In 1997, Shaquille O’Neal, jolly 7’1” giant, legendary NBA center, and inveterate prankster, added a new section to his resume following “pro baller” and “rapper”: “Black American Superman.” In between his second and third nominations to the All-NBA Third Team as well as his first nomination to the All-NBA First Team, and on the heels of dropping his junior album, You Can’t Stop the Reign, O’Neal took the lead role in Kenneth Johnson’s Steel, a big-screen take on the DC Comics character.
The film sees O’Neal decked out in a suit of armor and battling a conglomerate of bad guy stereotypes marshaled by an ambitious ex-soldier turned nefarious weapons dealer.
The basics of the comic book source material stay intact in the transition, with minor deviations. John Henry Irons manufactures fancypants weapons for Uncle Sam instead of Amertek Industries; his antagonist is a former cohort, Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), whose selfish drive to impress the brass with sophisticated sonic cannons of Irons’ design leaves Irons’ friend, Susan “Sparky” Sparks (Annabeth Gish), paraplegic, and earns him swift dismissal from the military. Irons resigns immediately after, disgusted with his superior for demanding he perfect the technology. (Read the room, colonel.) Burke nurses his ego by auctioning off stolen cannons to the highest bidders, from inner city gangs to generic Eurotrash to neo-Nazis; Irons would like that not to happen, and with Sparky’s help, he fights crime in powered armor built out of junk while swinging a souped-up sledgehammer.
Irons pops up in comic book continuity after the death of Superman, a candidate for his replacement among three others: A disgruntled cyborg, an impetuous teenager, and an alien apathetic toward human life. It goes without saying that Irons, by several thousand miles, is the best choice among that quartet. None of this applies to Steel, divorced from that storyline by failure to launch a new Superman movie; Steel sat twiddling its thumbs in development hell for years, and ultimately went into production recalibrated as a solo act unattached to the Superman mythos.
Had O’Neal not expressed a preference for Steel over Hardware, a different-but-sorta-similar DC character Steel’s producers initially approached him about playing, Steel might not have happened; Johnson, for his part, needed convincing to direct a superhero picture, tired of the niche after working on TV series like The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation, and The Incredible Hulk.
That heady combination of identity crisis and hesitation shows in Steel’s every minute. All the major names involved in its production had competing ideas about what the film should have been, or in Johnson’s case, shouldn’t. Kenneth Johnson expressed concerns about “childish characters in funny costumes,” which unconsciously manifested themselves in his script and his direction. Turns out, Irons, as played by O’Neal, is a dyed-in-the-wool genial dork–lovable, upright, but without a single tough guy bone in his body. Even Irons’ costume looks intentionally silly, a plate armor getup right out of medieval fantasy fare. The film’s atmosphere is composed of more cheese than oxygen, but maybe that’s appropriate. Comic books are kids’ stuff. Perhaps we should be making more comic book movies that appeal to kids.
Steel was a disaster regardless of its appeal, though the film’s $1.7 million gross signals that its appeal was roughly zilch. The film had a production budget of $16 million, which wasn’t big even in 1997; adjusting that figure for 2022, you get around $27 million, a fraction of what most superhero movies cost now. The movie was a failure. This is being generous. But it’s an interesting failure in light of the role superhero movies play in popular culture today. The niche has come a long way since the days of Steel. (In fact, they pole vaulted forward just one year after Steel’s premiere when Marvel returned fire with Stephen Norrington’s Blade). Now, the niche is no longer even a niche. It’s the dominant blockbuster form. Steel has nothing in common with that level of primacy, but frankly, it had little in common with superhero movies even in the genre’s most fallow years.
Surprisingly, Steel related better to blaxploitation movies than to superheroes–not blaxploitation à la Sweet Sweet Back’s Badasssss Song, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Truck Turner, Super Fly, Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way, Friday Foster, Coffy, or Shaft, but blaxploitation à la Original Gangstas, a hammy mid-1990s chapter in the subgenre stacked with an ensemble of its luminaries: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Paul Winfield, Ron O’Neal, and Richard Roundtree, who appears in Steel as Irons’ Uncle Joe. (Roundtree even makes an eye-rolling reference to his iconic role as the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.)
There’s a cornball charm flowing through Original Gangstas, the story of ex-gang members returning to their old neighborhood to kick the gang’s current leadership out of town; Steel carries charm in the same ballpark, hinging on the same plotline and on O’Neal’s goofy magnetism. He’s stiff, but he’s such a genial, nice guy that it’s hard to be bothered by it. But apart from Original Gangstas, Johnson manages to relate Steel to blaxploitation’s masterpieces in terms of, once again, the basics: Black hero, white villain, the travails of inner-city life, overtones of racism, obstructive law enforcement, violence.
Steel being a product advertised to ostensibly young viewers, but whose core demographic comprises grown nerds, the blaxploitation tropes are tuned down. The racist overtones, for instance, are mostly reduced to undertones; the violence is blunted by the nature of the weapons used in each action scene; sex and sensuality are effectively erased from the story, because as much as Sparky and Irons clearly dig each other more than besties, the closest they get to anything like romance is their secret handshake, which is just an E.T. finger touch. (Ah, geeks in love.) All the same, the conflict central to Steel’s plot is such a clear descendant of classic blaxploitation action movies that once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it.
Granted, you’d have to either actively try not to notice the connection or simply be unaware of cinema history to miss the references. Steel opens with Mervyn Warren’s theme song, structured around a boisterous brass section and punctuated by guitar licks under the influence of wah-wahs–a traditional sound in blaxploitation film soundtracks. Either because Steel is so bad, or because Warren is just so good, the theme ends up being the best part of the whole experience. Maybe it helps that the track recalls the character of blaxploitation cinema; maybe Steel is just so light on said character that Warren’s work stands out by consequence.
Steel, of course, is light on everything, though 25 years later it’s a fascinating curio in the evolution of superhero movies. That’s the biggest reason to give the film a second look; no one will remember this as more than a footnote in O’Neal’s ever-expanding life and times, but that doesn’t mean this stilted attack doesn’t deserve affection. The next best reason is that with superheroes being the tentpole film du jour–du décennie, more like–Steel functions as a time warp to the days when no one took these movies seriously enough to warrant attention. Can you imagine? Revisit Steel and you won’t have to.