Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Kenneth Johnson|
|Produced by||Quincy Jones
|Written by||Kenneth Johnson|
by Louise Simonson
|Music by||Mervyn Warren|
|Edited by||John F. Link|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$1.7 million|
Steel is a 1997 American superhero action film based on the DC Comics character Steel. The film stars Shaquille O'Neal as John Henry Irons and his alter-ego Steel, Annabeth Gish as his wheelchair-using partner Susan Sparks, and Judd Nelson as their rival Nathaniel Burke. The plot centers on an accident caused by Burke which leaves Sparks paralyzed. The accident results in Irons quitting his job. Burke begins mass-producing weapons and selling them to criminals. In order to stop Burke, Irons and Sparks create a suit of armor that leads Irons to become the superhero Steel.
Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, the film separates itself from the comic book series (and John Henry Irons' status as a supporting character of Superman) by using original protagonists and antagonists. On its initial release, Steel was a box office bust and was panned by critics, noting the "cheesiness" and bad acting in the film.
John Henry Irons (Shaquille O'Neal) is a weapons designer who invents high-tech laser guns, protective armor, and sonic sound cannons for the United States military. One soldier, Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), decides to show just what Irons' weapons can do and sets one of Irons' sonic cannons at the highest power setting, firing the device at an abandoned building. However, the weapon backfires and destroys the building the team is situated in. Irons' partner, Susan "Sparky" Sparks (Annabeth Gish), is crushed by a large slab of concrete in the ensuing chaos. In court, Irons reveals Burke's role in the incident and Burke is dismissed from the military. Because his weapons resulted in Sparks becoming a paraplegic, Irons resigns in disgust. Meanwhile, Burke hatches a plot to sell Irons' weapons to criminal gangs, recruiting a video arcade manager to help him carry out this deed.
Irons witnesses a bank robbery organized by gang members wielding Burke's modified guns; they escape before he can interrogate them on where they obtained the weapons. The gang does not tell Irons anything when confronted directly in their hideout. Irons visits Sparks in a veteran's hospital and takes her to his own assembled laboratory, where he hopes he and Sparks can create weapons needed to combat the criminals. With the help of Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree), they forge a suit of armor and the weaponry necessary for Irons to carry out his war on crime and become the vigilante "Steel". However, during his crusade against crime, Irons is pursued by the cops and is forced to return to his lair. The next night, the robbers arrange to rob another bank. Irons, as Steel, tries to stop them, but is hindered by the robbers' weapons. When Irons returns to his grandmother's (Irma P. Hall) house, he is arrested.
Meanwhile, Burke prepares to auction off all his modified weapons to every criminal organization in the world over the Internet. When Irons is released from jail, Sparky is captured by Burke's thugs. Irons, as Steel, attempts to infiltrate Burke's headquarters, but is captured himself in the process. When Burke continues with the auction, he is tricked by Steel, which allows him and Sparks to rebel and destroy Burke's lair. Burke himself is killed when a laser he fires towards Steel reflects back towards him due to Steel's suit. After this, Steel, Sparky, Joe and Martin (Ray J) escape Burke's lair.
The following day, Col. David (Charles Napier) talks to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (actually Irons via voice changer) about Steel and the events on what happened the day before and offers him to help before realising it is actually Irons who he is talking to and after that, Irons declines David's offer.
In the grand opening of her restaurant, Irons' grandmother tells him about Steel and then tells Joe that everyone would be proud of his heroism. After Sparky shows the new modifications of her wheelchair that allows her to walk, Irons smiles and hugs her.
Production of the film Steel started with music producer Quincy Jones and his partner David Salzman. Both Jones and Salzman were fans of the Steel character, especially Jones, who found personal reasons to support the project. Jones stated that he found children's "perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don't believe in the future. Steel — and I don't want to use that word 'superhero,' because he doesn't fly or anything like that — represents a role model. Let's just call him a `super human being.'"
Kenneth Johnson was the screenwriter and director of Steel. Johnson was originally uninterested in doing a superhero film, having previously turned down offers to film adaptations of The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation, and The Incredible Hulk. Film producer Joel Simon described Steel as being different, stating that he was "a knight in shining armor in a contemporary setting". Johnson removed Steel's cape from his costume to reflect this.
Johnson described Steel's persona as a "blue-collar Batman" and removed Steel from his comic book storyline and replaced it with protagonists and antagonists of his own invention. To aid with the urban aspects of the dialog Johnson took a copy of the script to South Central Los Angeles and spent a day with a group of kids to ensure that the language of some of the characters was more believable. Throughout the film and script, Johnson created several allusions to his previous television series Alien Nation.
The filming schedule consisted of fifty one days with thirty-two full nights of shooting in downtown Los Angeles. The shooting schedule presented difficulties for the director due to the schedule of the star Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal was already committed for playing in the 1996 Summer Olympics, and training at the Los Angeles Lakers camp in Hawaii. This left Johnson with five weeks to complete filming all scenes with O'Neal. O'Neal had one read through of the script before the Olympics and then worked with acting coach Ben Martin in between games to work on his character. When O'Neal returned to act with the rest of the cast, he had all his lines memorized.
As well as acting in the film, Shaquille O'Neal contributed to the soundtrack for the film. The single "Men of Steel" has him featured alongside rappers KRS-One, Ice Cube, B-Real, and Peter Gunz. The soundtrack was released on Quincy Jones' record label Qwest Records and included songs featured in the film and songs inspired by it. The album charted in the United States on the Billboard 200 at number 185 and on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums at number 26.
Steel was released in the United States on August 15, 1997. Steel was considered a large box office bomb on its release with an estimated budget of $16 million, the film grossed just over $1.7 million at the box office.
Steel was critically panned by critics upon its original release. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 12%, based on 25 reviews, with an average rating of 3/10. The site's consensus reads, "Steel is a badly-acted movie that indulges not only in superhero clichés, but also the sappy TV-movie-of-the-week ones."
Leonard Kladly of Variety wrote that the film is "too broad and episodic to attract anything other than the most undemanding crowd". Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as a "tolerable stinker of a film" that "plays like a Saturday morning cartoon". Lawrence Van Gelder of The New York Times stated that the film is "slow to gather momentum and generates little excitement or tension". Shaquille O'Neal earned a Razzie Award nomination as Worst Actor for his performance in the film, but lost against Kevin Costner for The Postman.
Despite negative reception of the film, critics praised Annabeth Gish in the role of the wheelchair-using Susan Sparks. The New York Times called Gish's role a "strong performance". The San Francisco Chronicle noted that she "becomes the first woman-in-wheelchair action hero in a Hollywood movie, too. Gotta give Steel some credit for that."