Every week Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a movie either so bad it’s good or just downright terrible. Today: The Love Shaq.
With all the excitement of Comic-Con this past weekend, it’s easy to get swept away in the fervor of superhero film related news. For fans of comic books, we really are living in a golden age — one where at least half a dozen comic book related movies will see theatrical release in any given year with most of them finding critical or commercial success.
Always one to rain on a parade, though, I’d like to take readers on a trip back through time. Put down your cell phones and pick up a beeper because I’d like you to come with me to the summer of 1997.
Bill Clinton is in office, Princess Diana is enjoying the last few months of her life and the ‘90s Batman franchise had just effectively breathed its last breath with the release of Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher’s unbelievably kitschy tribute to sadomasochism and homosexuality among superheroes. Spawn, the dark superhero fantasy film based on a series popular with disenfranchised youth and mentally deficient fans of metal bands alike, was one big flaming pile of rubber-covered cheese.
In the preceding years, films like The Phantom and The Shadow had died lonely deaths in empty theaters — audiences avoiding the movies like rich white people cross the street when they see a young black man.
Any one of those films could have been the plague-infested rat that nearly brought about the death of the superhero genre and paved the way for there only being two superhero movies released between 1998 and 2000. Sure, it’s easy to blame the rubber nipples on Schumacher’s batsuits or the CGI overdose in Spawn but I like to think the real reason superhero films were almost wiped off the face of the planet in the late ‘90s has to do with one man: Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq starred in the 1997 film Steel, a movie based on the b-level DC Comics superhero. The Steel from DC Comics was an occasional sidekick to Superman, a weapons engineer named John Henry Irons who built a suit of armor to help defend Metropolis when Superman was killed in an early ‘90s storyline.
The Steel in the Shaq movie is a lumbering giant who quits the army as a weapons designer when one of his weapons is misused and causes the paralyses of his friend and partner, Lt. Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish).
Returning to his home in Los Angeles, Irons finds his past coming back to haunt him when he discovers weapons he helped build are finding their way onto the streets — thanks mainly to a discharged soldier named Burke (Judd Nelson). It was Bruke’s recklessness and need to impress his superiors that caused the weapons malfunction that crippled Sparks and sent Irons fleeing from his duty to his country.
Now, it’s Burke’s disposition towards classic supervillainy that inspires Irons to design a suit of armor and a matching weaponized hammer — taking to the streets as Steel, a costumed crimefighter that looks like the result of a homeless man having sex with a trashcan.
For all those fanboys complaining about the dorky looking costumes in Thor or Green Lantern, I’d like to introduce you to perspective a.k.a. Steel.
Shaq’s costume in Steel consists of multiple iron plates linked together by chainmail mesh that covers a portion of his body and a frightening looking steel mask that causes the real-life basketball player to look like a cross-eyed cosplayer whose parents collect food stamps.
Steel is a cautionary tale of what audiences might have gotten if Iron Man had been made in the ‘90s. While the superhero from the comic books can fly and has powers nearly comparable to Superman’s, Shaq’s version of Steel must take the escalator, rely on grappling hooks or speed around town on a customized motorcycle. Villains from the Adam West Batman television series would make fun of him.
Thankfully, audiences aren’t forced to look at the ugly monstrosity that is the Steel costume for too long. The suit does not debut until nearly halfway through the movie — giving audiences plenty of chances to see Shaq’s skills (or lack thereof) as an actor before he dons his half-suit of armor.
Shaq, as most of us are aware by now, is a terrible actor — almost as bad of a thespian as he is a rapper or video game character. Although he has an expressive face and a charming smile, Shaq fails at line delivery and, for an athlete, his action scenes are downright embarrassing. Because of his size, Shaq looks like a charging rhino when he runs down the street in his suit of armor. When he’s not decked out in his armor, though, he comes off as a stumbling, uncoordinated brute when he’s trying to apprehend street gang members. I kept waiting for one of the gang members to pull out a .45 and blow a hole through Shaq’s freakishly large head. It couldn’t have been that hard to miss.
The best display of Shaq’s acting ability comes early in the movie when he fakes missing a free throw shot in order to establish his character is a terrible basketball player. This “oh-so-funny” inside joke will come into play later on in the movie when Steel’s life depends on swishing a hand grenade through a basketball hoop-sized hole in a wall.
If in-jokes like that make you groan, just wait until you’re introduced to Irons’ Uncle Joe, the junkyard owning family member who offers Steel a headquarters and enough supplies to build his weapons. In the role is Richard Roundtree, the former Shaft (shut yo’ mouth).
At one point in the film, when inspecting Steel’s hammer weapon, Roundtree is given the line, “I especially love the shaft.” Steel and Lt. Sparks give him a funny look and audiences are supposed to laugh because he’s referencing his former role. Modern day kids who are somehow tricked into watching Steel will laugh because they’ll think dear old Uncle Joe just revealed himself as a gay man who isn’t above stealing Steel’s hammer and riding it like a pogo stick.
Gish, a talented actress, is wasted in the role of Lt. Sparks, a wheelchair bound sidekick to Steel. Her character is intended, I assume, to be a role model to paraplegic kids everywhere — showing them that they too can grow up to be a weapons designer and build a tricked out wheelchair that operates like a cross between Corey Haim’s Silver Bullet and paraplegic assassin Mr. No Leg’s weapons-filled chair.
I couldn’t quite tell if Sparks and Irons were supposed to be a romantic couple. There was certainly some chemistry between the two — especially as they made eyes at each other over electromagnetic weapons and radio transceivers. Neither one of them ever acts on anything resembling sexual tension, though, leading me to believe Steel was one of the first gay superheroes to transition into film — with Lt. Sparks as his resident fag hag.
I wouldn’t put it pass writer/director Kenneth Johnson to include such social commentary in his film. Johnson, the creator of such classic TV shows as V, The Incredible Hulk and Alien Nation, is known for his slightly in-your-face societal metaphors. While he’s a generally nice guy and has written some great television, Johnson doomed his directing career with Steel.
From a script rife with groan-worthy dialogue, Johnson’s apparent lack of skill when it comes to directing actors and some pretty pedestrian action scenes, there is a reason Steel nearly killed the superhero genre.
While Shaq does his best to drive the nails into the genre’s crucifix, Judd Nelson is not one to back down from a challenge. In the role of Burke, the weapons dealing bad guy that proves to be a thorn in Steel’s metal mitts, Nelson’s over-the-top scene chewing is matched only by his character’s terrible choice in clothing.
In one scene, Burke is dressed in a sports coat that looks more like a letterman jacket. I guess that’s the kind of stuff you wear when you’re so evil you’re prone to hiding powerful weapons in the back of kids’ arcade games. Besides wearing ugly clothes and putting weapons on the street, Nelson’s villain is guilty of some of the worst one-liners ever put on film. What happened to you Bender?
Steel is a terrible, terrible film. It’s a low-rent, quickly produced cash-in on the Superman franchise — despite not really featuring any aspect of Kal-El’s mythology.
Shaquille O’Neal has long been known as a Superman fan — the Man of Steel tattoo on the actor’s arm is real. It’s easy to see, then, why he might be attracted to star in a film as atrocious as Steel. It’s not too hard to ignore a weak story and a piss-poor script when given the chance to star on the big screen as the next best thing to Superman. What’s really sad, though, is that Steel is the best Superman movie of the ‘90s — mainly because it’s the only one.
It’s easy to get excited about what DC Entertainment and Marvel Studios have planned for theaters over the next few summers. In order to check some of that excitement and remember what horrors could await, I recommended checking out Steel — now available on DVD from the Warner’s Archive collection.
You might want to tie yourself to a chair when you watch, though. Otherwise, you could impulsively stab yourself in the eye with a pen in order to escape from the horror that is Shaq as Steel.
Robert Saucedo can’t wait for the “Steel” remake coming to theaters in 2017. Follow Robert on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.