This film adaptation of Steel began as an accompanying spinoff of a planned film version of The Death of Superman, which never went ahead. The film was then mounted as a standlone project featuring NBA basketball superstar Shaquille ONeal. Unfortunately at about the time Steel was being made, Shaqs first starring role, the genii fantasy Kazaam (1996), came out and turned out to be a critical and audience flop that was pilloried to high heaven and back. Perhaps owing to Kazaams flop, Steel was shelved for some time before being given only a minimal release and attracting the same sort of bad reviews from the few who saw it as Kazaam had done.
Steel is directed and written by Kenneth Johnson, best known as a tv producer with superheroic shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8) and The Bionic Woman (1976-9), and other genre series such as V (1983-5) and Alien Nation (1989-90). Johnson had previously ventured into comic-book superheroes as producer of The Incredible Hulk (1977-81) and directed-wrote the cinematically-released pilot The Incredible Hulk (1977). Johnsons prior cinematic outing as director was Short Circuit 2 (1988), a film that in its nauseating cuteness is actually far worse than anything Kazaam ever was.
In the film, Kenneth Johnson follows the comic-book characters origin story quite closely about all that is missing is where Superman inspires Irons to stand up and fight crime. However, as superhero films of the era went, Steel lacks the darkness and moral complexity of Batman (1989) and the modern generation of gloomy, internalised superheroes that followed. Instead, Kenneth Johnson crafts Steel with a larger-than-life simplicity and moral purity and makes the world around him a black-and-white one in contrast. This works well enough. To his credit, Shaquille ONeal affects an amiably simple-minded presence in the film. He never exactly convinces one that what is filling his massive frame is brain cells but he certainly helps portray the characters moral purity and heroism reasonably well.
Up until Shaquille ONeal emerges in his suit of armour, Steel is a relatively decent film. It is just that when Steel finally emerges in costume looking like Batman in a suit of armour, or a variant on Marvel Comics Iron Man (which probably inspired the character of Steel) the effect is ludicrous, especially when Shaq starts wielding his big cartoony hammer-come-all-purpose James Bond ray device. (Annabeth Gish gets an even sillier wheelchair mounted with rayguns that turns into a flying transformer walking frame at the end). And when Shaq starts waggling his finger and delivering portentous one-liners like a superheroic crossing guard You should buckle up and Ill be watching you, Steel slips down to about Saturday morning cartoon superherodom level.
The film is also undercut by a self-consciously jokey sense of humour. One of the running jokes throughout the film is that Shaquille ONeal is unable to shoot a basketball hoop at one point, he makes an aside to the camera: Never could make those free throws. Even sillier is the scene where Steels armour is first produced and Richard Roundtree states: I did the metalwork. I especially like the shaft, whereupon everybody looks at each other and breaks into giggles. (Roundtree, of course, played the seminal character of Shaft in the 1970s movies). During a chase sequence, two cops puzzle over where Steel went: Where did that son of a buck go? The Batcave? The self-conscious referentiality of it all badly disrupts the necessary suspension of disbelief.
Steel taps somewhat into the spirit of other Black superhero films like The Meteor Man (1993), Blankman (1994) and Pootie Tang in Sine Your Pitty on the Runy Kine (2001). Unlike these, Steel is directly based on a comic-book and has a far greater sense of the milieu of the comic book superhero. Also unlike these it is a Black superhero film being written and directed by a White Man, although there is clearly some Black interest that has gone into making this Quincey Jones has signed on as producer, for instance. It does tap into the theme that runs through all the aforementioned films where a Black superhero is seen as a symbol of empowerment in the ghetto communities, standing up against crime and gangs although, perhaps due to its mixed ethnic source, the theme is much more muted here than in these other films.