In 1997 Steel entered the theatres and John Henry Irons (played by NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal) made one of the fastest growing characters in modern times to go from creation to adaptation. Created in 1993 by Louise Simonson and John Bogdanov as part of the Death and Return of Superman story, the character was originally one of four characters DC said could be Superman. After the hero’s death and funeral, his body disappeared and shortly afterwards, four heroes with the Superman weapon on their chests took to the streets of Metropolis to fill the void left by the death of tomorrow’s man.
Two of them – Cyborg, who later turned out to be Hank Henshaw, and an anonymous Kryptonian who turned out to be an Eradicator – in fact claimed to be the resurrected Superman, while another (Superboy, later named Conner Kent) was quite open about his ancestry as a clone of Project Cadmus from the beginning. The latter, John Henry Irons, has never claimed to be anything other than a man who wants to live up to Superman’s legacy and help the people in his community. It’s not surprising that Steele turned out to be the most popular character, and some fans even speculated that he could be Superman, as the spirit of the Man of Steel is somehow inside John’s body.
Actually, John Henry Irons was a weapon designer in armor, just like Tony Stark. There are big differences, both in the past (Irons gave up designing weapons and changed their name to escape their former bosses) and in the present (Steel is not a billionaire, lives in a modest multi-generation house and works as a builder). His story: When he fell out of a skyscraper under construction during his lunch break, Irons was rescued by Superman. When Irons asked him how he could repay the hero, Superman said he had to do something positive with his life.
His heart, humour and interesting supporting cast made John Henry Irons one of the best new characters of the 90s. Not surprisingly, when Shaq was asked about a project he could do for Warner Bros., he suggested that they adapt an imposing black superhero with a winning personality and a love for Superman. The O’Neill tattoo, with the Superman emblem surrounded by the words Man of Steel, even had a face of its own in the 1997 film.
Then the problem wasn’t the movie. It wasn’t even O’Neal who succeeded for the good and the cheesy, and whose good nature and complacent humour gave the Staalhart his moments. It was more about the script and the making of the film. Apparently terrified of making a film in the DC universe, director Kenneth Johnson (Short Circuit 2) removed the steel mantle, every connection to Superman and basically every element of the story that seemed bigger than life. He even took off his harness to fly, which resulted in one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes in a superhero movie, where he rescues an old couple and then very slowly walks away from them by hovering on an escalator in a subversive up and down queue that the audience must surely have had.
With superheroes not only ubiquitous, but also two different versions of Superman on our screens in 2021 (Henry Cavill in Zack Snyders League for Justice and Tyler Hoechlin in Superman & Lois), one wonders if there could be steel on the horizon again.
On social media there has been a lot of talk about the fact that DC’s films are hopeful and try to diversify the universe of superheroes, especially the white ones, on the big screen. It seems a clear case – and indeed, it seems the right time to bring back John Henry Irons for another spotlight on the live feed.
The metropolis of Superman and Lois is largely unrepresentative, with only small known information nuclei. Even those who could be wrong, after the crisis, it seems incredibly easy to introduce John and perhaps his niece Nat (who would follow him later in the world of superhero weapons) in this series. Otherwise, Superman’s death in the Batman vs. Dawn of Justice case a big void in the back of the DC movie world, but many details have never been investigated. We can assume that not four Supermen fought for the title or that he would have appeared in the Justice League, but frankly, the idea of a guy in armor defending the slums during Superman’s rebellion after his death? It’s a perfectly plausible scenario.
Even in its history alone, steel could easily fulfil a more budgetary function as a character and as a property. The ideal would be not to put Shaq and an old white television director behind the camera, but the kind of film that black filmmakers and actors rarely made in 1997, but are now starting to make. The original actually had some of that ambition, but despite all its flaws, Johnson knew that the film was groundbreaking in terms of a big superhero film with a black thread and tried to make it happen. He just happened to fail and probably never tried.
What’s your opinion? Do you want to see John Henry Irons back on the screen in some form? And if that happens, should Shaq be invited to appear? Let us know in the comments, or call me on Twitter at @russburlingame!
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