What you may or may not have known is that Real Steel is (loosely) based on an old Richard Matheson (of I am Legend and The Box fame) short story that was also turned into a Twilight Zone episode. Usually Richard Matheson + Twilight Zone = Fantastic, so how does the episode entitled “Steel” hold up?
Unfortunately, Steel isn’t very “good” but it’s a fascinating watch nonetheless for one very simple reason: it stars Lee Marvin. Yes, two years before he would win the Oscar in the great offbeat western Cat Ballou, Mr. Marvin was “slumming it” in a Twilight Zone episode about washed up robot boxers.
The episode opens with Lee Marvin and his partner ushering their busted, twiggy robot off a bus and into a diner. They sit the Darth Vaderish robot down at a table and lay out the basics of what’s to come. Prize fighting between humans has been outlawed, Lee Marvin’s bot Maxo is incredibly outdated and they’re desperate for some money and a fight. Check it out:
Before they get the fight, they have to show the promoter their robot does in fact exist and can last against a robot five generations of technology more advanced. Lee Marvin shines in these scenes with his character’s desperation to get the fight (and to be recognized for his own washed up boxing career). He’s pathetic but he doesn’t know anything else.
The promoter is desperate to put on a show too and allows the aging bot to fight, but while Lee is sparring with Maxo before the fight, the bot breaks down. Without any money or spare parts, they’re in a world of trouble, backed into a corner where the only solution is for Lee Marvin to fight in its place. Yep, Lee Marvin is going to box a robot. Awesome.
But here’s the main drawback of the episode. It was made with the budget of a TV show from the 1960s. So instead of robots, we get skinny armatures hidden in robes wheeled around on roller skates until it’s time to fight, and then it’s just dudes in makeup trying to act robotic. A “turned off” robot is just a guy trying (and failing) to stand really still. And they only act robotic between the moment the robes come off and the fight begins, then it looks exactly like a normal boxing match.
Lee puts on a little makeup to look robotic and gets wheeled out to the ring to box. The match goes on for a bit and just when you start to think “maybe this will be a tale of man standing up to the robots and beating machines,” Lee Marvin gets absolutely pummeled. He gets wheeled out of the ring and left to recover/die on the cold dressing room floor while his partner gets the money for the bout. When his partner returns with a small sum of what they were promised, Lee cracks, talks to himself incessantly and presumably dies there on the cold floor when Rod Serling comes in for the final speech.
All in all, it’s a relic of its time that doesn’t quite hold up but is still somewhat charming and entertaining due to the silly premise and Lee Marvin being as great as he usually is.