PlotIn 2020, human boxers have been replaced by robot boxers. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who owns such a robot, Ambush, competing in unsanctioned matches and in exhibitions with it. At a rural fair, Ambush is destroyed by Black Thunder, a bull belonging to promoter 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 that he must attend a hearing to decide the fate of his preteen son Max (Dakota Goyo). Max's wealthy aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) want full custody, which Charlie gives them in exchange for $100,000, half in advance, on the condition that Charlie take care of Max for three months while the couple are away on a second anniversary.
Charlie and Max meet with Charlie's childhood friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), who runs the boxing gym of her deceased father, Charlie's old coach. There, Charlie buys a secondhand World Robot Boxing league (WRB) 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. Partly due to both his inexperience with Noisy Boy's combinations and his own overconfidence, 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 by getting snagged on the arm of a buried robot. After Charlie pulls Max back up, Max digs out 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 much damage itself. Atom also has a "shadow function" for following human movement. Partly due to both Max's insistence and Charlie needing money, the duo has Atom fight an unsanctioned outdoor match against a robot called Metro. Atom wins, earning back some of Charlie's money.
Max later upgrades Atom to take vocal commands, using parts from Charlie's demolished robots, and convinces Charlie to train Atom. Atom's string of subsequent wins attracts the attention of a promoter from the WRB, who offers Atom a professional fight against the robot Twin Cities. Charlie accepts, and Atom wins again, thanks to Charlie's boxing experience allowing him to locate and take advantage of a small tell in Twin Cities' punch. Reveling in their subsequent novelty attention, Max challenges WRB champion Zeus, designed by genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and sponsored by wealthy Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), who before the match tries to buy the upstart Atom.
As Max and Charlie leave after the Twin Cities fight, Ricky and his men attack them, and steal their winnings. Feeling guilty, Charlie returns Max to his aunt and uncle, feeling Max will be safer with them and refusing the second half of the money he was promised. Bailey convinces him that he can be a better father. Debra allows Charlie to take Max out for one last night, to the Zeus-Atom match. Zeus severely damages Atom while also getting injured for the first time. Ricky, who had bet Finn $100,000 that Atom would not last the first round, tries to slip away, but is cornered by Finn and his colleagues. In the fourth round of the five-round match, Atom's vocal receptors are damaged, and Atom must fight the last round in shadow-boxing mode, copying Charlie's moves from the aisle. Zeus, now controlled manually by a furious Mashido, expends energy on trashing the defensive Atom, running low on power and turning sluggish as a result. The fight swings in Atom's favor as he overwhelms the weakened Zeus, even knocking the seemingly invincible champion down once, but Atom is unable to win before the round ends. The judges declare Zeus the winner on points, but the near-defeat leaves the Zeus team humiliated. Atom is labeled the "People's Champion" as Charlie and Max celebrate their success.
Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy and is based on Richard Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel." The film was produced by DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, 21 Laps, and Montford/Murphy Productions. The original screenplay was written by Dan Gilroy and was purchased by DreamWorks for $850,000 in 2003 or 2005 (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 went no further. 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, spending a total of six weeks fine-tuning the script. Advertising company FIVE33 did a two-hundred page "bible" about robot boxing. Levy said he was invited by Spielberg and Snider while finishing Date Night, and while the director initially considered Real Steel to have "a crazy premise," he accepted after reading the script and feeling it could be "a really humanistic sports drama."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. There was also an attempt for the scenery to blend in new and old technology. 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. He said, "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." According to Jackman, 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." Levy added that Spielberg gave the example of Jurassic Park, where Winston's animatronic dinosaurs "got a better performance from the actors, as they were seeing something real, and gave the visual effects team an idea of what it would look like." As Real Steel was not based on a toy, Meyer said that "there was no guideline" for the robots, and each was designed from scratch, with an attempt to put "different personality and aesthetics," according to Levy. In Atom's case, it tried to have a more humanizing design to be an "everyman" who could attract the audience's sympathy and serve as a proxy to the viewer, with a fencing mask that Meyer explained served to show "his identity was a bit hidden, so you have to work harder to get to see him." Executive producer Robert Zemeckis added that the mask "became a screen so we can project what we want on Atom's face." Damage was added to the robots' decoration to show how they were machines worn out by intense battles.
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 and gave Jackman boxing lessons so his moves would be more natural.