Make no mistake, Max Steel, the Mattel toy property, turned Cartoon Network staple, turned full length movie has become the worst reviewed wide-release film of 2016. After a single weekend, the movie has garnered a staggering Metascore of 26, and a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Those are scores usually reserved for direct to DVD video game adaptations and the occasional Pauly Shore movie. I'll admit with so many metrics stacked up against it, my interest both as a critic and a connoisseur of junk cinema was piqued. I wanted to hate this movie; I came in with the expectation that this movie was a special kind of crappy. But alas it's just the regular kind of crappy.
The plot of Max Steel promises the adventures of a middle-America teenager named Max (played by perennial kids-TV bit-player Ben Winchell) and his alien companion named Steel. Due to Max's seemingly inexplicable ability to conjure energy on a molecular level, Steel acts as a symbiotic techno-parasite consuming it with relative safety. In return, Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) enhances Max's physical abilities and protects him with a laser spewing bio- tech suit. Little does Max know that his new friendship with his alien buddy upsets a certain celestial balance, that holds the future of our world in the hands of a sinister enemy.
The plot promises these things but in an election year, we should all be wary of false promises by now. While watching Max Steel I was less concerned about the fate of the world than the fate of those involved in this project and made the mistake of taking it seriously. The film co-stars award nominated actors Maria Bello and Andy Garcia whose natural gravitas threatens to give Max Steel more weight than your average Smallville (2001-2011) knockoff. I understand that veteran actors need to eat but most actors should draw the line when asked to put on a half-assembled Power Rangers outfit.
The film itself is a cheap, shabby, impotent mess that tries oh so hard to ape the grungy self-serious aesthetic from recent superhero fare. But instead of finding a balance between pretension and moment- focused excess, the camera diddles through colorless scenes that look like they were shot through a layer of cellophane and Vaseline. This of course is when we get exteriors of antique pickup trucks chugging through amber-waved back-roads. When it comes to the heavy climaxes, the movie seems poised to give us the same blighted industrial zones we've seen in everything from low-budget horror movies to late-period Steven Seagal flicks. Only this time it's lighted like a neighborhood Zap- Zone to give the film's target audience (mainly toddlers and their misguided gamgams) the desire to whip out their video games.
It's all so genuinely and quite unpleasantly sad to see a movie like Max Steel. Watching bloated, intelligence insulting, big-budget fare fall flat can give anyone a sudden jolt of schadenfreude. Yet watching something whose only real crime is being too big for its britches, well it's just not that much fun. The film and its makers are trying to mimic a certain style, a certain flow, a certain spirit yet it simply have none of the right tools to do so. So they patched this puppy up with as much exposition, flashbacks and Josh Brener inspired wisecracks to trick you into thinking it was all worth it. But it's not, it's really, really not.
Max Steel is like going to the zoo, visiting the tiger exhibit and seeing a tiger born and raised in captivity. Many people arguably worked their best on this film, but because their best is inspired by the limited cultural echo chamber of comic books, blockbuster movies and Halo, we get a movie that lazes about, the fierceness in its eyes completely absent.