosions (although as happens in so many of these things, the “super-weapons” become less impressive as the movie goes on, as in literally less powerful–in the beginning they’re stopping tanks and dropping buildings, and by the end, they’re just bouncing off Steel’s flimsy armor or even metal barrels that would be punctured by normal bullets).
Finally, the bad guys are routed, but Burke has one final ace to play: he has also kidnapped Steel’s little brother. So events conspire to have Steel locked in a room with his brother and a live grenade about to go off, and their only hope is to toss the grenade through a tiny hole in the chain link above their heads [ETA: okay, just to nitpick myself, looking at the picture, it’s actually steel mesh, not chain link].
Steel panics, because he never makes free throws, but instead of just tossing out the grenade himself, little brother Martin coaches Shaq through it. “Bend your knees and follow through,” he says. Steel takes the shot…
It’s good, and over forty seconds of screen time later, the grenade goes off, killing the dude who threw it, and HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, DID THIS MOVIE’S CLIMAX JUST TURN ON A CRAPPY META-JOKE ABOUT THE STAR’S OTHER JOB?
Yes. Yes, it did.
There are people who will say this movie is bad. It not, really. It’s worse. It’s mediocre. There’s nothing so obviously, laughably awful as the “space” fight in Superman IV where both men are clearly wrestling on a matted-out floor or talking in space. But that’s partly because the film is never ambitious enough to try something on that scale.
It plays out, both in the scope of the script and in its storytelling style both visual and verbal, as a television movie. And not even a good television movie, but one of those late 70’s Universal monstrosities with a mind-numbingly repetitive musical score. Not surprising since Kenneth Johnson spent his career in network television, but disappointing. The characters are paper-thin and the acting is uniformly bad. You can kind of forgive Shaq, because he’s not really an actor. For much of the movie, he’s more like a really tall puppy…
Nelson, Gish, Roundtree and Napier (who turned out to not be the villain–what the hell is that about?) do okay with their roles, but they’re obviously just there to get a paycheck. Everyone else is pretty awful, although the guy who plays Slats, the scenery-chewing gang leader, has a couple of good moments.
So that’s it, the last gasp of Superman on the big screen. I’m not really sure what to do next week, having spent so long talking just about Superman. I feel I should do something comics or superhero related, given the theme of the blog. I have two movies I’m considering right now, neither of which was based on an actual comics property, although they were clearly inspired by comics. One is a superhero, and one is not. Which should I choose?