Among the most obscure DC Comics adaptations in movie history is Steel, a Shaquille O’Neal vehicle that came and went very quietly in the summer of 1997, grossing only about a tenth of its relatively modest budget. The How Did This Get Made? podcast with Paul Scheer tackled the film recently, and now SlashFilm‘s Blake Harris is supplementing that coverage with a royally entertaining oral history, including some candid and humorous commentary from the film’s writer-director, Kenny Johnson, and Johnson’s loyal assistant, Venita Ozols-Graham. The character of Steel, a brilliant African-American weapons engineer who dons a metallic suit and becomes a stand-in for Superman, was relatively new at the time, having only debuted in 1993. And, yes, plenty of people who worked on the movie noticed the parallels between DC’s Steel and Marvel’s Iron Man. Apparently, music legend Quincy Jones became enamored of the idea of a black superhero, and he wound up producing the ill-fated film at Warner Bros.
Kenny Johnson was both an apt and an odd choice for the project. He’d worked on such successful television series as The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman, yet he had little affection for either science-fiction or superheroes. And he had no regard whatsoever for the comic on which his film was to be based, so he largely ignored it. As he puts it:
The movie didn’t really have anything to do with the comic. I looked at the comic book and it was extremely violent. There were blood and brains scattered all over the wall. You know it was really ugly with these weapons.
As for the film’s star, everyone involved with the project seems to agree that O’Neal was a sweet, generous, easy-to-work-with man who simply was not cut out to be a movie star. “As an actor,” remembers cinematographer Mark Irwin, “he’s a basketball player.” Johnson wanted a real actor like Wesley Snipes to play the lead, but the studio thought Shaq might sell more action figures. There were other headaches, too, including the fact that some parts of the movie were shot in a “sketchy” part of Los Angeles during a time of intense gang violence. In the end, Warner Bros. got cold feet and largely neglected to market the film at all, meaning that it played to near-empty houses when the studio dumped it into multiplexes. At least character actress Irma P. Hall, for one, insists she had fun on the project.