Conceptually speaking, Real Steel is one of the weirdest big budget main stream movies to grace the multiplexes in a long while — which is saying something in our current fantastical entertainment climate. The chances that it was ever going to be a good movie, in any typical sense, were always slim, but I had hoped it would satisfy on a big, dumb and fun level. Or better yet, be so fucking misguided that it reached a Dreamcatcher WTF level of astonishing absurdity that transcends any mortal concept of objective quality. But it doesn’t do either of those things. As Renn already noted, the film takes what seems like a late-80’s gonzo genre film premise and turns it into a family film. I’m totally fine with that. What got me was how Real Steel failed as a by-the-numbers Hollywood film. Sure it has robots punching it other in the face, but with the Transformers movies out there (and I can’t believe I’m using a Michael Bay movie as a positive example of any kind) that doesn’t feel so special. Here are some suggestions on how the movie could have easily been improved.
1) Give Charlie something to overcome.
Our protagonist is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who as Renn noted in his review, really pushes the boundaries of how unlikable a hero in a family film can be. And I don’t mean unlikable in a ballsy artistic choice kind of way; he is just a poorly constructed hero. I’ll ignore specific “bad dad” moments that I think can be chalked up to hacky writing – like Charlie leaving his son Max teetering on the edge of a cliff, after a dramatic scene in which Max almost died, to improbably haul a giant robot up another cliff during a rainstorm completely by himself all night long while Charlie apparently waits for hours standing by his truck, never once thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if my son ended up falling off that cliff he almost fell off before. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t returned for several hours.” – and look at the bigger picture. Charlie is a fuck up. The worst kind of fuck up. His problem is that he’s an idiot. That’s it. In the first 30 minutes of the film he destroys not one, but two valuable robots through sheer idiocy. He’s impulsive, but in an unlikable dipshit kind of way. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, or gambling problem, or an anger problem. You know, the kind of things that Max could inspire him to overcome. Charlie doesn’t have anything to overcome, actually. His problem is just that he’s stupid. Max is in fact exactly like Charlie (which we’ll address in a moment). He too is irrationally impulsive and overconfident. The only difference between father and son is that Max always ends up being right. So Charlie also has no reason to learn to stop being overconfident and impulsive. Thus, Charlie’s character arc is he learns to stop trusting his own judgement and listen to Max. And it’s not even an issue where he has been oppressing Max and learns to let the boy spread his wings and lead his own life, or some bullshit like that. They literally just met a couple months ago. It’s like Charlie met his doppelganger and said, “Oh, you’re better than me. I guess I’ll just shut up. Please tell me what to do.” That is a terrible arc for a hero.
2) Differentiate Charlie and Max.
There is a charming aspect to Charlie and Max being that same sort of person (especially because they’ve been estranged for all of Max’s life), but for reasons said above, the overall emotional arc fails because of it. If Charlie’s problem is that he is impulsive and makes bad decisions, simple storywriting math would tell us that Max should be the inverse, the yin to Charlie’s yang — if we want them to ultimately become a perfect duo. For example, when Charlie destroys his second robot, Noisy Boy, Max had warned him to take an undercard fight and not go for the big time. Yet, when Max gets Atom (the robot), the exact opposite thing happens. Charlie warns Max not to press his luck, to take some easy money and work his way up. Now, keep in mind here, Charlie has been doing this for years; we’re talking about Max’s first robot boxing match ever. Yet, Max decides to ignore Charlie, and is totally proven right (see Problem #1). This sort of moment happens repeatedly throughout the film, with Charlie and Max flipflopping over giving the exact same advice to each other, but with Max being correct regardless. In a sense, they’re the exact same character, only different ages. And Charlie always being wrong. Yet there isn’t really any reason (at least that we’re shown) why Max’s irrational impulsive decisions are savvier than Charlie’s irrational impulsive decisions. For one thing, he’s a fucking 11-year-old; how stupid is Charlie supposed to be? After Atom narrowly wins his first professional fight, Max challenges the champ. This seems like an incredibly stupid thing to do. Shouldn’t they practice more? Work their way up? This seems like the sort of move that should prove to be a humbling moment for our hero. But Charlie is our hero. So his humbling moment is to doubt the logical correctness of Max’s retarded act of hubris (see Problem #1). Really, no one learns anything at the end of this film. Max has no reason to stop being impulsive, and Charlie doesn’t either, as long as he’s following Max’s lead.
3) Get rid of Charlie. Or Max.
Real Steel is ostensibly based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel,” which was adapted into a famous original run Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin in what I guess we’d say was the Hugh Jackman role. But aside from robot boxing, the stories don’t have much to do with each other. In “Steel” the crux of the story is Marvin being forced to put on his robot’s outer shell and risk his life getting in the ring, pretending to be a robot, because he’s so hard up. There is sort of an approximation of that in Real Steel, but it’s not at all the same. Really Real Steel owes significantly more to King Vidor’s The Champ (itself remade by Franco Zeffirelli in the 70’s, starring Jon Voight). Like The Champ, Real Steel is about the relationship between a washed up boxer and his young son. Only now we also have a robot named Atom third-wheeling the situation. Dispassionately, I’d have to say that the odd duck here is Atom. But if we remove the robot, then we truly are just left with a lame The Champ knock-off — ie, Over the Top. So, stuck with the idea of making a movie about robot boxing, either Charlie or Max needs to hit the road.
This is a shitty kind of note, I know, undermining the entire concept of the film, but the robot boxing aspect is so secondary here that it kind of spoils the whole thing. Real Steel is basically a movie about a father and son building a race car. Except the race car is an eight foot tall robot. Who fights other robots. And dances. But robots don’t actually have anything to do with our greater story.
Which leads me to…
4) Make Atom a real character.
The most bizarre element of Real Steel is the non-subplot about Atom being semi-sentient. Max claims the robot can understand him, and there is a scene in which Atom is left sitting in front of a mirror, seemingly staring at himself. But that’s it. It never goes anywhere. Atom is not sentient. I truly thought the film was going to build up to Max/Charlie’s remote control breaking during the climactic fight between Atom and the “villain” Zeus, and then Atom suddenly needing to function on his own — blowing everyone’s minds and changing robot boxing forever! But no. Yes, the remote does break, so they need to activate Atom’s shadowboxing function so Charlie can nonsensically shadowbox the fight from outside the ring (I’ll also ignore the logic clusterfuck that is the remote controlling mechanisms for the various robots in the film). This is Charlie’s big hero moment, as he’s reclaiming his old boxing glory days. But that’s a really small, lame victory, considering he’s been using his mental boxing skills to control robots for years already. What’s really the difference? Is there a huge separation between old fashioned video game controllers and the Wii? No. You’re still using your brain and body to control an avatar.
With Charlie out of the picture (or Max out of the picture), we’d have something more akin to The Iron Giant, but with boxing. Presumably part of the story would be about Max (or Charlie) pretending to control Atom, when Atom is really doing the fighting himself. Or Atom slowly gaining sentience throughout the film because of some kind of accident (the ol’ lighting gimmick) or because of an unorthodox upgrade Max gives it. I’m not saying this would necessarily be a great movie, but it would at least yield a cohesive through line to the story.
5) Let’s have a theme.
What is this movie about? I’m not sure. There are some obvious possible themes staring us in the face. The film is supposed to be an underdog story; no one gives Atom a chance because he looks old and shitty. Yet neither Charlie nor Max has to face any kind of judging-a-book-by-its-cover discrimination in the film, so this doesn’t gel thematically. Again, our hero, Charlie, is held back by being stupid, wasting money, and making moronic decisions. He’s not much of an underdog. The “villain” is a rich heiress who has paired herself with a genius Asian boxing robot designer. They run Zeus, a shockingly dull looking robot (considering he’s the second most important robot in the movie), who is all top-tech sophistication. Objectively the only reason we have to dislike them is that one is rich and the other is super talented/smart, but I don’t see what’s less likable about those traits than Charlie blowing the $50,000 he gets for selling his son and then losing it instantaneously by being stupid.
There are whiffs of a John Henry theme in Real Steel, of a man versus machine showdown — considering that human boxing was supplanted in popularity by robot boxing (in “Steel” human boxing was made illegal due to brutality, which made a lot more sense). And there is a bit of that in the climax with Charlie controlling Atom through shadowboxing. But here is the thing — this ending can only truly feel dramatic if humans weren’t also controlling Zeus. Again, I give my classic Nintendo controller versus the Wii example. If Zeus were functioning autonomously, then Charlie controlling Atom through shadowboxing would feel like a major showdown/triumph. But that isn’t the case. What we’re given is a minor variation in human-controlled technique. Don’t we want to feel like something monumental has happened at the end? This is a Hollywood family film, after all. It’s not trying to be Rocky. Presumably after the events of Atom and Zeus’s fight, robot boxer owners across the country are simply going to hire human ex-boxers to control their robots now. As I see it, the most dramatic thematic showdowns for the climax would be:
a) Zeus is programmed to control himself through algorithms. So Charlie controlling Atom proves human superiority.
b) All robot boxers are sentient, and robots have completely taken over boxing. So when Atom breaks down during the climax, Charlie has to control him through shadowboxing, proving human superiority.
c) Humans control Zeus. So Atom proving to be sentient and control himself proves robot superiority.
Two final nitpicks: Zeus also should’ve had a better design. And Max probably should’ve been, you know, at least a little bit sad/screwed-up by the fact that his mom just fucking died. Just died. Like days ago when we first meet him, but he’s far more concerned with being a precocious wise-ass.