For reasons unknown, I have access to HBO Max. I was combing through the DC catalog and came across a gem in Black Hero History.
The year was 1997 B.B. (“Before Blade”). Biggie had died, NASA’s Pathfinder had landed on Mars, and gas was $1.25. And Shaquille O’Neal was easily one of the most popular athletes in sports entertainment at the time. Rarely was there a commercial break that didn’t include Shaq Diesel selling something (not unlike now, come to think of it). So, it was inevitable that Hollywood would try to cash in. And whether we liked it or not, the result was two terrible films that need not be spoken of….and Steel.
I’m supposed to explain here that Steel is loosely based on a DC Comics superhero created during the Death/Return of Superman saga. However, with the exception of the Superman emblem on Shaq’s arm, the source material is basically inconsequential to understanding the parts of this movie that actually make sense. O’Neal plays John Henry Irons, a military weapons designer who grows a conscience when his friend is inadvertently paralyzed by one of his inventions. When he goes home to his old neighborhood to live with his grandmother (played by Irma P. Hall, everyone’s grandmother throughout the 90s), he finds gang members using his weapons. So, he builds himself a suit of armor and a hammer to become the vigilante Steel.
Now, at first glance, this sounds like a pretty decent sell for a good superhero romp on par with, at least, the first tier of pre-Iron Man/post Spider-Man movies. The premise even seems familiar if you squint hard enough. But the road to bad movies is paved with good intentions and out-of-touch executives. In addition to Shaq generally having the dramatic range of a frayed USB charger, there just weren’t enough selling points to put asses in the seats on the basis that a fundamentally bad actor (no matter how popular he was on the court) would be carrying the whole thing on his back. Steel is, without question, the worst thing Shaq ever gave us in his nearly thirty years of relevance.
So, why even suggest watching this well-meaning jalopy?
Easy. Because this is one of those occasions where a movie is so bad, it’s actually entertaining to sit through. There are actually things that happen that are so fundamentally awful, they somehow come full circle and end up being hilarious. I like a good Superman parallel just as much as the next guy, but watching everyone pretend the two seven foot black guys that are never in the same place at the same time…might not be related. It’s so hilariously tongue-in-cheek, it’s like watching a cartoon where all that’s missing is Shaq teaming up with Scooby and Shaggy. And Steel’s obligatory-partner-behind-the-computer, Sparky, is a delight that probably gets a better grade on the Bechdel Test than most of the MCU women. She rescues herself out of half of her situations, and she has a fully armed wheelchair. And for those of you Blerds that want to get a taste of how far representation has come, you can use this as a drinking game with friends. Everytime you see a Black dude with an atrocious shape-up (including and especially Ray J), you have to take a shot. Rest assured you’ll be drunk 30 seconds in.
But the importance of Steel is about more than just having your own “Quarantine Edition” episode of Mystery Science Theater. Okay, I lied, that’s mainly it. Sure, it’s probably good to see how far we’ve come in the superhero genre, but honestly, Steel is just a gem of a find because of the immense comedic value in this strange trip in the way-back machine. And with the amount of time the average human is spending at home…we can always use more comedy especially if it’s at the Icy Hot guy’s expense.