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Transformers won't be the only toy-turned-mega-franchise around once teen superhero flick Max Steel hits theaters in 2015. Inspired by the popular Mattel action figures, the origin story of an every dude turned extraordinary hero is directed by Stewart Hendler (Halo 4, Sorority Row), who promises his treatment of Max Steel will stay true to his background in horror flicks. ''I definitely love trying to build tension. It's fun to take audiences on that ride, so there are a couple of sequences that are fairly dark, that feel pretty gritty,'' says Handler. ''It'll feel authentically scary.'' But the coming-of-age story—featuring newcomer Ben Winchell as Max McGrath—will still feel age-appropriate, with inspiration lifted from one of Handler's favorite teen dramas, The Spectacular Now.
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Max Steel tells the story of teenager Max McGrath, whose high school experience is turned upside down when he discovers that his body inexplicably produces bouts of energy that he can't control. But when he meets and forms a friendship with an alien named Steel—who'll be animated entirely in CG, as seen in this picture—he's able to fuse his energy with Steel's in an unexpected way. ''Max needs this creature to protect him from his own energy and Steele needs that energy to survive,'' explains Hendler of the story by Thor: The Dark World screenwriter Christopher Yost. ''I thought this was a really cool way into this superhero mythology I hadn't seen before.'' It's a far cry from the pitch that Hendler originally received. ''What they presented to me was a really polished, pretty slick kid's cartoon and I was like 'I'm not sure if you sent this to the wrong person,''' he recalls, laughing. ''Because if I were to do it, I wanted to tell a really grounded version of it, from the perspective of what would it be like if this happened to a real teenager? What would his reaction and the fallout of that be?'' Luckily, Mattel and production company Dolphin Entertainment ''loved that idea,'' says Hendler. ''I'm actually kind of shocked that I got to go that way.''
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''This is the first time in the movie you see Max suited up. He and Steel merge into one techno-organic figure, so Steel is the armor in which Max is wrapped. It happens unexpectedly, so it's kind of like a non-consensual suiting up moment,'' says Hendler. ''Max basically has to figure out what's happened and naturally, he freaks out a bit.''
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Despite their similarity as teenaged superheroes, don't mistake Max for Spider-Man's shy Peter Parker. ''Max is kind of your every kid. He's a fish out of water in that the keeps moving around in circumstances in life,'' says Hendler. ''He's not a nerd, a dork—he's a regular guy who's trying to get by.'' And will Hendler be infusing the film with any of his own high school experience? That'd be ''yes,'' he says. ''I definitely went through the wringer in school, like I think a lot of people did and it made me the person I am today, for better or worse. So it's fun to explore those challenges and turn it up a notch.''
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Max Steel has already had several incarnations: A line of action figures (in Latin America, the dolls have been a best seller for more than a decade), an animated series that ran from 2000?02, in a number of straight-to-video films, and most recently, as a revamped animated show that premiered on Disney XD in 2013. The film will borrow heavily from the Disney series and will include many of its villains, says Hendler. ''We have some really cool CG creatures that Max ends up in battle with, which I think that will come out pretty well.''
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No superhero story is complete without its female protagonist, and Max Steel lead actress Ana Villafañe stood out among the ''millions of actresses'' who auditioned for the part of Sofia. Well, not exactly. The script originally called for a character named Sidney, until Villafañe ''ended up being the who stole the show,'' says Hendler. The Latina actress joins Cuban actor Andy Garcia (as mentor Dr. Miles Edwards), rounding out the film's cast in what Hendler calls ''a nice wink at one of the bigger core audiences [Hispanics].''
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Although Twilight star Taylor Lautner was originally cast as Max, Ben Winchell (Lifetime's Pregnancy Pact and TNT's Necessary Roughness), has proved himself to Hendler as ''the real deal.'' Winchell underwent two and a half months of intense martial arts, stunt, and Parkour training, which had some unexpected results. ''As he was getting more ripped, he became too big for his suit,'' Hendler says. ''So we had to have this emergency arm intervention, where we were like 'No more lifting! You gotta chill out.'''
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Hendler and his team looked at more than twenty different versions of Max Steel's costume before settling on a design from Legacy Effects, the design company behind stunning superhero suits in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Iron Man. ''Basically, what we see is Steel is wrapping his exoskeleton and converting Max's energy into this suit, which completely covers him,'' says Hendler.