What's popular on Netflix can shift from hour to hour. Sometimes movies stick around for no apparent reason, like when South Korean animated film The Nut Job was in the top ten for several weeks. Tastes shift and change, but sometimes they can shed light on hidden gems, like this 2011 dystopian short story adaptation, now sitting at the number-four spot on the Netflix top ten. Here's why you should give this underappreciated sci-fi movie a chance.
Real Steel is a 2011 family-friendly sci-fi romp that stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who began controlling robot boxers in underground fights. If that sounds familiar, the short story it was based on, "Steel" by Richard Matheson, was also adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone with the same name.
Real Steel takes this classic sci-fi premise and combines it with the best tropes of the other genres it takes from. It's a boxing movie, so there are training montages, high stakes bets, and evil rivals. However, it's also a family movie, with Charlie forced to temporarily take care of his estranged 11-year-old son, Max. On top of both of those, the film throws in sci-fi user interfaces, robots, and technology.
Like most movies involving someone thrust into parenting, there's a beautiful story about learning to forgive yourself and letting yourself love, and there are also epic fights between robots. Calling this movie genre-bending would be an understatement. It's more like a combination of all the best parts of every genre.
Beyond the mish-mash of the story, there's the all-star cast, many of whom will be familiar faces to Marvel fans. Aside from Hugh Jackman at the peak of the Wolverine phase of his career before he became the go-to male lead for movie musicals, the Falcon, aka Anthony Mackie, makes an appearance as a bookie, and Charlie's love interest is played by the Wasp, Evangeline Lilly.
It doesn't stop there. In a weird parallel, Kevin Durand, who played mutant-turned-boxer Fred Dukes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, plays the owner of a livestock fighting ring, and Max's aunt is played by Maria Stark from Captain America: Civil War. Even young Dakota Goyo, whose performance as young prodigy Max brings to mind Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace, played a young Thor in Thor.
With that level of past and future Marvel talent on its call sheet, it's hard to go wrong. But Real Steel doesn't use its actors like a crutch. They're given a genuinely heartwarming story that does fit the standard family drama formula, but in a way that's comforting.
Then there are the robot fights. "Steel," the short story, is one of those tales that needed technology to catch up to it before it could be given the adaptation it deserved. Real Steel feels like that adaptation. Maybe the CGI has already become dated, but the combination of CGI motion and practical props give the robot some genuine life, even though it isn't sentient.
Real Steel is a chameleon of a movie. It's the story of a man learning how to be a fighter, it's the story of a young boy making his BattleBots fantasy a reality, it's the story of vintage technology conquering AI, it's the story of humans casting aside boxing for more brutal combat. That's what makes it perfect for watching with multiple people: everyone will have their own view of what genre of movie it is.
Real Steel is now streaming on Netflix.