Over the past few years, the boom in superhero movies has led to many imitators trying to repeat Marvel’s success. “Max Steel,” based off the long-running toy line from Mattel, is definitely one of them. And that’s about all that can be said about it.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of the film before, the “Max Steel” opening on Friday was met with resounding indifference. The indifference was on the part of both audiences and the production company, who dumped the film into theaters with virtually no fanfare.
“Max Steel” has the mark of a movie that was meant to start a superhero franchise before somebody realized it was never going to happen, then released it anyway in hopes of recouping losses.
The plot takes most of its cues from the 2013 TV series of the same name. Max McGrath (Ben Winchell) has recently moved into a new town, where his long-deceased father once worked as a scientist. So far, it’s going well. He’s made a new friend at school, the lovely and helpful Sofia (Ana Villafañe), and met his dad’s best friend Miles (Andy García) who tells him about his father’s history and research. As Max’s otherwise doting mother, Molly (Maria Bello), has been oddly mum about his father his whole life, Max eats up all the information he can find. Then Max suddenly starts giving off blue sparkly energy. In addition a tiny, flying alien robot with no memory named Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) conveniently shows up, saying he needs the energy Max gives off to live. If Max’s energy builds up too much, he’ll die, so they're stuck with each other.
Together, they make the hero Max Steel, according to the title at least, because at no point do they call themselves that. The pair must learn to work together and master their generic superpowers before a group of evil aliens come to kill the pair and take over the world, as evil aliens do.
Despite the premise sounding like the Saturday morning cartoon it’s based on, the film itself has a realistic, somber tone, maybe in part because it was cheaper that way. The colors are muted, the camera subtly shakes to give it that “home-movie” vibe, the music is either poignant or dramatic and the characters are prone to stare off into the distance monologuing about love and loss.
Not every superhero is Batman. Not everything has to be realistic and dramatic, especially when it’s based on an action cartoon meant for tweens. What could have been a fun romp ends up being a slog thanks to the clashing tone.
The fight scenes, all two of them, are unimpressive to look at and hard to follow. The final battle has the heroes throw down with the surprise main villain in a dimly lit room with choppy camerawork that’s all too often used in lieu of actual fight choreography. The long scenes of people talking are too boring for the little kids to stay interested, and too poorly acted for the adults to take any enjoyment from.
Not to say it’s all bad. For one, the effects are great; energy flows off Max like water, and Steel feels like a believable part of the world instead of a special effect. There also seems to be a worthy theme about being honest with your loved ones. Two separate characters keep secrets from each other in order to protect the other person, only to find that a great deal could have been avoided if they hadn’t kept secrets at all.
Other than that, there’s just nothing to like. Max is your generic high school teen who’s clearly too old to actually be in high school, and otherwise has nothing going for him. Steel manages to avoid being annoying, except for a few scenes in school, but doesn’t leave an impression either.
In fact, nobody leaves an impression. There are no interesting performances here, good or bad. Max talks to his mom about what it’s like to miss a father he’s never known, and the resulting scene is, at best, adequate. Sofia talks about her homelife, Steel tries to recall his memories and there’s a third act misunderstanding. It’s all tolerable but not at all memorable.
With nothing that makes it stand out and a half-hearted marketing campaign, this film is destined to be soon forgotten by the few who even noticed it in the first place.