Debating the best steampunk comic book or novel is almost impossible. There are just too many great options to choose from.
Debating the origins of the genre of steampunk is equally hard, but debating the very best steampunk movie ever made — perhaps the only good steampunk movie ever made — is very easy. 30 years ago this week, on May 25, 1990, Back to the Future Part III traveled back in time and used literal steam to power science fiction contraptions. It may not be your favorite film in the Back to the Future trilogy, but it's the only good movie in existence that can call itself steampunk.
Some might say Back to the Future III isn't really steampunk because true steampunk is supposed to take place in an anachronistic, alternative version of the Victorian Era, and setting your story in the Old West doesn't count. Plus, because Back to the Future III doesn't present an alternative past, but instead a "real" version of the Old West, it also doesn't really qualify as steampunk because the time travel is what caused the anachronistic tech. In other words, "real" steampunk just presents anachronistic tech and doesn't explain its presence through other science fiction plot devices like time travel.
To all that, I say bullshit. There are no other good steampunk movies, and if you try to pretend Wild Wild West is a good movie, much less, a good steampunk movie, I'm sorry, you're wrong. One of the reasons Back to the Future III is such a great science fiction film — and the only true cinematic classic of the steampunk subgenre — is that it approaches its sci-fi problems naturalistically and, yes, I'm going to say it, realistically.
Everything about the "future" presented in Back to the Future II is almost certainly an attempt at satire on the part of co-creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Arguably, Marty and Doc don't travel into any kind of realistic future, because the entirety of the faux-2015 is so clearly designed to mimic and mock pre-existing science fiction. Flying cars and weather that is magically controlled by some mysterious service aren't meant to be taken seriously.
These movies are, first and foremost, comedies, and the proof is that nearly nothing about the technology, or rate of technological advancement in Back to the Future II makes any sense. Remember when Marty shows the kids of the future how good he is at the arcade game with the plastic six-shooter? Remember what one of the kids (a very young Elijah Wood) says? It's this: "You have to use your hands? It's like a baby's toy." This implies the level of future tech in Back to the Future II is so advanced that little kids are used to what — telepathic video games?
The point is, Back to the Future couldn't have sustained this kind of thing in the third sequel, because the credibility of the premise would have gotten too ridiculous, which is saying a lot considering the entirety of these films rests on our belief in something called "the Flux capacitor." Still, Back to the Future needed to remove some of its easy tech fixes in the final sequel, which is why putting the Delorean on a train track is totally brilliant.
When I was a kid, I thought this was lame. In the previous film, the Delorean was a flying car. Now, it's so broken down it needs a train to push it?
But, as an adult, I love this. One of the greatest revelations in the film is when Doc tells Marty that the time machine doesn't run on trash or lightning or plutonium, it runs on gasoline. Doc needed the fancy stuff to make the Flux capacitor work, but the car itself runs the way a regular car runs.
By putting Doc and Marty in 1885, Back to the Future III throttles their tech and makes them reverse-engineer everything in a way that feels more feasible than anything in the previous film. Doc recreating a miniaturized circuit out of parts found in 1885 is the microcosm for all of this — something that we take for granted and can hold between two fingers would be like the size of four shoeboxes in the Old West.
The climax of the film, in some ways, is the ultimate steampunk plot, mostly because steam itself is what ends up powering the Delorean's trip back through time. When the Delorean does arrive in the present, a train, another old piece of technology is what destroys it. Of course, another time machine quickly takes its place as Doc rolls-up with his tricked-out hover-train at the very end.
The Delorean in Back to the Future was the ultimate cool '80s time travel car, but Doc's train at the end of Back to the Future III is oddly more practical, or, at the very least, can allow Doc to travel between more decades without arousing too much suspicion. It's not as cool as the Delorean, but by the time he meets Clara and has two kids (when did that happen?) Doc doesn't care about being cool.
And that's exactly why Back to the Future III is the greatest steampunk thing of all time. It looks like steampunk. It feels like steampunk. And it really doesn't care what you think.
Back to the Future III is streaming now on Netflix.