Why does Steven Spielberg have to throw his daddy issues in every gotdamn thing he does?
While Real Steel may not have been directed by Spielberg, he does serve as the executive producer, which means he certainly had a hand in coming up with the story. So I'm gonna take a long shot and say that the relentlessly mawkish plot of a man learning how to be a better father—and a better man—to his long-estranged son came from Mr. Melodrama himself.
The plot definitely wasn't in the film's source short story, "Steel" (which eventually became a Twilight Zone episode its author, Richard Matheson, also wrote). And this plot isn't present in the Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots game that presumably also inspired Real Steel.
Matheson's story is set in a future where androids become prizefighters because boxing involving humans has been banned. That's how former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) keeps his hustle going: traveling around the country, putting whatever jalopy droid he has in tacky matchups and often losing big-time. But his scuzzy life gets sidetracked when he gets news that his ex-girlfriend has died and he's now in possession of Max (Dakota Goyo), the boy he walked out on 11 years ago. He's ready to sign all parental rights over to the boy's rich aunt and uncle. But before he does that, he hatches a scheme to get $100,000 from them in exchange for looking after the boy for the summer while they're abroad.
You can guess where the movie goes: Charlie and Max butt heads, only to get to know one another as they travel from match to match. The bonding gets kicked up a notch when the kid picks up an old sparring bot he grows fond of. With Charlie training him and Max teaching the robot to do Justin Bieber-esque dance moves in the ring, it doesn't take long for this mechanical palooka to become the movie's resident Cinderella boy.
Real Steel kills two clichéd genres with one stone, giving us both an underdog sports movie and a father-son bonding movie. While this road has already been traveled with movies like both tearjerking versions of The Champ and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling saga Over the Top, Real Steel offers up something those didn't have: gigantic CGI/ animatronic robots ready to whup some ass.
No matter how much rousing, quick-cutting intensity director Shawn Levy (perpetrator of those damn Night at the Museum movies) instills in those fight sequences, they can't cover up the corn that's all over the script. Real Steel goes about tugging at the heartstrings so blatantly that everything else, from the other characters (Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie and Hope Davis are just a few of the actors wasted in their roles) to the movie's uneven view of the future (it's a lot like today, except for those "underground boxing" scenes, which make the future look like an '80s vigilante movie) seem wholly underdeveloped. After a while, the fighting scenes feel like a reward you get every 10 minutes for sitting through the movie's incessantly sappiness. The schmaltzy climax, larded with slo-mo shots of Max beaming with loving, teary-eyed pride as his old man fights his heart out, is a reminder of how Spielberg can sap the hell out of a film without even directing it.