Movie Review: Max Steel.
Can Max Steel be the toy-based super hero movie to energize fans? No. No it can’t.
The history of toy makers using television and movies to sell product is fascinating, if a touch soul destroying and cynical. From Rainbow Brite to Transformers, companies have tried to create exciting universes in media that will feed the imaginations of consumers, making them in turn buy more toys. The Lego Movie is perhaps the culmination of that trend. Encouraged by that film, others are taking what used to be direct-to-video fare, slapping a big budget on it, and trying to hit gold. This week we have Trolls coming out, based on a fad toy from the late 80’s, which apparently is ready 30 years later. I can’t wait for “Snap Bracelets: The Trilogy.”
Max Steel caught my eye for two reasons: I’ve never even heard of the brand, and it showed off some very cool fight scenes in the trailer. It felt like Spider-Man meets the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, with a likable lead and some cool fight sequences. While it does contain those elements, they are just a tiny fraction of the run time. This film tries to build an empire before even winning its first battle. That is a recipe for disappointment.
Max Steel (2016)
Max McGrath moves back to his home town after years hopping around the country with his mother. When he was little, his father died in a mysterious accident at his laboratory on the outskirts of town, and Max has never learned what the nature of his father’s research was. He tries to uncover the mystery, but develops bigger issues: he begins to experience headaches and tremors which culminate in him emitting a highly volatile form of energy from his body. An extraterrestrial robot named Steel tracks his energy signature and explains that his father’s legacy is what is causing the energy, and that Max must harness his power to defeat other aliens who will come looking for his father’s work in order to enslave mankind.
Under the Influence
Max Steel feels like an assemblage of many well-worn hero stories from the 80’s and 90’s. Max himself feels like a bionic version of Peter Parker, and Steel feels like the wisecracking robots from Flight of the Navigator or Short Circuit. The hero’s journey is formulaic, with a mysterious father being the source of Max’s power and problems. The suits and fight scenes are very reminiscent of Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. All in all, Max Steel is cribbed very heavily from other hero stories aimed at young adults from the early 1990’s. Very little stands out as unique.
The Max Steel franchise is long-running, but very seldomly popular outside of Latin America. The fact that the franchise, which exists mostly to sell a toy line, has little cultural relevance in the US should have freed the director and writers to really reinvent the property. Maybe Mattel had them by the short hairs, but this film resolutely refuses to be it’s own creature. It desperately needed to. The jargon and catchphrases from the series are thrown around and definitely feel like pseudo-scientific gobbledygook that would appeal to a 12 year old watching after-school TV. It sounds laughably moronic outside of a kid’s toy commercial.
The whole product is paper-thin. The explanations of abilities are flimsy, and they rarely are kept in mind for longer than it takes to utter them. We see Max get a crash course in being awesome…and then spend the rest of the film forgetting he has cool powers. His first upgrade is super speed, but he spends almost the next 45 minutes running from danger at normal velocity. He also learns to jump and perform parkour, and likewise never uses those abilities to get out of a jam. He’s being chased by normal government goons down an alley when he could easily just leap up the building and be done with it. He also seems to forget he can shoot energy and do karate like Bruce Lee, instead opting to throw haymaker punches that get him beat up. And the fights…
…the fight scene in Max Steel is actually pretty dang good. But notice that I don’t use the plural. There is literally one fight scene. The whole movie goes to lengths to establish Max loves kung-fu movies, and even has him do a cool training montage flipping around a doing Wushu like a bad-ass. All of that set-up is forgotten until the last ten minutes where Max has a mostly awesome fight sequence. That’s it. He never uses his cool powers all movie, and only fights once. As much fighting as they showed in the trailer, this is definitely some Grade A bait-and-switch.
For a film trying to sell toys, it is a supremely stupid move to have only one action sequence and only one bad guy. Congrats on selling both toys, losers. Why not load this sucker up with a million baddies and just let Max be awesome for half an hour? You’d make an enjoyable fluff action film and get to sell a heck of lot more action figures.
The acting in Max Steel is pretty solid, despite the brain-dead toy babble. Ben Winchell is pretty likable as Max, and Maria Bello does a solid turn as his mother. Andy Garcia is just fine as Max’s father’s business partner…until the very end where the film decides to use every cliche in the book. While I hate the fact that Steel speaks a very internet-flavored patois that is never explained (do all aliens speak in teen idioms?) Josh Brenner does bring levity and energy to Steel’s character. It’s not the fault of the actors that the characters in this flick are thinner than tissue paper and endlessly obtuse (trying to set up a series of end twists that feels completely manufactured.)
Stick to your Dolls
Max Steel could have been an action heavy romp that created interest in a franchise, but instead spent most of its run time trying to create a grand universe while not giving anything but cursory explanations for why you should care. The choreography is nice, but comes too little, too late, and has an annoying tendency to cut to static shots of the actors’ faces inside the helmets. If every time Spider-Man spoke we got a shot of Toby Maguire’s face under the suit, people would have tarred and feathered Sam Raimi. Ultimately, Max Steel is a product out of time; had this come out ten years ago, it may have been entertaining. There’s much better generic super hero stuff out these days and Max Steel deserves to go back to gathering dust on the shelves of your local toy store.