Real Steel (2011)

Real Steel is a movie you don’t think you want to see and which surprises you insofar as it isn’t completely stupid. But it is still a movie about robot fights, so any good will only goes so far. Nevertheless, Hugh Jackman is always watchable (I think) despite some overly manhood mannerisms and the effects are pretty good too. The plot is mostly free of surprises while the characters are written well enough for the most part. Danny Elfman’s score is terrible, tough, which is a shame. The movie is also very much too long. This is no masterpiece by any chance, but it’s entertaining to some degree.

The film follows Charlie (Hugh Jackman) who lets robots fight against other robots, I guess. I don’t really want to get into robot fight specifics, but the overall trope used for the movie is the same trope for any fight/sports movie: the underdog wins. You know that I’m not really spoiling anything because that is what you expect for these kinds of movies. But seeing this one I thought about that trope and how that also is a contradiction to what our culture tells us all the time. What we learn is that it’s survival of the fittest and dog eat dog, which is disillusioning and puts soul-crushing pressure upon everyone. But our stories tell us that only the good guys win, the ones who really earned it, serving as comfort food to forget the terrible inequalities of our culture. Of course, most entertainment has this escapist value, but I find especially this notion so telling because those two views couldn’t be more opposites. And when Charlie, or his robot Atom, is called “the people’s winner” in the end, there is a certain tragedy to that because that term rings awfully false in our culture. Howard Zinn had to call his revolutionary book “A People’s History of the United States” to differentiate it from history we learn in school, which is not about “the people.”

Anyway, there is one scene in particular that bugged me, the emotional climax in a movie full of emotional manipulation, which I bought into to a certain level, but this particular moment seemed so wrong. Charlie wins the final fight by basically abandoning the remote control and fighting himself, making the robot ape his moves because only humans… bla bla bla. Apart from that we get a moment where Charlie is punching again and again in slow motion and his first rejected then loved son Max (Dakota Goyo, doing well for such a cliché) and his on-off-love Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, for more evidence that women have a hard time finding interesting roles) look at him proudly and tear up, seeing how he wins that fight by finding his old self again and it’s touching and upbeat and… wrong.

Look, Charlie spends most of the movie not caring about anyone, neither his son nor the woman who continues to wait for him, going out to live his macho life of arena fights. So the big revelation should not be about him finding his fighting spirit. Sure, he can be proud of himself, but to use that scene to show them feeling his emotions is a terrible way of projecting a father's and male authority’s power on children and women. In this moment (and for most of the movie), they are nothing but extras to his life, with no own agenda whatsoever. Which is not so bad because the movie mostly makes it clear that this is not how it is supposed to be. So when we get those scene in the end, it turns any judgement on his part on its head and simply celebrates him, his fighting skills, his masculinity, his awesomeness, while his loved ones, instead of getting anything out of it, just applaud him from the sidelines. This way the movie effectively puts children and women on an inferior level. They are more proud of him as the authority figure than caring about their own motivations and needs. Robot fighting is definitely less harmful than conveying this message.