In the late 90s, Mattel was looking to create a new action figure line inspired by the adventures of James Bond, but aimed towards young kids. Ultimately, the new figure line ended up being a retooled version of Mattel’s Big Jim action figure from the 1970s. Big Jim was inspired by the original G.I. Joe action figure, standing a full two inches shorter in comparison and featuring a karate chop action and a variety of outfits and vehicles for sports, space exploration, hunting and other situations. Big Jim was marketed in Latin America as Kid Acero (or “Kid Steel”) and in Europe as Mark Strong. In the 1980s, Big Jim was converted to James Bond, Agent 007 until the line ultimately ended.
Mattel’s new line was called Max Steel, which centered around teenaged Josh McGrath whose body was infused with super Nano-Technology, or N-TEK, which gave him superhuman physical attributes and turned him into the super-agent Max Steel. He worked for a secret global security force and protected the world from a variety of threats. As with Big Jim, Max was released with a variety of outfits and vehicles inspired by extreme sports, such as mountain climbing, surfing or skiing, but also came with various military or combat-related attire. Amongst the line’s villains were Psycho, a fiend with a dangerous bionic arm and face that could be hidden by a flesh-like mask; the snake-man Bio-Constrictor; and Vitriol, who had light-up energy attack arms. The toys launched in 1999 with a 16-page introductory mini-comic published by Mattel that discussed Max’s abilities from the perspective of both the good guys and the villains.
|Max in Turbo mode.|
To help promote the toys, Mattel partnered with Sony/TriStar television’s Adelaide Productions to produce an animated series featuring the characters. The series was developed by Greg Weisman and Jeff Kline, which centered on 19-year-old extreme sports star Josh McGrath (Christian Campbell, Matthew Kaminsky for two episodes). Josh was an orphan who was adopted by his father’s best friend and partner, Jefferson Smith (Chi McBride), who secretly worked for a counter-intelligence agency known as N-Tek. N-Tek created sports equipment as a public front. When Psycho (Keith Szarabaika) attacked the facility while Josh was visiting, Josh was injured and exposed to a swarm of microscopic nanomachines called Nano-Tech Max. The nanites began breaking down and killing Josh, until he was given a dose of transphasic energy, or T-Juice, which the nanites needed to function. The nanites bonded with Josh, making him able to turn invisible or alter his appearance, and allowed him to “Go Turbo” with the aid of a wrist device giving him super strength, speed and agility. With these new abilities, Josh joined N-Tek and adopted the code name Max Steel.
|Jefferson addressing Max and Roberto.|
Along with Jefferson, Max’s team was composed of Dr. Roberto Martinez (Jacob Vargas), a teenaged genius who provided equipment and technical support from the base; Rachel Leeds (Shannon Kenny), Max’s partner who worked with him in the field while also training him to be an N-Tek agent; Jean Mariot (Szarabajka using a French accent), second-in-command under Jefferson who was the head of operations and showed faith in Max’s abilities even when Max didn’t; and Charles Marshak (Ed Asner), a division chief who was in charge of the flying fortress Behemoth that served as Max’s mobile base. Outside of N-Tek, Josh had his girlfriend, Laura Chen (Lauren Tom), and his best friend, Pete Costas (Thomas F. Wilson). Josh’s relationship with both of them became strained as Max’s exploits gradually began taking over more of his life, although Pete was eventually let in on the secret and joined in on several missions.
|Max vs. Psycho.|
N-Tek’s primary enemy was DREAD, an evil organization led by the calculating and brilliant John Dread (Martin Jarvis). Along with Psycho and Vitriol (August Paro), DREAD employed the likes of L’Etranger (John de Lancie), a mercenary terrorist who was essentially an electrical weapon, and Dragonelle (Mia Korf), who could mimic the actions and appearance of anyone she encountered. Other foes included Woody Barkowski (Jeff Bennett), who believed N-Tek sold him a faulty bike that caused him to break his leg and end his sports career, and considered himself Max’s arch-nemesis (Max disagreed); his sister, Annabelle (Susan Eisenberg), who was mutated by a lab accident into the energy vampire Elextrix; Bio-Constrictor (René Auberjonois), a scientist who was injected with electrified snake venom that turned him into a half-reptile mutant; Lance Breamer, the self-proclaimed “King of the sky” who became an air pirate; and several jilted inventors and people with connections to the sports world who turned to illegal activities for various selfish reasons.
Max Steel debuted on the Kids’ WB! programming block on February 26, 2000, becoming the first fully computer animated program on the block and lasting three seasons. The series was written by Weisman with Lydia Marano, Jon Weisman, Michael Reaves, Kevin Hopps, Mike Ryan, Katherine Fugate, Cary Bates, Gary Sperling, Tom Pugsley, Greg Klein, Steven Melching, Tony Schillaci, David Slack, Dan Perry, Marsha F. Griffin and Andrew Robinson. The music was composed by Jim Latham and Nathan Furst, with Latham also composing the theme. Initially, the series was animated by Netter Digital Animation utilizing motion capture actors. After producing the first season, Netter went bankrupt and production moved over to Foundation Imaging for the second season. However, Foundation also went bankrupt and production was moved once again to Mainframe Entertainment, makers of the first fully computer animated program, ReBoot.
|Roberto, Jefferson, Max and Kat.|
Because of the similarities to the Big Jim line, it was worked into the show that Jim was actually Max’s father, and that Jefferson was based on the Big Jeff variant. After the first season, Charles Marshak and Jean Mariot no longer appeared. Mariot was revealed to have been an agent of DREAD and was seemingly killed in an explosion in the season finale. Weisman planned to bring Mariot back as a triple agent, but those plans were abandoned with his departure from the show. Rachel was promoted at the start of season 2 and replaced by Kat Ryan (Debi Mae West) as Max’s new partner. The cast was further streamlined in season 3 with Laura and Pete being written out and Vitriol replacing Dread as the main villain. The third season also saw N-Tek shut down after events of the prior season and the characters becoming extreme sports stars. In keeping with the theme, several real-life sports stars had guest appearances on the show: pro skateboarder Tony Hawk, BMX rider Mat Hoffman, hockey player Luc Robitaille, basketball player-turned-actor Rick Fox, and Motocross/Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the word “terrorist” was filtered out of some episodes and figure packaging in the “Urban Siege” series were revamped to remove “Secret Mission” Cards that contained stories about terrorist attacks on American soil.
|Max vs. the four Elementors.|
Despite the initial success of the toyline, sales in the North American market slumped while Latin America continued to thrive. Mattel decided to end the show and focus their efforts on those markets with a series of direct-to-video movies. Mattel and Mainframe began producing them in 2004 and they were available as bonus gifts with the purchase of other products, as well as a showcase of the products themselves. The first, Endangered Species, was the only one to maintain continuity with the show. While each additional film built on the first’s story, facts established about Max’s creation and N-Tek differed; such as the inclusion of an isotope called Elementium being embedded in Max to help his survival of the nanites. Elementium would become a driving force behind the films’ new primary foe, Elementor (Scott McNeil). Max’s alter ego was also phased out, leaving him as Max 24/7. To help keep Max in the public consciousness and to provide background to the new continuity, a series of 1-minute mini clips called Max Steel’s Turbo Missions ran from 2008-11. While Campbell continued on as Max, McBride was replaced by McNeil, Vargas by Alessandro Juliani, and West by first Meghan Black and then Leisa Ann Beley.
The episodes “Strangers”, “Snowblind”, “Sphinxes” and “Old Friend, New Enemy” were released onto VHS tapes that were included with various action figures. The complete first season was released to DVD across two volumes and a collected edition by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. In 2001, Treyarch developed a Max Steel video game released by Mattel Interactive for the Sega Dreamcast. Max Steel: Covert Missions saw Max having to stop DREAD’s new bio-weapon from ravaging the world. The game utilized the series’ opening titles, however only Campbell returned to voice his character. A version for the Game Boy Advance was planned, but ultimately cancelled. While there was originally a visual disparity between the toys and the show due to both being developed at the same time, the toys gradually fell more in line to the style featured in the program. However, outside of variations of Max and the main male villains, no other character was ever released; most notably none of the very prominent female characters, as it was a toyline marketed towards boys.
The movies and toyline wrapped-up in 2012 to make way for a reboot of the franchise. Mattel partnered with Playground Productions, Nerd Corps Entertainment, and FreemantleMedia Kids & Entertainment to create a new Max Steel cartoon to usher in the new toyline. Airing on Cartoon Network and Disney XD, the series saw Maxwell “Max” McGrath (Andrew Francis), a Tachyon-Human Hybrid able to generate TURBO energy, join N-Tek and merge with a friendly technology-based alien named Steel (Sam Vincent) that helped him control his powers. A live-action film version of the reboot written by Christopher L. Yost and directed by Stewart Hendler was released by Open Road Films on October 14, 2016, and was a critical and commercial failure.