Awfully Good: Steel

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Before there was Iron Man, there was…

Steel (1997)

Director: Kenneth Johnson
Stars: Shaquille O’Neal, Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson

When a brilliant weapons designer learns that his tools of mass destruction have fallen in to the wrong hands—those of a former co-worker he thought he could trust—he has no choice but to create a metal suit to fight crime.

In case the above synopsis didn’t clue you in, STEEL is literally IRON MAN but with Shaquille O’Neal instead of Robert Downey Jr. It’s truly scary how much the two films match up (aside from +/- $100 million in the budget). I’m not crying plagiarism or anything, because, honestly, who the hell would want to copy such a famous failure? But I seriously can’t think of a bigger dichotomy of talent than between RDJ and Shaq and that gap definitely carries over in to the film’s quality department as well.

Who wouldn’t want to be saved by this guy?

In fact, absolutely nothing about this movie works in any way imaginable. Wrier/director Kenneth Johnson clearly hates superheroes, destroying everything interesting about the character of Steel (who once fought alongside Superman) in favor of something much more generic. The script, surely one of the worst ever approved by a studio, is a treasure trove of bad lines, like the empowering slogan, “Eat the hot dog; don’t be one!” The acting is also terrible across the board, but Shaq is so wooden his costume should’ve been made out of a tree instead. (Between this and George Muresan in MY GIANT, perhaps talent is inversely proportional to height.) And being 7’1″ meant no stuntman for the basketball star either. Shaq is already fairly slow and uncoordinated—add on a heavy rubber costume and it’s even worse. So get ready for exciting action scenes like Steel saving a guy from a laughably slow-moving train.

“Oh yeah? Well, I’m rubber and you’re glue so whatever you say bounces off of—oh.”

Much like IRON MAN, STEEL opens in the desert where the army is testing a new line of weapons. Something goes wrong, however, and soldier Shaq and his friends almost die in the accident. Disillusioned with the destructive nature of his creations, Shaq returns to his home in the hood with his grandmother (who’s opening a French soul food restaurant called Black and Bleau) and younger brother (played by Kim Kardashian sex tape co-star Ray J). But he’s not the only one that’s back! Shaq’s evil former partner has stolen his weapon designs and taken to the streets to recruit an army of teens from an arcade to do his dirty work. The result is beloved basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal fighting at-risk youth for most of the movie. Don’t worry though; Johnson took his script to South Central Los Angeles so he could learn how kids really talk in the hood—using authentic terms like “playa hatin’,” “whack,” “da bomb” and “dolla dolla bills, y’all!” (<-- This is a true story, by the way.)

Young Sagat was a much happier character in Teen Street Fighter.

In order to stop this evil and injustice, Shaq has no choice but to fight back. He “recruits” his best friend and fellow soldier Sparky to help his cause. I say “recruits” because Sparky was not only traumatized from the opening accident but also paralyzed from the waist down. And even though she blatantly states that she’s not ready to get back in the fight again, Shaq just says “Shit happens,” picks her up by the wheelchair and kidnaps her to work for him. Eventually, after watching her fall helplessly out of her chair and doing nothing, he wins her over and Sparky becomes JARVIS to his Tony Stark. She can see what he sees, hear what he hears and advise him as he fights crime. Annabeth Gish is actually pretty good as Sparky and does have some sort of unnatural chemistry with Shaq. Instead of high fiving or shaking hands like normal humans though, the two of them always gingerly touch the tips of their fingers together. It’s as weird and off-putting as it sounds.


And so, set to a gospel montage featuring the original song “Steel Yourself,” the new team builds Shaq’s crimefighting outfit and weapons. The resulting costume is hilariously bad; probably one of the worst superhero outfits ever conceived. It’s implausibly bulky, odd-looking and supposed to be made of metal but is clearly just cheap rubber. (If you take a shot every time his steel suit bends, you’ll be passed out before the movie ends.) I also love that they can get their hands on any high-tech equipment or material they need, just because Shaq’s Uncle Joe (played by SHAFT himself, Richard Roundtree) owns a junkyard where apparently everyone throws away million dollar toys.

Time to play “Spot The Stunt Wire!”

Former Brat Pack star Judd Nelson is the bad guy here. His big downfall is that he’s essentially a little kid and wants to turn all the weapons to MAX POWER because it’ll be cool. When his mistake leaves Sparky a paraplegic, he gets kicked out of the Army and decides to go full-on evil supervillain, stealing Shaq’s ideas and selling them to bad guys around the world using this newfangled technology called The Internet. (In case you’re wondering, these awesome new weapons are just normal guns that the production team added extra scopes to.) The best part is that the identity of the bad guy is somehow a mystery to our heroes. Even the NSA can’t figure out how their top secret guns ended up on the street. Well, only a team of three people knew about the project, one of whom was angrily discharged and vowed revenge. Hmmm, I wonder who it could be…

Thank God being in this movie didn’t deter future Academy Award nominee John Hawkes from acting.

In a rather cruel nod to Shaq’s own basketball career, the end of the film hinges completely on Steel’s ability to make a free throw shot, in this case throwing a live grenade through a hole in the wall. Luckily it’s the only grenade that has a five-minute delay, because Ray J has time to coach Shaq and teach him basic basketball skills. Obviously, he makes the shot and saves the day, but not before the grenade lands in the lap of a random henchman who has the most amazing pre-death reaction ever captured on film. Seriously, check it out in the Best Parts video below.

So many amazing lines (and evidence why Shaq should’ve won a Razzie).

Watch Shaq in action as the goofiest superhero ever. BONUS: Free throws and hilarious henchman death!

None, though I guess this is pretty phallic..

At least its not KAZAAM. Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Steel and Sparky touch fingers
  • The film references a different, better superhero
  • Shaq misses a basket
  • Shaq breaks something
  • A stunt wire is visible in the shot
  • Someone screams, “Noooo!”

Double shot if:

  • A black guy says he’s “getting too old for this”

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.


About the Author