The 2011 film Real Steel, helmed by future Stranger Things director-producer Shawn Levy, has been an odd genre mashup of sci-fi, sports thriller, and family drama that probably shouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well as it did. According to an episode of the original Twilight Zone series entitled”Steel,” and adapted by the legendary writer and screenwriter Richard Matheson from his own short story, the film told the tale of Charlie (Hugh Jackman), an ex-boxer navigating a near-future where boxing matches between actual humans have been made illegal. Instead, hulking robots made specifically for the game go toe-to-toe from the ring, and Charlie is a down-on-his-luck manager of one machine dubbed Ambush, which he loses a bet as the film opens.
To make things worse for the bad man, he is in the center of a custody battle over his son Max (Dakota Goyo, whose character’s title is a clever homage to the title of the robot boxer because old Twilight Zone episode). Charlie’s ex-girlfriend, the boy’s mom, has recently died, and Charlie — not just a major family man — works a deal with Max’s wealthy aunt and uncle to grant them total custody in exchange for $100,000. First, though, Charlie should keep Max for three months while the couple goes off on a planned vacation. As it happens, the lad happens to be a major fan of robot boxing, and the two start to bond within Atom, a sparring machine with a distinctive”shadow” feature found by Max in a junkyard. Its ability to mimic competitions’ movements makes it an unlikely contender — and what kind of sports film would this be when Atom did not get a shot at the undefeated world champion, Zeus?
Actual Steel has been a surprise hit, raking in nearly $300 million at the global box office according to Box Office Mojo, also earning an Academy Award nomination for the visual effects. It was a heck of a stone’em, sock ’em crowd pleaser — so, over a decade later, why has a sequel failed to materialize?
Real Steel’s director and star are waiting for the right script
According to Levy, the solution is refreshingly simple: quality control. During a 2016 Q&A at an IMAX screening of Real Steel hosted by Collider, the director disclosed that he, Jackman, and among the movie’s executive manufacturers (some guy named Steven Spielberg) had started kicking ideas around for a sequel before the first film was even released. After Real Steel became a box office success, many distinct screenwriters took cracks in the project — but none could make every one of the elements that Levy, Spielberg, and Jackman required come together. Specifically, the trio is determined not to only make the identical film again.
“The fact, the funniest truth I could say, is that […] it’s proven very difficult to come up with a sequel that doesn’t feel like a re-hash of this very first movie,” Levy explained. “Yeah, people wanted to watch Atom conquer Zeus, I would like to see Atom conquer Zeus, but you don’t need to retell the story of kind of an alienation between Charlie and Max because that’s the plot of the first movie.”
Levy went on to say that while each draft of this Real Steel two scripts that had been commissioned had come close, none managed to stick the landing. “We’ve attempted it a few times using some authors, and no draft obtained me, Hugh, and Steven all there to some yes in precisely the same moment,” the director said. “It felt like it was not quite enough to promise a new story and a fresh film. […] I had a bizarre experience watching it tonight since, on one hand, it felt really good to revisit an old friend, but it also reluctantly cemented my certainty that I simply shouldn’t make a sequel unless I am sure it’s going to be better.”
Real Steel 2 could answer a burning question from the first movie
It is hard to deny that this is a pretty refreshing attitude. But, Levy couldn’t resist teasing fans with what he obviously feels should be a key element of any true Steel playoffs: the question of whether Atom is, in some manner, sentient. In the realm of the movie, the battling robots are pure automatons, with zero self-awareness — but Levy revealed that in the first draft of this script, and even the first cut of the movie, it was indicated that Atom may differ in this respect.
“You know that scene in which it is pre-fight […] and Atom sees himself in the mirror? […] I’ve never actually shared this, but if the movie first came out, people were like,’ I saw Atom move! Atom moved! He certainly moved? He has consciousness?’ And I kind of fell back into this stock answer of, ‘I don’t understand. It is whatever you want to decide on your own.’ But when we shot that scene, he completely transferred. He recognizes himself.”
Further, a scene that was scripted but not shot made it plain that Atom had a degree of self-awareness. “There is a moment at which until the fifth round of the end struggle, they are like,’ We are throwing in the towel, it’s over,’ and Max and Charlie are arguing, and we see Atom in the backdrop raise his finger and provide like one more time’ gesture. In the script, you’re like,’ That is f***ing awesome! That is gonna be goosebumps! It affirms that the sentient nature of Atom.’ But when we put the picture together, it felt like […] that was one level too fairy tale for that movie.”
Exploring this angle could surely result in a far richer narrative, and one very unique from its predecessor — but until a determined writer can bring it home, Real Steel 2 will stay in the realm of speculation. We are going to be keeping an eye out for any news, and we’ll keep you advised.