For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Today brings us 1997’s Steel, the ill-fated superhero movie starring Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, Richard Roundtree, and notoriously poor free-throw shooter Shaquille O’Neal.
I’m 40 and a product of the suburbs, so a large chunk of my childhood revolved around preservative-laden snack foods and syndicated TV shows. With a few exceptions—Xena: Warrior Princess, Baywatch—the action-dramas were tepid, made to attract a wide audience. A station manager could put them anywhere: Thursday after the 10 p.m. news; Sunday afternoon before the Mets game. There’d be a couple of explosions, a bad guy who honed his chops at the Robert Vaughn Acting Academy, some watered-down comedic or sexual byplay between the leads. And you’d get to see Mr. T play a detective or Greg “My Two Dads” Evigan employed.
Now imagine paying $7 to see that, instead of watching it for free in your socks, a pantry full of Tastykake pies beckoning. Steel exists to kill time and finally dismantle the Shaquille O’Neal media empire, a lofty feat considering the plot involves gigantic laser guns and a superhero who looks like a bridge pillar. Director-writer Kenneth Johnson (who, you guessed it, has an extensive TV background) employs a distractingly utilitarian style. Good superhero movies give you something: The cheekiness of The Avengers; the psychological menace of The Dark Knight (which assaults you in the opening scene); the fun-house gothic of Tim Burton’s Batman. Steel just takes you from point A to point B, with Johnson leaving you to fend for yourself. I gave you Shaq in a steel suit, man, you’ve got it from here.
An introduction that’s livelier than steel getting made would be nice. That, dear readers, reflects the level of excitement what we’re getting. After this tribute to eighth-grade film strips, the movie, based on a comic book, starts. O’Neal plays John Henry Irons (see the commitment to the movie title) is a weapons engineer for the Army. When his ruthless and opportunistic colleague Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson) covertly increases the power of a gun during a field test, crippling Irons’ best friend (Annabeth Gish) and killing a U.S. Senator—Irons quits the Army and returns to his hometown of Los Angeles. Burke heads there too, with far more nefarious post-military plans.
Burke, who is not rotting in a military jail or president of the NRA, takes a disc full of information on those top-secret weapons to the local crime lord and weapons manufacturer. When John sees those weapons on a police ride-a-long, his community activism is piqued. Instead of making signs or campaigning for office, he sheaths himself in metal, because—well, the movie doesn’t give John sturdy motivation. Everything here falls under the “good enough” category of plot development. It’s easy to understand. Film costs money and Shaq had a busy schedule. Plus, if you want nuance, you can find that at the library.
It’s a shame. Steel hit theaters in August 1997, 21 years before Black Panther, a time where there was exactly one black superhero movie—Spawn, which was unpleasant and awful—in the multiplex. And this was a low point for the genre. Marvel had yet to become a license to print money on holiday weekends; the neon-infused campiness of Batman & Robin had left everyone angry or confused. At a time when the best example of an African-American with intelligence was Steve Urkel, here comes a movie about a smart, industrious black man looking to save his community with his own two hands—John makes his suit and the weapons—and the best Johnson can do with that concept is make four jokes about Shaq’s putrid jump shooting? John’s sidekicks are a paraplegic computer whiz (Gish’s character) and his elderly uncle (Richard Roundtree, John Shaft himself). Even a young Ray J, when he was still known more for being Brandy’s little brother, makes an appearance. If ever a platform existed to promote empowerment via diversity, Johnson passes on the opportunity. It’s easier just to have Shaq drive around Los Angeles and be tall. I can’t imagine how many kids walked out the movie theater disappointed.
No one is ever going to compare Shaq with Olivier, but there’s an obvious foundation. As I get older and Shaq spends more time behind a desk or making fun of JaVale McGee, I’ll be haranguing kids about Shaq the way people in their sixties and seventies rave about Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Shaq was monstrous—7-1, 300 pounds—but he had dancer’s feet and springs in his socks. Just look at his finishing dunk against the Blazers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Physics dictate that a man that large should not jump that high. Young Shaq was pretty much The Hulk. Yet in Steel, O’Neal, confined in a modern-day suit of armor without today’s fancy special effects, resembles a safe with arms and legs. Shaq doesn’t get much of a chance to act, not that it would do much good. He is such a lovable goofball—in every scene he looks like he’s about to break into a smile—that the persona clashes against the dystopian backdrop.
Occasionally, a movie provides the starting point for a trend or a promising career. Those attributes elude Steel, a cinematic footnote that reminds us how far superhero movies have come in terms of the emotions they can portray and who stars in them.
- One of the thugs who Steel foils? Future Academy Award nominee and indie film darling John Hawkes.
- John’s brother is played by Ray J, which made me think of this clip.
- At the steel mill where John works during the day—he fights crime at night—two preposterously attractive co-workers walk by for the sole purpose of ogling him. I cannot imagine what the audition to cast those roles involved. “OK, Cindy, I see you wore your sundress and did your hair up nice. Now put on this hard hat and make do-me eyes at the executive producer.”
- Nelson’s motivation as the villain is apparently “I want to speak to your manager.”
- If you want proof that Steel marked the end of the Shaquille O’Neal box office star experience, the movie made $870,068 on its opening weekend. Overall, it made under $2 million. This made Kazaam ($18 million) look like box-office gold.
- A big reason for those paltry figures is Warner Bros. put zero marketing effort into the movie. For a detailed account of how Steel failed, read Blake Harris’ fascinating oral history for Slash Film. This quote O’Neal’s former agent, Leonard Armato, reveal volumes:
Armato: Part of the problem that we had is that Warner Brothers wasn’t willing to pony up a big enough budget for a movie starring an African American guy. That was a time when there was no precedent for that.