They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Maybe 1997’s Steel, a Superman spin-off starring basketball sensation Shaquille O’Neal as a superhero out to prevent gang violence, isn’t hell per se, but some do view it as the cinematic equivalent of being stuck in an abyss. But it didn’t start out that way.
Like so many movies that turn out less than stellar, Steel was hampered by a misguided studio calling too many shots, but the cast and crew at least set out to deliver something fun and positive the whole family could enjoy. It didn’t turn out that way in the end, but as you’ll soon discover, the creators went in with admirable aims and ambitions.
There’s a certain charm to Steel if you’re connoisseur of movies of the badder variety, Seeing a woefully miscast basketball player dressed in a goofy costume is good for a few laughs and, when in the right frame of mind, it’s quite entertaining. Still, we can’t help but wonder what the movie could have been under different circumstances.
Here are 15 Things You Never Knew About The Failed Steel Movie.
15. Shaq Performed His Own Stunts
Shaq is just over seven-feet tall and weighs over 300 pounds, so you can see the problem the filmmakers faced when trying to find a suitable stunt performer to pose as the giant and risk their life in the name of a movie like Steel. Shaq is a big guy after all, and because of this factor, reportedly he had to step up to the plate and perform his own stunts.
Fortunately, there were no reported accidents on set and, as history has proven, he was able to return to the NBA and become one of the all-time greats. While Shaq emerged from the movie physically unscathed, his acting career took a bigger hit than any injury that could have been inflicted by a stunt.
14. Children Were Script Consultants
With dialogue like “Well, I’ll be dipped in shit and rolled in breadcrumbs!” and “Look-it here, boy! You ain’t Superman! And you damn sure ain’t gettin’ paid!”, Steel is a movie that boasts some memorable lines worthy of reappraisal. However, did you know that the filmmakers actually consulted local children to help them add a sense of realism?
In a bid to recreate the South Central environment at the time, the filmmakers turned to the youngsters to advise them on the local colloquialisms.
They wanted to create a working class superhero movie that felt believable.
13. It Was the Third African-American Superhero Movie
The summer of 1997 didn’t give the world the critically-acclaimed superhero movies it was looking for, but it was a bold experiment as studios did try to introduce African-American superheroes into the Hollywood mainstream. Steel was released in August of that year, followed by Spawn in September. But they didn’t set the precedent.
In 1993, Meteor Man introduced audiences to a black superhero and it featured a cast primarily made up of African-American actors. The comedy Blankman was released the following year, and despite its poor box office turnout it eventually gained appreciation in cult circles.
When Blade was released in 1998, we finally got a high quality film about an African-American superhero that also made a handsome profit. Steel was part of a wave of movies that paved the way, and while it flopped dramatically, there’s no denying that it pushed pop culture forward by diversifying the superhero genre on the big screen.
12. Shaq Wasn’t the First Choice to Play Steel
It’s hard to imagine Steel without its enormous lead star awkwardly rocking what must be one of the silliest costumes in the history of the medium. He was ultimately cast because they thought his overall star power would help sell merch, but the original plan was to have none other than Wesley Snipes play the DC character.
Of course, Snipes would go on to find success in Marvel’s Blade and that was probably a better career move than the Steel adaptation.
Do you think that this movie would have turned out differently if he was cast?
11. It Made Less In Its Entire Run Than Batman & Robin Did In Its Opening Weekend
While Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin left a sour taste in most people’s mouths, it was still a moderate hit, grossing $42,872,605 during its opening weekend. By the end of its run, the film had accumulated an estimated $238,207,122 worldwide, undoubtedly leaving a lot of audiences wishing they’d spent their money on something more fulfilling — like watching paint dry or a highway pile-up.
Steel, meanwhile, only made a lousy $1,710,972 off the back of a $16,000,000 production budget. This was down to a combination of lackluster promotion, poor timing, and the negative reviews probably didn’t help its cause either.
According to the filmmakers, Steel was mismanaged and not targeted towards the family-friendly demographic it was made for. Elsewhere, the fact it opened against Conspiracy Theory — starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts at the height of their careers — was another death knell.
10. They Shot the Film at Night to Avoid Gangs
The making of Steel is actually quite rooted in death-defying drama. Taking place in the centre of South Central, an area that’s notable for being a hub for gang violence and high crime rates, the cast and crew had to film at night inconspicuously to avoid attention.
They were unable to avoid attention and encountered gunfire anyway.
According to Mark Irwin in an interview with SlashFilm, local gang members thought they were cops. “[They were] shooting at our lights that are up on a crane, and then our helicopter. Okay, great. So who do we call? 9-11. Who shows up? Another helicopter. Now there’s three fucking helicopters and a motorcycle and the whole film crew hiding. Everyone’s under this metal thing. Pretty crazy…”
9. It Mocks at Shaq’s Basketball Skills
During the early years of Shaq’s basketball career, he was heavily criticized for his poor free throwing ability. At the time, he had the worst stats in the league when it came to that particular ability, and even had to practice in between filming scenes so he could return to his team a better player.
Not missing out on an opportunity to poke fun at the big guy’s inability, there’s a scene in the film where he says “I don’t miss free throws” — talk about a self-aware joke.
Get it? Because he missed lots of free throws.
In 1997, he hadn’t yet won a championship either and some fans were critical of him doing movies and trying to launch a rap career instead of focusing on the game. Thankfully, he proved them wrong by going on to win several and the rest is history.
8. The Director Knew Casting Shaq Was a Bad Idea
Prior to starring in Steel, Shaq’s career as a leading man wasn’t exactly generating prosperous or glowing results. Kenneth Johnson was aware that he wasn’t an actor, but Warner Bros. were confident that they could squeeze some money out of his star power. As we’ve discovered, it was a bust.
In an interview with Vice, the director recalled his dismay over the casting decision: “He’s not an actor. Yes, he was a big persona and a great role model for kids and all that, but he’s no movie star. But these people just wouldn’t budge a dime to place an actual movie star in the role.”
The fact that no notable movie stars were cast to carry the load didn’t help. While Richard Roundtree and the other cast members are fine actors, they weren’t exactly box office sensations in the ’90s.
7. It’s the Eighth Worst Superhero Movie Ever Made
Steel might be a bad superhero adaptation, but according to critical consensus, it’s not the worst. In fact, according to the unquestionable and verified Tomatometer, it wasn’t even the worst superhero movie released in the doom and gloom period that was the summer of 1997.
Maybe you’ll disagree with this ranking order, but beating Steel to the punch, in descending order, are: Superman IV, Batman & Robin, Elektra, Fantastic Four. Catwoman, Captain America, and Supergirl. That’s some stiff competition right there.
However, let’s not forget the fact that DC is still making movies and firing directors left, right, and center. As long as there’s a Suicide Squad sequel in the works, it’s possible a new superhero bomb could take the crown.
6. The Hidden References
Before he took the reins of Steel, Kenneth Johnson was mostly known for directing 1989’s cult-favorite sci-fi procedural Alien Nation and several episodes of the subsequent TV adaptation. While he saw Steel as an opportunity to break out from the sci-fi niche he was familiar with at the time, he still acknowledged his past work.
The nod to Alien Nation can be spotted during the movie’s chase scene at the railroad. In the background, there’s graffiti that resembles the written language from Johnson’s breakout film. May that serve as a reminder to anyone watching Steel that the director is actually very talented and has some gems in his filmography.
5. The goal was to be Black Panther
As previously mentioned, Steel was made with good-hearted intentions — in fact, the reason why Kenneth Johnson wanted to do the film in the first place was so he could stick it to racists and bigots. While it’s far from a biting critique of race relations in America, the purpose was to empower the African-American community nonetheless — and it stemmed from Johnson’s upbringing.
As he told SlashFilm, “I was raised in a really bigoted, anti-Semitic household, so whenever I have the chance to strike back at intolerance and prejudice […] I try to chip away at that.”
Blade and Black Panther have given comic book cinema strong black superheroes, and while Steel isn’t in the same league as those movies, Johnson and co. were at least aware of the need for one at the time and did his best to provide one.
4. Warner Bros. Had No Faith in Black Superhero Movies
Shaq’s profile meant that Warner Bros. had hopes that they’d make a substantial profit from the movie by selling toys. At the same time, they didn’t have enough faith in the project to allocate Johnson and co. a decent budget to make it better.
This was due to the lack of African-American superhero movies at the time to prove that they could be successful. Plus, the ones that came before hardly lit the box office alight. “[Part] of the problem that we had is that Warner Brothers wasn’t willing to pony up a big enough budget for a movie starring an African American guy,” Leonard Armato told SlashFilm. “That was a time when there was no precedent for that.”
Maybe if the studio went into it with the intention to make a film that was actually good, it would have turned out differently. As Blade showed one year later, African-American superheroes could be draws when given a respectable budget and talented lead.
3. A Sequel Has Been Discussed
Let’s face the facts: a Steel sequel is probably about as likely as your dad becoming the next James Bond. However, in this crazy world of endless superhero reboots, anything is possible.
If a Steel sequel ever does happen it’d be a wonderful curiosity to have bestowed upon us. In an era where superhero movies are all the rage and mostly objectively good, a disastrously entertaining Steel sequel could be a breath of fresh air.
Shaq is interested as well.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, he revealed that talks had taken place: “I’m talking to the powers-that-be about coming out with Steel 2.” He also discussed that a sequel which featured modern technology could be the secret to fixing previous wrongs. We should trust his expertise.
2. The Filmmakers Set Out to Inspire Kids
No one sets out to make a bad movie, and when you read the stories pertaining to Steel, they had only good intentions in mind. According to producer Quincy Jones, they wanted to make a movie featuring a positive role model for children, and that’s pretty admirable.
As noted in the book Focus On: 100 Most Popular 90s Action Films, Jones said: “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 superhuman being.”
Did Steel inspire kids? Maybe a couple at most.
1. It Ended Shaq’s Acting Career
Following the disastrous results produced by Blue Chips and Kazaam, Shaq entered Steel hoping that the third time would be the charm. While Steel contains plenty of charm, it was the final nail in the coffin for Shaq as a Hollywood leading man.
To this day, Shaq still appears in movies and TV shows — mostly as himself — but it’s highly likely that he’s going to spearhead a studio movie in the near (or late) future. That said, in small supporting roles he’s actually quite fun. Who didn’t have a big smile on their face when he showed up in Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill? It may have been the only time you cracked a smile in that movie!
Maybe he’ll turn to low key indie dramas and enjoy a renaissance like Matthew McConaughey did a few years ago. He deserves a cinematic slam dunk to add to his current accolades.
Do you have any other Steel trivia to share? Leave it in the comments!
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