The superficial teenage science-fiction superhero saga “Max Steel” (* OUT OF ****) belongs at the bottom of a scrap heap. The Mattel Toy Company created its ‘turbo-charged’ children’s action figure back in 1997, and the company promoted this toy as the protagonist in an animated television series in 2000. Later, they produced nine direct-to-video Max Steel movies, and eventually launched another series on the Disney Channel in 2013. Not surprisingly, Mattel developed this big-screen feature as an ‘origins’ epic with an inevitable franchise to follow. Unfortunately for Mattel, “Max Steel” melted down during its first weekend in theatrical release. This generic, 92-minute, PG-13 rated opus coined less than three million dollars in box office receipts at over two-thousand screens across the country. You’d think that Mattel would have shown greater creativity for their potential franchise. Instead, “Sorority Row” director Stewart Hendler and “Thor: The Dark World” scenarist Christopher Yost have cribbed shamelessly from Marvel’s first live-action “Iron Man” movie with Robert Downey Jr., for the bulk of their imitative plot. The formula is so synthetic that “Max Steel” sacrifices any sense of narrative spontaneity. In short, no surprises enhance this movie. You know that Andy Garcia is the villain long before he slips into his own sinister, bad guy, outfit. Afterward, Garcia’s villain goes toe-to-toe with our sixteen-year-old, high school hero who is the son of a scientist that apparently died when a tornado struck his laboratory and killed him. Little about the Max Steel hero is singular. He has been forged from the crucible of countless other heroes right down to his widowed, single mom who only wants to shield him from any form of adversity. Naturally, Max has the typical, standard-issue girlfriend so no doubts are raised about his status quo heterosexuality. Finally, like every teen movie protagonist, Max performs his heroic feats—contending with enigmatic alien invaders that use the weather as their arsenal of weapons– with the aid of a sidekick. In this instance, the sidekick isn’t a loyal canine, but a one-eyed extra-terrestrial robot named Steel that classifies itself as “parasitic, silicon-based lifeform” and resembles an airborne crab.
Max McGrath (Ben Winchell of “The Last of Robin Hood”) is a theoretically interesting teenager. Here is a kid who knows nothing about his late father and has even less of an idea where he fits into the general scheme of things. Although teenagers find themselves struggling to deal with their emotions and their goals after the onset of puberty, Max experiences even greater trials and tribulations. He has the mysterious ability to generate his own source of energy that can make electronic appliances malfunction for no apparent reason. He can blow fuses with his fingertips, shut down smartphones, and trigger vending machines to catapult their inventory. Meanwhile, Max’s caring and conscientious mother, Molly (Maria Bello of “Coyote Ugly”), has contributed to his sense of confusion. She has been moving Max around from one town to another because she fears the aliens that killed her husband will target her son. As the plot unfolds, Molly takes Max back to their hometown where her husband, Jim McGrath (Mike Doyle of “Green Lantern”), perished under puzzling circumstances. Worse, she evades Max’s questions about Jim. Invariably, Molly introduces Max to his late father’s partner, Dr. Miles Edwards (Andy Garcia of “Ghostbusters”), who admired Jim. Molly thinks Dr. Edwards may help Max understand what happens. Little does she realize that Edwards is the last man with whom Max should associate. As it turns out, Edwards has defected to the murderous aliens that killed Max’s father and he wants to exploit Max.
Eventually, Max encounters Steel, and the two take a while to bond, because Max doesn’t totally trust this wisecracking alien drone. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Steel convinces Max they would make an invincible team if they worked together. Max and Steel smash the lock on the gate of the deserted N-tek factory where Max’s father died and prowl the property. In the privacy of this factory, the two discover that they are capable of some rather extraordinary feats when they combine their strengths. Max acquires super-strength, with energy radiating from his body, beneath head-to-toe body armor that enables him to soar like Iron Man. Technically, the title character emerges when Max and Steel cooperate with each other to fight aliens that take the form of tornadoes. Chiefly, director Stewart Hendler and scenarist Christopher Yost use Steel (voiced by Josh Brener of “The Internship”) as comic relief to offset their largely leaden hero who lacks a sense of humor. Meanwhile, Max has a habit of making an absolute buffoon out of himself that endears him to his brunette girlfriend, Sofia Martinez (Ana Villafañe of “Magic City Memoirs’), who isn’t sure what to make of his strange behavior. The first few times that they cross each other’s paths, Max is pedaling a bicycle and desperately trying to avoid from colliding with Sofia who knocks around in a huge jeep that she restored with her father.
Apparently, Mattel cast Ben Winchell because the tall, clean-cut, young actor bears a striking resemblance to “Superman” star Henry Cavill. Sadly, Winchell lacks Cavil’s charisma. The filmmakers don’t give Winchell adequate opportunities to display his superhero skills or suit. Maria Bello and Andy Garcia deliver strong performances respectively as Max’s mom and Max’s nemesis. The best thing about “Max Steel” is the seamless way the special effects have been integrated into the second-rate shenanigans during the latter half of the action. Nevertheless, little else distinguishes this uninspired superhero spectacle. Ultimately, “Max Steel” neither surprises us with its clichéd, predictable plot nor attracts us to its cardboard characters. Concluding the film with a whimper, Mattel hints at the possibility of a sequel, but the toy maker doesn’t provide a cliffhanger ending to whet our appetite for such a prospect. Consequently, most people who see “Max Steel” will probably catch it when it appears on home video rather than in theaters.