The Daily Stream: 'Steel' with Shaquille O'Neal Isn't Great, But Has Its Heart in the Right Place

The Daily Stream: 'Steel' with Shaquille O'Neal Isn't Great, But Has Its Heart in the Right Place

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Steel

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Metallurgist John Henry Irons (basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal) vows to do something when a renegade military reject (Judd Nelson) puts new superweapons in dangerous hands. Helped by an electronics wiz (Annabeth Gish) and an imaginative scrap metal worker (Richard Roundtree), Irons becomes Steel. Wearing body armor, wielding a fearsome electrohammer, and riding a gadget-packed motorcycle, he’s ready to wage war against these weaponized criminals, even if he still has to fix some glitches in his gear at the same time.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Steel is one of those comic book movies that doesn’t get much love. That’s because the movie is mostly bad, but director/writer Kenneth Johnson had his heart in the right place, and Steel deserves some recognition for going out of its way to be rather progressive for a comic book movie that was made in 1997.

Crafted as a superhero movie for the whole family, many comic fans were immediately disappointed in Steel‘s all-ages tone. It’s probably not as disappointing as the suit created for Steel or Shaquille O’Neal’s charmingly unconvincing acting skills (even when he’s making jokes about being bad at free throws), but the movie certainly takes away any teeth that the original superhero story had.

However, for all of Steel‘s flaws, you have to give it credits for being the first blockbuster comic book movie to feature a Black superhero. This debuted a year before Blade arrived with Wesley Snipes (an actor who was considered for the Steel role), and it brought the action to an urban setting in Los Angeles. Furthermore, it featured young kids of color who were sucked into a life of crime by greedy, white villains (including Judd Nelson) who used then-popular arcade games and the promise of mad C.R.E.A.M. to lure them in. There’s even one point when Judd Nelson, in the whitest way possible, tells John Henry Irons’ little brother (played by a young Ray J) that he can call him “The Man.”

Aside from the racial diversity being represented in Steel, the movie also gives a disabled character a significant role in the movie. Annabeth Gish plays Steel’s right-hand woman, always talking in his ear, keeping him safe, and giving him the best tech she can find. It’s a prominent role, and one that also lets her get in on the action when some special modifications to her wheelchair are revealed. Sure, it would have been infinitely better if an actual disabled actress got the role, but 1997 hadn’t learned those lessons yet.

Finally, Steel succeeds in giving the film’s hero a triumphant fanfare of a theme. It’s heroic and even joyous. Composer Mervyn Warren crafted music that makes great use of the horn section, and even though it had been years since I enjoyed Steel as a kid, that earworm of a composition came rushing back into my head and has been stuck there for days now. It even makes rhythmic use of the clanging and hissing of forging steel. Give it a listen and go watch Steel just for the hell of it. I can’t say you won’t be disappointed, but you’ll at least have some form of fun watching it.

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