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Josh McGrath is a 19 year-old extreme sports star whose adopted father works at the sports equipment manufacturing company N-Tek. It turns out this is a front for a counterintelligence agency, so when Josh makes an unscheduled visit during an attack on the facility by terrorists, he finds himself caught in the crossfire and present at an honest-to-god Freak Lab Accident - his body is infested with "Max Nanoprobes", experimental Nanomachines, leaving him on the verge of death. Teen Genius Roberto "'Berto" Martinez realizes that the probes have integrated with his body and become symbiotic - he is dying because they are running out of power. He is thus able to save Josh's life by infusing his body with the probes' specialized power source, Trans-Phasic Energy (colloquially T-Juice). Afterward, it is discovered that the accident has given him numerous superpowers; superhuman strength, speed, stamina, senses, and the ability to become invisible. Realizing that these powers plus his extreme sports experience make him an ideal secret agent, Josh creates a Secret Identity - an older, brown-haired version of himself he calls "Max Steel." The series begins with a much less detailed explanation.
Max Steel was a very Merchandise-Driven, CG-animated Saturday Morning Cartoon series which ran from 2000 to 2002. At its heart a spy show, with outrageous villains and plots at times straining believability, the ever-Genre Savvy main character's commentary often put the series in Affectionate Parody territory. In spite of its silliness, however, the show had well-defined characters, unusually complex plots, and was surprisingly dialogue-heavy for a show of its demographic. Aside from this it has a dark, realistic animation style and a few genuine instances of Nightmare Fuel, and all together it turned out to be a surprisingly good show.
Trying to avoid the Nostalgia Filter here; the show was pretty much forgotten after it aired, and so the only reviews you'll find are by people who were around 12 when the show came out. It doesn't seem to have a particularly big fanbase.
After six episodes of season 1, the company making it went bankrupt and the series went over to another company, with a marked improvement in the animation quality. After season 2, they were shut down too and so season 3 was made by Mainframe Entertainment, AKA the people who did Re Boot and Beast Wars. Season 3 also saw a move from broadcast TV to Cartoon Network; the plot went in a different direction, although the basic formula of every episode remained untouched and They Changed It, Now It Sucks seems largely avoided in the aforementioned small fanbase. Mainframe seemed to have an extremely low budget for the project as evidenced by many bit characters being 'portrayed' by the CGI models of larger characters from earlier seasons, sometimes to the point of mooks looking suspiciously identical to the first season's one-off villains. As well, the series finale is a Clip Show. After Season 3, a series of made-for-TV movies were released. Currently the show is in the midst of a Revival/ Retcon in Latin America.
The show can be seen on YouTube.
Not to be confused with "Maxx Steele", head of the Robo Force (a short-lived line of suction-cup equipped robotic action figures created by Ideal in the mid-80's). A commercial can be seen here, and a Ruby-Spears animated One-Episode Wonder is viewable starting here.
Max Steel provides examples of:
- Aborted Arc: During "Truth be Told," real-life athlete Jeremy McGrath is let in on Josh's secret double-life as a superpowered vigilante, and it's implied he'll discreetly spread the word out to a few others in his circle of friends/competitors who might be interested in helping the heroes save the day on occasion. "Truth be Told" being the series finale, nothing comes of it.
- Likewise, the uncanny resemblance between Jefferson's predecessor at N-Tek, Marco Nathanson, and John Dread. Greg Weisman said that this was supposed to be a Red Herring. In a case of behind-the-scenes Retcon, other producers after he left said they considered it to be exactly what it looked like. Neither interpretation is ever followed up on.
- Animation Bump: Happens mid-season 1. For the first couple of episodes, framerate, textures and character movements were much more static. As it went on however, they improved all of these, as well as using improved lighting and shadow techniques. This is due to the later episodes being animated by a new company.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The writers had fun with this one, combined with Poirot Speak. When Dread tries to impersonate Roberto, he manages to use the Mexican "Amigo" rather than the universally Spanish "Hombre."
- Applied Phlebotinum: The nanoprobes, Infinity Ice.
- Body Horror: Biocon.
- Boobs of Steel: Rachel and Kat are among the toughest N-Tek agents next to Max. Rachel in particular, has quite the well developed rack.
- Bond One-Liner: Many," some genuinely clever, others not so much.
- Bond Villain Stupidity: Notably averted on many occasions. The heroes are just better fighters and tacticians.
- Bridge Bunnies: L'Etranger's submarine is crewed entirely by women in form-fitting armor.
- The Cameo: Tony Hawk, Jeremy McGrath, and Matt Hoffman as themselves in Xtreme Sport Xcuse Plot episodes. Dizzy and Carmen from Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles also cameo as students in one episode.
- Canon Dis Continuity: The made-for-TV films ignore the backstory that Max Steel was Josh McGrath completely. Then again, some of the fanbase like to think those films never happened either.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Psycho.
- Chewing the Scenery: Psycho will be cool, collected and creepily calm one minute, and be the largest ham ever the next.
- Convection, Schmonvection: The lava is only dangerous when someone's touching it.
- Cool Plane: The Hawk, and to a lesser extent, the Behemoth.
- Disney Death: John Dread at the end of season 1. Psycho goes through a lot of these, to the point where both he and Max lampshade it. Taken to its absurd extreme when Psycho is thrown into space with no means of stopping his inertia or changing direction, to say nothing of re-entering the atmosphere without burning up and landing without going splat, but comes back a few episodes later.
- Does Not Understand Sarcasm: When a cargo freighter carrying a shipment of bananas (and a secret shipment of plutonium) was sunk, Marshak commented that: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to save that fruit!". Roberto then butts in about the plutonium, thinking he was serious. Cue a disgruntled look from Marshak as Roberto realizes how foolish that was.
- Dueling Shows: With the 2000 CGI reboot of Action Man; ironically would be picked up by that show's studio, Mainframe Entertainment, for Season 3.
- Early-Bird Cameo: A minor example. Kat (episode three) and Electrix (episode four) appear in the credits from the first episode of season two.
- Evil Brit: Dread's accent is subtle and hard to place, but it seems vaguely British.
- Executive Meddling
- Fake Nationality: Pennsylvania-born John De Lancie as French mercenary L'Etranger. He's the only one who bothers even trying to pronounce his character's name correctly; everyone else anglicizes it into a hard-sounding "LAY-tron-JAY."
- Fallen Hero: Toxzon, from the movies.
- Frickin' Laser Beams: Actual guns (with bullets) are seen in an early season one episode, but the vast majority of weapons are laser-based.
- Genre Savvy: a significant source of the show's humor comes from Max being this.
- Psycho ventured into this sometimes, though never quite enough to save him.
L'Etanger: I believe we now have our obligatory fight to the finish.
Max Steel: Glad you know the rules!
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Quite a few innuendos. Also L'Etranger, see Nightmare Fuel.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Played straight with Dread's burned face.
- Hammerspace: A lot of items appear in a person's hand while they were off-screen.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Had its fair share:
- Implacable Man: Max himself is far more durable than normal humans, especially prevalent when he goes up against small-time thugs instead of his usual rogues gallery. L'Etranger as well, who can somehow go toe-to-toe with Max without breaking a sweat despite having no visible augmentations. Berto drowning him in "Fun in the Sun" seems rather brutal until you remember a previous episode showed him breathing underwater with no gear. Lampshaded:
Max Steel: No way you can be that strong!
L'Etranger: Stranger still, neither can you!
- In a Single Bound: Justified by Max having super powers, Psycho by being a cyborb.
- Lampshade Hanging: Mostly because of Max's Genre Savvy, above.
- Mana: Max's nanoprobes run on Transphasic energy; it seems capable of powering mechanical devices without actually following a constructed electric circuit, but burns up quickly.
- Moral Guardians: The bizarre way Max's powers are re-tooled in the made-for-TV movies happened because of complaints that the original mechanics, with Max able to enter a consequence-free super-powered mode at will, glorified drug abuse in athletics. The 'consequence-free' part would sound strange to anyone who actually paid attention to the show; it's demonstrated more than once that Max expends a great deal of the energy he needs to survive whenever he does this. Taking these details into account, the analogy is closer to "performance enhancers will kill you," and season 3 isn't even subtle about it as it becomes a larger problem.
- A less successful protest came from the idea that Psycho glorifies the stigma towards those with actual mental diseases/autism, encouraging the idea that all people with even minor but real issues fit the psychotic Axe Crazy stereotype. Ironically, Psycho then became the most-seen villain for season three; it's likely that production was already done when the letters were sent, rather than an intentional Take That.
- The Mole: During season 1, it becomes apparent that there is a traitor amongst N-Tek. It's Mairot. According to Word of God, the traitor was originally intended to be a double-agent, but it was never followed through on.
- Not the Fall That Kills You: Quite often people are shown falling and hitting the ground or a stable object hard. Partially Justified for Max (it's likely that the probes can compensate), but your average sports athlete hitting water from what looks like a good fifteen storeys at near or actual terminal velocity and coming out with no injuries? Especially when they deliberately go from a splayed-put position to feet-first.
- Obviously Evil: Psycho
- The Other Darrin: Most of the original voice actors don't make the transition to the made-for-TV movies, the most egregious being Jefferson and Psycho, who don't even have sound-alikes. In season three of the show, Max himself is switched off on between his normal voice-actor and someone else repeatedly, but it's pretty hard to notice.
- Parental Substitute: Jefferson Smith adopted Josh after his real parents died, and both treat each other like they really were father and son.
- Power Incontinence: When Josh first gets the nanoprobes, he can't turn off the super-strength and breaks doors accidentally, with "Max Steel" simply being a disguise instead of a powered-up mode. This leads him to quit his sports career early on since it gives him an unfair advantage and his events become curb stomps from the other competitors' points of view, giving him no satisfaction or sense of accomplishment. At some point, he learns to overcome this problem off-screen, and resumes competing after N-Tek's espionage division is shut down.
- Psycho for Hire: Psycho, obviously. To a lesser extent, most of the rogues gallery after John Dread stops employing them.
- Case in point, this exchange from an episode where Psycho threatens to unleash The Plague:
Jefferson: You drop that and we all die!
Psycho: And yet, I don't seem to care. Must be why they call me PSYCHO!
- Public Domain Soundtrack: No too often, but one Sword Fight with a zombie pirate had a hilariously sped-up version of the Funeral March playing as background music.
- Put on a Bus: Rachel, Max's former partner, was promoted early in season 2 and left the series to make way for his new partner, Kat. Turned out to be a Long Bus Trip as she was never seen again afterwards.
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Villain Bioconstrictor had a body composed entirely of snakes.
- Retool: As season three opens, we see that the government is less than pleased with the way N-Tek dropped the ball in the second season finale, and forces Jefferson to close down the espionage division. Josh, Kat and Berto become legit competitors on the sports circuit, sponsored by N-Tek's legit public front while fighting crime on their own time. It's actually somewhat odd, as season three clearly suffers from budget problems and the loss of the previous status quo required new CGI assets to be made, while ensuring several previously re-usable assets like the N-Tek sets had to be dropped.
- Robot Buddy: Cytro, from the movies.
- Russians With Rusting Rockets: L'Etranger's submarine, the Akina, is Russian surplus.
- Scooby-Doo Hoax: "Sphinxes". The heroes investigate a pyramid and after discovering the hoax, Genre Savvy Ascended Fanboy Max reports that it's a "Scooby Doo" and explains what he means to his Stuffy British partner.
Max: Since when do ancient Egyptian death gods have jaws that clank when you hit them? It's all classic Scooby-Doo.
Rachel (puzzled): Scooby-what?
Max: (groan) Your ignorance is frightening. When the bad guys are up to no good, they use local lore to scare away the curious. That's the Scooby Way.
Rachel: I'll study his teachings later.
- Shout-Out: To various installments in the espionage genre, of course.
- Sinister Shades: John Dread's slick shades never come off.
- Something Only They Would Say: Inverted when Max figures out Dread is impersonating Roberto because Dread gets Berto's nickname for him consistently wrong. Played straight when Dragonelle, impersonating Rachel, stands next to Rachel and tries to accuse the real one of being the impostor. The real Rachel tells Max not to even bother playing along and to just destroy the episode's MacGuffin, ensuring the impostor has no chance of getting it. Max quips, "Now that sounds like our Ms. Leeds" as he does so.
- The Symbiote: Mutualism; once the nanoprobes enter Josh's system, his body adapts to their presence and they become a biomodification. The fact that Josh's body doesn't remember how to work without them, coupled with how quickly they consume their energy source, is often a plot point. Taken further in season 3 where the primary power source is lost and it's implied that Josh will eventually die with only the smaller backup source trying to fill in for it.
- Too Soon: Cartoon Network's reruns, and even their initial run of the third season, had quite a few episodes skipped over for several iterations. There was never any comment about it (possibly on account of the fanbase being tiny) but all of the episodes skipped over had buildings or otherwise large things blowing up, suggesting 9/11 paranoia (one of the show's animators, when blogging retrospectively about his work on this show in particular, commented that the episode he was talking about probably actually wouldn't be aired again on account of 9/11.) To be fair, when the series went into its last run before it went off the air, the end of the lineup was all the episodes previously skipped over in a row.
- Worth noting that, although these labels are never used in the show itself, the show is about a group of counter-terrorists fighting and beating terrorists.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Happens to Max and Rachel during season 1. During an especially emotional moment for Max, Rachel kisses him to calm him down and they spend the next couple of episodes arguing with each other (more than usual) until they finally talk about it near the end of the season.
- Villain Ball: John Dread misses more than one chance to kill Max because he wants him alive to study his biomodifications, and Max, every single time, escapes and ruins his plans.
- Villainous Breakdown: Psycho is less than thrilled when he hatches a plot in season 3 that has nothing to do with N-Tek or Max like all of John Dread's schemes, but it turns out Max is there anyway by sheer coincidence.
- Dread has a minor one of these in his last appearance, where he expresses shock at Max coming back from the most impossible situation he'd ever been in. It's not very spectacular, but it's a major display compared to Dread's usual calm, professional demeanor.
- Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World: Played straight in the first two seasons. By season three, Josh seems to have quit school to focus on his sports career.
- Why Won't You Die?: During the Villainous Breakdown
Psycho: That's impossible! We saw you die!
Dread: He never stays DEAD!