For several years now, two of the most financially successful film franchises have been the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Those films have cumulatively earned $10.2 billion and $3.8 billion, respectively. So one can’t really blame the folks over at Mattel and Dolphin Entertainment for hoping to combine the superhero storytelling of the former with the built-in appeal of a long-running toy line. Unfortunately, Max Steel reveals just how ill-conceived this approach is in telling an effective story.
Based on the Mattel toys (as well as the 2000 and 2013 animated series they inspired), the film stars Ben Winchell as Max McGrath, a teenage boy who soon begins experiencing dangerous energy bursts when he and his mother (Maria Bello) move back to his hometown, where tragedy occurred years earlier. Before long, the truth begins to unravel, and Max encounters a bizarre creature named Steel (voiced by Silicon Valley‘s Josh Brener) that he can combine with to become the armor-clad hero of the film’s title. Surprisingly, Max Steel resists shoehorning in a cheesy, last-minute reference to the hero’s name, though this is perhaps the only real demonstration of restraint on the part of the filmmakers.
The story plays out like an unimaginative mash-up of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Power Rangers (the last of which, of course, already has its own big-screen reboot on the way). Director Stewart Hendler is best known for his work on the 2012 web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, and the gaming influence is plain to see here.
The action sequences of Max Steel feel like video game cutscenes, while the effects budget looks like it’s on par with a poorly produced television show rather than a major motion picture. Worse yet, the by-the-numbers script from Christopher Yost (Thor: The Dark World) features a barely comprehensible mythology, which really goes off the rails in the third act, and characters so flat that they might as well be cardboard cutouts.
Fresh-faced Winchell isn’t really to blame though. The actor may have limited acting ability – a realization made worse by his resemblance to Star Wars actor Hayden Christensen – but the material he’s given certainly doesn’t give him much opportunity to shine either. Moreover, Bello – who played a troubled mom to far greater effect in this summer’s Lights Out – and co-star Andy Garcia are slumming it hard in Max Steel, with the latter given a role that only gets more embarrassing as the plot progresses. At least Ana Villafañe is relatively charming as Max’s love interest, and Brener gets in a couple chuckle-worthy one-liners as the Baymax equiavalent of Max Steel.
However, the strangest aspect of Max Steel is its PG-13 rating. While nearly every major blockbuster bears that designation these days, this one is a particularly egregious attempt at making the film in question seem appealing to more mature audiences (did we mention that it straight-up rips off the inside-the-helmet perspective from Iron Man?). Despite a few moments of “darkness” that all but the smallest children will barely notice, Max Steel is so blatantly aimed at kids that one wonders whether the film might be more successful if had actually embraced this rather than attempting to capture the same broad audience as its far superior counterparts in the superhero genre.
A PG-rated superhero film could have stood apart from some of the more violent offerings – like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, for example – and catered to younger audiences. As it stands, a PG-13 rating – described by the MPAA as a release wherein “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13” – makes little sense, as few moviegoers over that age will care about Max Steel anyway.
Years ago, a version of the film was in development over at Paramount with Twilight star Taylor Lautner attached to star. In hindsight, Lautner – whose own leading-man status pretty much died with the 2011 bomb Abduction – may have dodged a bullet by not headlining Max Steel. Moviegoers in desperate need of another superhero film should just wait for Doctor Strange to hit theaters next month. Sure, Max Steel may promise a change of pace from all the Marvel and DC adaptations, but it’s subpar to both those shared universes on every level, telling an origin story that brings little new to the table and a cast that deserves far better.
Instead, those looking for fun, family-friendly superhero entertainment are better off staying in and catching the latest episode of The Flash or Supergirl, since both are infinitely better than anything Max Steel has to offer.
Moviegoers suffering from superhero fatigue should especially avoid Max Steel, a film that embodies the worst of what the genre has to offer.