REAL STEEL: Battling Maxo to MMA to Max
by Gene Ching
The topic of MMA is broached in REAL STEEL at an ironic moment for the film. While scavenging for recyclables, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) explains to his son Max (Dakota Goyo) how MMA evolved into robot boxing. According to Charlie, MMA peaked when the fight fans demanded more carnage, something human cage fighters could not provide. The explanation is a nod to pop culture in 2011, an acknowledgement of the sweeping popularity of MMA, albeit slightly disdainful, just like the passing mention of kung fu in the first robot fight scene. In this fictional backstory, audience appetites moved from carnage to wreckage, from flesh and bone to REAL STEEL.
It's ironic because REAL STEEL itself is recycled. It began as the short story "Steel," written by Richard Matheson for Fantasy & Science Fiction in May 1956. Matheson, a prominent American author and screenwriter of science fiction, fantasy and horror, has had several of his classic tales transformed into films including THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1978) and I AM LEGEND (2007 - note that two other films, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) and THE OMEGA MAN (1971), were also based on the same novel). "Steel" was previously adapted for television for THE TWILIGHT ZONE in an episode that was televised on October 1963. That adaptation is fairly loyal to the original. It starred the great Lee Marvin as Tim 'Steel' Kelly, the owner of an obsolete B-two boxing robot named Battling Maxo, hoping for one last shot in a world dominated by B-seven model boxing robots. Maxo is more than a robot. He's an android, built to look human. This is a key difference between the original and REAL STEEL, because when Maxo fails, Steel steps in to impersonate the bot. There's a nod to that too in REAL STEEL, but
Charlie doesn't risk his skin in near the same way.
Matheson's story explores themes of man versus machine, of outmoded technology, and - most notably - of the sacrifices made by professional fighters. One must remember the times to give these earlier versions context. In both the original story and THE TWILIGHT ZONE version, Battling Maxo runs on tubes. Explain vacuum tubes to today's iPad user. Matheson's original story never offers a clear explanation for the existence of robot boxing. For all the reader knows, human boxing might still exist in his fictional world. Steel is more of a character study in obsession, as well as the inhumanity of the fight business towards losers.
It was Rod Serling, the genius behind THE TWILIGHT ZONE, who fills that gap some seven years later. In his signature opening narration, Serling states, "Only these automatons have been permitted in the ring since prizefighting was legally abolished in 1968." The episode is set in 1974, which was over a decade in the future when that episode was first telecast. Serling's short sentence sets the stage for Charlie's explanation while recycling in REAL STEEL.
Serling's comment was surely in reaction to the death of boxer Davey Moore. Davey Moore had a record of 22-5-1. On March 21, 1963, just seven months prior to THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode, Davey Moore faced Sugar Ramos in a nationally televised bout at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Moore suffered a 10th round knockout and lost. He gave a coherent interview before leaving the ring, and then collapsed into a coma in his dressing room. He died a few days later. The incident touched the heartstrings of America. Boxing was already under national scrutiny from the death of boxer Kid Paret a year earlier in another televised fight that ended tragically. Both deaths fueled a movement to ban boxing in America. Moore's death was immortalized by Bob Dylan in the song, Who Killed Davey Moore? Dylan's poignant lyrics express the denial of all the participants with the chorus, "It wasn't me that made him fall. No, you can't blame me at all. Who killed Davey Moore? Why an' what's the reason for?"
So while MMA today has its share of detractors, it's nothing like it was back in the '60s. Safety standards and medical intervention have vastly improved since those boxing fatalities. While there have been a few MMA-related deaths, they have not been center stage like those boxing matches nearly half a century ago. Just like the television coverage of the Vietnam War, today's wars are toned down for American TV. It seems we Americans are more comfortable watching fake cadavers in police procedural shows then real ones piling up in the world around us. Today, it would be impossible for any program to grab national attention like television in the early '60s. There were only a few television stations back then, a far cry from what we have now, not to mention all the programming available on the internet today. It was a time of far fewer media platforms and, consequently, fewer distractions.
Nevertheless, there is an intriguing distinction between Charlie Kenton's explanation of the rise of World Robot Boxing and Serling's narration. In a chilling comment on our present-day zeitgeist, REAL STEEL imagines the shift from human cockfighting to battling robots to be driven more by the audience's blood lust than a national aversion to fatal entertainment. Rather stereotypically, robot boxing audiences are depicted as ravenous and carnal, just like in so many underground fight club flicks going back to BLOODSPORT (1988). In truth, MMA fans are no more voracious than any other group of sports fans. It's a dated motif, as the establishment of MMA has eradicated the need for illegal fight clubs. Today, the notion of underground fight-to-the-death clubs is absurd. Why would anyone risk murder charges when there's now legal ways to promote hardcore fights that are safe and profitable? Clearly, filmmakers are out of touch with the MMA phenomena, including those filmmakers coming from the martial arts circles, with the possible exception of a few like WARRIOR (2011).
That being said, REAL STEEL is fairly innocuous when it comes to violence. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard served as a advisor on the film and coached Jackman on how to look like a former boxer, but the robot boxing choreography is mostly cartoonish, all computer-generation animation, more akin to TRANSFORMERS (2007) than MMA. In fact, the rules of the robot fight game are never really clear. In the early fights, including one against a bull ala Mas Oyama, the fights are more no-holds-barred. This lends more credence to Kenton's MMA to Robot Boxing explanation. But once their fighting robot makes it into the World Robot Boxing league, the fights revert to straight-up stand-up boxing. Why audiences might prefer robots to humans in boxing is not apparent, as it somewhat invalidates the explanation Charlie made while recycling earlier, but it hardly matters as the film is character-driven, not strictly an action film. It's certainly not a point to overthink for this film.
REAL STEEL is directed by Shawn Levy, who brought us such family fare as NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006) and THE PINK PANTHER (2006 - the remake starring Steve Martin). Steven Spielberg is the executive producer (coincidentally Spielberg's first film DUEL (1971) was also based on a Richard Matheson short that was published that same year in Playboy). REAL STEEL has a very Spielbergian tone - emphasis on family bonding and redemption with a plucky kid who knows better than any adult. Jackman's Kenton is a cad, a father who abandoned his family in search of his championship dreams. Matheson's original alludes to Steel doing something similar with the quick line, "Just before - Marge and me…" In the fine art of short story, those five words and an ellipsis are enough to tell volumes. In film, Kenton's failure as a father is revisited with every scene, driven home by his former coach's faithful daughter Bailey (portrayed by the stunning and no-longer-LOST Evangeline Lilly), his rich sister-in-law, and, of course, Max. And yet Jackson gives Charlie such down-under charm that he is quickly forgiven. Charlie winds up playing second fiddle to the audacious wit of his son, Max. Not to be confused with Maxo, Goyo's portrayal of Max is as charismatic as any kid in an early '80s Spielberg film. He can tear up his huge puppy-dog eyes at the appropriate times, which is all that's really needed to gain sympathy and move the story forward. The father and son dynamics, which would realistically be fraught with dysfunctional tension, is played for laughs.
And it works on that level. REAL STEEL is a lighthearted, feel-good, family film. It borrows heavily from some classic boxing films like ROCKY (1976) and THE CHAMP (1931, remake 1979). Much hinges on Goyo, whose precociousness shines enough to obscure the absurdities of the story arc. The robot fights, and the reasons for them, only serve as backdrop to a redemption tale between a father and son. Frankly, the critiques within this review are nitpicky, as one might expect from a narrow martial perspective. In the final analysis, REAL STEEL is a very entertaining movie.
There are no deep lessons here, no metaphors about the inhumanity of fight sports or the victims of obsolete technology. If you want that sort of thought provocation, go back and read Matheson's original works. If anything is to be read into REAL STEEL, it's that movies, boxing and MMA are all just entertainment. The most overt messages are the strategically-placed products, such as Dr Pepper. After all, this is a Disney film, and Walt was the master at synergy in marketing. Surely no one wants to see people get killed for our bread and circuses. And today, movies have the luxury of replacing stuntmen CGI animation in most major films. Remember the tragic deaths in filming THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983)? In REAL STEEL, those stuntmen just happen to be CGI robots. It's a far cry from an MMA cage, but for selling Dr Pepper, perhaps that's how it should be.
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