Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Steel (Johnson 1997)

I did not plan this. I really did not. After reviewing the 1997 comic book failure Spawn (ok, after using the film as an excuse to talk about Roger Ebert and his critical practice), I had not planned to review another of the three bad comic book film from the same year.

Yet, here I am reviewing Steel (Johnson 1997), perhaps the most forgotten about film ever based on a superhero comic. Based on the DC comic book character created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove in the aftermath of Superman’s “death” in the early 1990s, Steel was a last ditch attempt to try and launch basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s acting “career.” The end result was dumped into theatres in August of 1997, and I was one of the few people to actually pay to see the film in a theatre (it was a birthday gift to my younger brother who was a fan of the character, before you ask). It was out of theatres about a week later and on video not too long after that, where it was promptly forgotten. Deservedly so.

Except, there is a historical value to Steel, though we need to look back a decade or two previous to the film, and to the medium of television. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a surprising number of comic book superheroes made their way onto television either in TV movies or full fledged television series. These programs, however, were often generic action series and/or crime shows that treated the concept of the superhero as little more than gimmick to liven up an otherwise tried format. The villains were common criminals rather than super villains, the actual moments of super heroics were limited in scale, usually being saved for the final act, and, like most American television of the time, the plotting was episodic and repetitive. Most of these attempts were terrible, such as the live action Spider-Man series and the horrendous Captain America TV movie starring Reb Brown. Often, the very best of these shows were not based on actual comics, such as the cheesy-but-charming Greatest American Hero.

The best known and arguably best of these programs was The Incredible Hulk series starring Billy Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Taking the basic concept of the comic, that of a scientist who in an accident gains the ability to turn into a raging green beast when he becomes angry, the series combined it with the framework of the successful television series The Fugitive, with David Banner (Bixby) on the run, looking for a cure and helping the people he meets along the way, often assisted and/or hindered by his monstrous alter ego (Ferrigno). The series was goofy and formula driven, but Bixby made (and still makes) for a compelling lead, and the core concept was strong enough for the series to be engaging on a weekly basis.

The man behind bringing The Incredible Hulk to television, along with The Bionic Woman, was Kenneth Johnson, who also wrote and directed the original V mini-series in 1983, and directed the 1988 film Short Circuit 2. Johnson is also the writer and director of Steel, and to the production he brings pretty much the exact same approach to the film as he did to The Incredible Hulk. As such, Steel’s creative and financial failings are take on a symbolic dimension, providing late close to an era of comic book superheroes on film and television, an era in which filmmakers actively tried and suppress what superheroes are in an attempt to make them more “palatable” to mainstream audiences.

The story of Steel is that of John Henry Irons (O’Neal), a military weapons designer who resigns after his latest weapon cripples his friend and colleague Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish, The X-Files) in a demonstration mishandled by weapon co-designer Burke (Judd Nelson, The Breakfast Club). Returning home, Irons is shocked to find his weapons are now in the hands of gang members, thanks to Burke. When the military decides not to intervene, Irons decides to take matters into his own hands. Reuniting with Sparks and teaming with a wise old junkyard owner (Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame), Irons builds himself a suit of armour and takes to the streets as Steel.

From start to finish, Steel is little more than a late 1980s/early 1990s TV movie that somehow found its way into cinemas, written and shot in the most perfunctory manner possible by Johnson. It is a film peopled by caricatures and stereotypes instead of characters, in a tale that is not engaging either emotionally or intellectually. It is a passionless project where almost everyone involved are working only to collect their cheques, and the lack of care shows in every single frame.

Were the film merely bad on that level, it would simply be forgettable. What makes Steel particularly awfully is just how much contempt for the intelligence of the audience is visible on screen, particularly towards its supposed target audience: children. Steel is a “family” film of the worst kind, preaching a clich├ęd message of believing in ones self and the value of hard work in the most condescending manner possible. Characters frequently stand about and make speeches that spell out the morals of the film, enough so that by the time Roundtree makes a comment at the end of the film about what one can do when they “really put their mind to it,” I was ready to put on Crank 2 in order to see something entirely amoral. Worse, the film frequently draws in the most superficial manner possible on then popular youth culture, just so it can condemn it in an idiotic fashion. For example, Burke’s post military weapons development is financed by a videogame CEO, if you can believe it, while a child character finds himself in danger because he takes what he believes to be a legitimate job at the same company.

(Note to filmmakers who are determined to make message films for children: it is unlikely kids will buy into your message when you are constantly telling them how bad their culture is. Please keep in mind.)

However, as much contempt as the film might have towards its youthful target audience, it is nothing compared to the contempt the film shows towards the superhero genre. While Johnson’s previous effort The Incredible Hulk may not have held much interest in grand scale science fiction and fantasy, it took the concept of the Hulk seriously, never asking the audience to laugh at the premise. As bad as the Spider-Man television series was, even it never actively sought to have the audience laugh at the very idea of Spider-Man. And while The Greatest American Hero might have been a piece of light comedy action television, its humour was born out of a love of superheroes. The series knew superheroes could be ridiculous, but damn it, they were still a ton of fun.

No such love or respect exists in Steel. At the best of times, the film is merely uninterested in the superhero concept, never bothering to make John Henry Irons in his superhero outings impressive or dignified. In fact, Irons spends most of his time being beaten badly or getting by on sheer luck over the course of the film. Even his “support” team proves to be more effective at fighting crime than Irons ever is during the course of the film. The only effort put in to make Irons seem imposing is in the way Johnson and director of photography Mark Irwin try to emphasize how tall their star is.

Which brings us to Shaquille O’Neal. To be fair to O’Neal, he is clearly trying with all his heart to give a good performance, but the man simply is not an actor. Irons is supposedly a great weapons designer, soldier, and a decent man. Of these, O’Neal is only able to pull of the decency of Irons, never managing to project the intelligence or disciplined mind that we could reasonably expect of a solider or someone who is scientifically inclined. Worse, Irons is motivated by an anger at his work being misappropriated, but O’Neal’s attempts at acting angered and outraged are limited to him barely raising his voice.

The unimpressive nature of the title character is highlighted all the more by his equally unimpressive opponent in the form of Judd Nelson’s Burke. A standard issue villain who merely wants power, casting Nelson as Burke is the biggest piece of miscasting in the film, even more so than O’Neal. While Nelson is a solid actor, there is nothing particularly threatening about him, and certainly nothing to indicate a criminal mastermind. His performance turns Burke into little more than a weasel-like midlevel thug, which makes Irons look all the more pathetic when Burke seemingly defeats him at every turn.

Given how poor a hero Irons is thanks to Johnson’s failings, the moments of unfunny humour in the film fail to be gentle ribbings on the character, and function more as an all out assault on the concept of superheroes. Were the film an intelligent deconstruction and/or comedy of superheroes, I might have been willing to go along with this total attack on superhero fiction. Instead, Johnson seems to be trying to shame fans of the genre and laugh at them, repeatedly yelling at them through Steel “Really? This is what you are a fan of?” Johnson only succeeds in revealing his misconceptions and misunderstanding of the genre, as well as its fans.

The thing about this is that in tearing down superheroes and heroics, Johnson is pretty much undermining his own supposed message at the heart of Steel. It is a film ostensibly about what can be done with determination and hard work, but the truth of the matter is that the film is about a man who dreams big and fails, made by a man who dreams small and fails. As such, Steel is an oddly cynical work for a family film, peddling messages that its own filmmaker does not even seem to believe in, in a genre that he admits to not even liking. As bad as Spawn is, it at least seems to be made by people who enjoy working in the genre, and were trying their best to make their film work even as it failed.

Of course, having now established that Steel is worse than Spawn, it would only be logical to see where the third terrible comic book film of 1997 ranks with these two. So come back soon as I tackle the notorious, and perhaps most hated film in all of comic book fandom, Batman and Robin (Schumacher 1997).

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