Steel is a DC Comics character. In the comic book, he was directly inspired by Superman when the Man of Steel saved his life (both literal and metaphorically). After Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday, Irons built a powered suit of armor. Sporting Superman's shield as a homage to Kal-El, he began fighting crime in the slums of Metropolis. In this movie, the existence (or non-existence) of Superman is not touched upon, but John's tattoo references the last son of Krypton.
During the scene at the railroad where John Henry Irons chases after a thug, a broken down fence has graffiti that resembles the written alien language from Alien Nation: Alien Nation (1989). Kenneth Johnson, who directed this movie, also directed several Alien Nation TV movies.
The filming schedule consisted of fifty one days with thirty-two full nights of shooting in downtown Los Angeles. The shooting schedule presented difficulties for the director due to the schedule of Shaquille O'Neal, who was already committed for playing in the 1996 Summer Olympics, and training at the Los Angeles Lakers camp in Hawaii. This left Johnson with five weeks to complete filming all scenes with O'Neal. O'Neal had one read through of the script before the Olympics and then worked with acting coach Ben Martin in between games to work on his character. When O'Neal returned to act with the rest of the cast, he had all his lines memorized.
Production of the film started with Quincy Jones and his partner David Salzman. Both Jones and Salzman were fans of the Steel character, especially Jones, who found personal reasons to support the project. Jones stated that he found children's "perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don't believe in the future. Steel - and I don't want to use that word 'superhero,' because he doesn't fly or anything like that - represents a role model. Let's just call him a 'super human being.'"
To aid with the urban aspects of the dialog Kenneth Johnson took a copy of the script to South Central Los Angeles and spent a day with a group of kids to ensure that the language of some of the characters was more believable.
Kenneth Johnson was originally uninterested in doing a superhero film, having previously turned down offers to film adaptations of The Bionic Woman (1976), Alien Nation (1989), and The Incredible Hulk (1978). Joel Simon described Steel as being different, stating that he was "a knight in shining armor in a contemporary setting". Johnson removed Steel's cape from his costume to reflect this.