PlotIn 2020, humans have been replaced by robots in boxing. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who attempts to get money in illegal boxing matches between robots to pay his debts to loan sharks. During a fight, Charlie's robot, Ambush, is destroyed by Black Thunder, a bull belonging to Ricky (Kevin Durand). Having made a bet that Ambush would win, Charlie now owes Ricky $20,000, which he doesn't pay before leaving.
Charlie is informed his ex-girlfriend has died, and he has to attend a meeting to decide the fate of his preteen son Max (Dakota Goyo). Max's aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) want full custody, and Charlie gives it to them in exchange for $100,000 from Marvin, $50,000 of it in advance, on the condition that Charlie takes care of Max for three months, while Marvin and Debra are away on a second honeymoon.
Charlie and Max meet with Charlie's friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), who runs the boxing gym of her deceased father, Charlie's old coach. There, Charlie buys a secondhand WRB league robot, the once-famous Noisy Boy, and arranges for it to fight the illegal circuit's champion, Midas, at a venue belonging to his friend Finn (Anthony Mackie). Partly due to his inexperience with Noisy Boy's combinations, Charlie ends up losing control of Noisy Boy and Midas destroys it.
Charlie breaks into a junkyard with Max to steal scraps that he can use to put a new robot together. There, Max falls over a ledge, where he is saved from doom after being snagged by a lodged and buried robot arm. After Charlie pulls him back up, Max uncovers the entire robot, called Atom. On Max's insistence, Charlie takes it back to Bailey's gym, where they discover Atom is an obsolete Generation-2 sparring bot built in 2014. Atom has been designed to sustain massive damage, but is unable to deal out much damage itself. Max convinces Charlie to get Atom a fight, and upgrades it to take vocal commands using spare parts from Noisy Boy and Ambush.
Charlie and Max take Atom to fight an unsanctioned outdoor match against a robot called Metro, and Atom wins, earning back some of Charlie's money. Atom's string of subsequent wins and high speed humanoid boxing maneuvers which are rarely seen from a robot, attracts the attention of a promoter from the World Robot Boxing league (WRB), who offers Atom a professional fight against a robot called Twin Cities. Charlie accepts, and Atom wins again, thanks to Charlie's knowledge of boxing, which allows him to locate a design flaw in Twin Cities. Taking advantage of Atom's subsequent novelty attention, Max challenges WRB champion Zeus, designed by arrogant genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and sponsored by rich Russian Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), who accepts, but first tries to buy the upstart Atom.
As they leave the Twin Cities fight, Charlie is attacked by Ricky and his men, who beat him severely, assault Max and steal their money. Feeling guilty, Charlie returns Max to his aunt and uncle so they can protect him, but Bailey convinces him he can be a better father to Max. Debra allows him one more chance, and Charlie takes Max to the Zeus-Atom match. Zeus severely damages Atom — while also getting injured, a first for Zeus. In addition, by the end of the first round, Ricky ends up being led away by Finn and some of his men to pay up and presumably beat him up (earlier, he bet $100,000 that Atom wouldn't last the first round). In the last round of the five-round match, Atom's vocal receptors are damaged, and Atom must fight in shadow-boxing mode, copying Charlie's moves from the aisle. Zeus, now controlled manually by a very furious Tak Mashido, expends energy on pummeling the defensive Atom. After Zeus runs very low on power, Atom begins to heavily damage Zeus, even knocking the seemingly invincible champion down once, but doesn't win before the round ends, and the judges declare a winner on points. They favor Zeus, but his reputation is tarnished, and Atom has become famous as "The People's Champion".
CastHugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton
Dakota Goyo as Max Kenton
Kevin Durand as Ricky
Evangeline Lilly as Bailey Tallet
Hope Davis as Debra
Anthony Mackie as Finn
Olga Fonda as Farra Lemcova
James Rebhorn as Uncle Marvin
Karl Yune as Mashido
Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy and is based on the 1956 short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson. The film was produced by Touchstone Pictures, DreamWorks, 21 Laps, and Montford/Murphy Productions. The original screenplay was written by Dan Gilroy and was purchased by DreamWorks in 2005 for $850,000, or in 2003 (sources differ). The project was one of 17 that DreamWorks took from Paramount Pictures when they split in 2008. Director Peter Berg expressed interest in the project in mid-2009 but moved on. Levy was attached to the project in September 2009, and Jackman was cast in the starring role in November for a $9 million fee. In the same month, Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider at DreamWorks greenlit the project. Les Bohem and Jeremy Leven had worked on Gilroy's screenplay, but in 2009, John Gatins was working on a new draft. When Levy joined the project, he worked with Gatins to revise the screenplay.
With Real Steel having a production budget of $110 million, Levy chose to set the film in state fairs and other "old-fashioned" Americana settings that would exude nostalgia and create a warm tone for the film's father-son story. Filming began in June 2010, and ended by October 15, 2010. Locations include areas around Detroit, Michigan, and across the state, including at the Renaissance Center, the Cobo Arena, the Detroit Fire Department headquarters, the Ingham County Courthouse, the former Belle Isle Zoo, and the Highland Park Ford Plant.
Jason Matthews of Legacy Effects, successor to Stan Winston Studios, was hired to turn production designer Tom Meyer's robot designs into practical animatronic props, saying, "We have 26-and-a-half total live-action robots that were made for this film. They all have hydraulic neck controls. Atom has RC [radio-controlled] hands as well.” Star Jackman said executive producer Spielberg "actually said to Shawn, 'You should really have real elements where you can.' ... Basically if they're not walking or fighting, that's a real robot." For scenes when computer-generated robots brawl, "simulcam" motion capture technology, developed for the film Avatar, was used. As Levy described the process, "[Y]ou're not only capturing the fighting of live human fighters, but you're able to take that and see it converted to [CGI] robots on a screen instantaneously. Simulcam puts the robots in the ring in real time, so you are operating your shots to the fight, whereas even three, four years ago, you used to operate to empty frames, just guessing at what stuff was going to look like." Boxing hall-of-famer Sugar Ray Leonard was an adviser for these scenes.