This is the thirty-fifth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
The whole of the 1990s consisted of several false starts in trying to bring Superman back to the big screen. There had been success with the character on television, with “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and “Superboy,” but nothing quite gelled on the big screen. In an attempt to recoup some of the lost funding spent on those false starts, Warner Bros. decided to produce a Superman spin-off.
Steel had been a break-out character for DC Comics during the “Reign of the Supermen” storyline, which saw Superman replaced by four impostors after his death at the hands of Doomsday. Of the four, Steel was the only one who didn’t claim to be Superman, although other people claimed he was Superman reincarnated even though Steel was a black man – John Henry Irons.
The rights to produce the film were secured by record producer Quincy Jones. Jones felt that Steel represented a positive role model for children, even though he hesitated to call him a superhero. Instead, Jones preferred to call the character a “super human being.” Jones hired Kenneth Johnson – who had developed “The Incredible Hulk” for television 20 years earlier – to write and direct the film. It was Johnson who removed the trademark cape from Steel’s costume due to remarks made by producer Joel Silver that Steel should be a knight in shining armor in a modern day setting, as opposed to a superhero.
All connections to Superman were severed in the film, which would seem to be counterproductive considering that Warner Bros. was making this movie specifically to tie-in to that character. The only indirect connection to Superman is a Superman tatoo – which Shaquille O’Neal has in real life – and mention by Richard Roundtree’s character that “John Henry Irons has turned himself into the Man of Steel.”
When Steel was spun off into his own ongoing comic book series, the character was based in Washington, D.C. This setting was changed for the film to Los Angeles, where principal photography took place. Shaquille O’Neal was only available for five weeks of filming due to basketball commitments in the 1996 summer Olympics and the Los Angeles Lakers training camp.
“Steel” was a critical and financial failure, making only $1.7 million of its $16 million budget back and carrying a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Steel” couldn’t even fail properly, as Shaquille O’Neal was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor, but lost to Kevin Costner for “The Postman.”
“Steel: Production Notes”. Steel Official Website. Warner Bros. 1997
“Steel (1997)”. Box Office Mojo.
“Steel — Rotten Tomatoes”. Rotten Tomatoes