The Rocketeer: An Adventure Movie Out of Time

We discuss why The Rocketeer deserved better than it got from audiences and critics.

It has been over 25 years since the release of The Rocketeer, Disney’s 1991 attempt to capture their share of the post Batman/Dick Tracy comic book movie resurgence. The Rocketeer never approached the box office numbers of those films ($46 million at the US box office compared to Dick Tracy’s $103 million and Batman’s $251 million), and failed to launch the franchise that Disney envisioned. It’s a shame that The Rocketeer never quite connected, and maybe time just wasn’t on its side. 

The Rocketeer was a small press comic book character created by writer and artist Dave Stevens, who had done some work in Hollywood as a storyboard artist (among other things, his credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as the infamous Godzilla 3D movie that never materialized in the 1980s). The character first appeared as a backup story in Mike Grell’s Starslayer before migrating to another comics anthology, and that story was then completed in a comic released by an entirely different company, before a third comics publisher released Stevens’ final Rocketeer chapters. It was something of an inauspicious beginning, and the lack of readily available collected editions in the 1980s made things difficult for fans hungry for more of Stevens’ striking art.

But Stevens always had cinematic ambitions for the character. “From the first character sketches, I always viewed it in my mind’s eye as a film,” Stevens told Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist in 2001. “I never really looked at it as just words and pictures on paper. I saw it and I heard it in my head. So for me, it was always a film.” 

Stevens’ desire to jump straight to the screen makes sense, considering that the character was heavily influenced by Republic Pictures movie serials, notably four projects that all featured a helmeted man with a jet pack as the lead character. These serials, King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (also 1952), and Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953) came at the end of the movie serial’s dominance as the Saturday afternoon entertainment of choice for kids. Within a few years, TV was king, and with each passing year, the serial, with its 15 minute installments that end in cliffhangers, falls further into obscurity. In particular, King of the Rocket Men and the next two are worth seeking out, as the special effects by the Lydecker brothers did more to make audiences believe a man could fly than anyone else until Superman: The Movie came along in 1978 (it was the Lydecker team who did the honors for Republic’s superb The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which beat Supes to the serial screen by seven years and boasts wonderful flight sequences).

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Watch The Rocketeer on Amazon Prime

And while the Rocketeer made his comics debut in 1982, the character was quickly optioned for film, with Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part III director Steve Miner coming on board as director. Miner’s original plan was to make a Rocketeer movie that reflected the low budget serial aesthetic, right down to filming it in black and white. But studios wanted something bigger and more marketable.

Harry and the Hendersons director William Dear came on board after Miner’s departure around the same time as writers Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. “We soon pitched it, literally, to every studio in town and they all passed on it,” Stevens recalled in that Jon Cooke interview. “This was 1986, long before Batman or Dick Tracy or anything similar. In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!”

Disney saw the merchandising opportunities, though, and signed up for a Rocketeer trilogy. Eventually, William Dear left the project, and Joe Johnston joined up as director. Johnston was perhaps uniquely suited to this movie. Johnston was no stranger to helmeted/jetpacked characters having played a key role in the design of Star Wars‘ Boba Fett, and he had worked on the visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark, another serial-inspired two-fisted summer romp. Johnston, of course, would later direct the far more successful but equally earnest Captain America: The First Avenger (and if you enjoy that film but haven’t yet checked out The Rocketeer, you really should).

Problems, of course, persisted, with Disney executives looking to update the concept from its 1938 setting in order to make things more space age, but that was put to rest when Johnston threatened to abandon the film. Cliff’s bombshell girlfriend Betty (based on pin-up icon Bettie Page…Stevens even sent her a check for using her likeness) was toned down considerably in the interests of Disney’s family-friendly mission statement as Jennifer Connelly’s no less sexy, but less overtly sexual, Jenny. But overall, the visual spirit of the Dave Stevens comic is on display in virtual ever minute of the movie.

read more: The Underrated Movies of 1991

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In addition to Ms. Connelly, The Rocketeer boasts quite a cast. Billy Campbell’s Cliff Secord is like a Dave Stevens drawing come to life, and couldn’t have looked more at home as a Saturday matinee idol. He’s joined by post-Bond Timothy Dalton, who appears to have a blast as the villainous Neville Sinclair (even if that character plays with the irritating fiction that Errol Flynn was a secret Nazi spy), a scene-stealing Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, and Ron Taylor in some Dick Tracy-inspired rubbery makeup (perhaps the film’s only concession to comic book movie conventions of the time) to play Lothar, the heavy, another character straight out of the Stevens comics.

Despite all this, it’s easy to see why The Rocketeer didn’t deliver at the box office. It’s far more earnest in its approach than even the Indiana Jones films, and it’s likely that audiences of the early ’90s were looking for something else. That’s a shame, since the film boasts some genuinely breathtaking action and stunt sequences, notably the Rocketeer’s first mid-air rescue. To this day, a number of the flying effects shots hold up quite well, and it’s mixed in with just enough practical stuntwork to keep everybody honest. Keep in mind, this was just four years after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had undone any and all goodwill audiences may have had for flying men with its substandard special effects, so The Rocketeer‘s kinetic, out-of-control flying sequences were something of a revelation. The problem might just be that there weren’t enough of them in the first place to keep audiences coming back, as the film takes its time getting from one action scene to another, even though by modern superhero movie standards it clocks in at a positively economical 108 minutes.

But really, The Rocketeer was never really built to play the franchise game. It was based on a small press comic that had only published a handful of stories, many of which were as backups in other publications. Compared to the pop culture footprint of characters like Batman or Dick Tracy (or even Superman, despite the fact that the Man of Steel’s cinematic prospects were in absolute ruins in 1991), The Rocketeer was hardly a “comic book movie” (note: I reject the idea of “comic book movie” as a designation of genre) at all, at least not by early ‘90s standards. What’s more, the merchandising potential, a crucial component of the summers of Batman and Dick Tracy, was significantly lacking. Other than that wonderfully iconic art deco helmet design and the inherent coolness of a jetpack, The Rocketeer is a comparatively low-key movie with little to inspire action figures or associated merchandise.

Keep in mind, none of these are actual strikes against The Rocketeer, which is a charming attempt to capture the whiz-bang spirit of Saturday matinee serials, with a dash of the similarly inspired Indiana Jones franchise thrown in for good measure. In fact, a significant part of The Rocketeer’s charm is just how far removed from its contemporaries it feels. While Batman was dominated by Jack Nicholson’s unforgettably maniacal Joker and Anton Furst’s sprawling Gotham City sets and Dick Tracy was defined by headache inducing primary colors and absurd makeup, The Rocketeer, with its brightly sunlit California exteriors and working class characters, feels positively quaint, and remarkably untouched by the cynicism that was already creeping into summer blockbuster season.

The Rocketeer may no longer be a dead prospect in Hollywood, with word of a sequel, tentatively known as The Rocketeers, emerging a little while back, as well as a less-than-encouraging Disney Junior animated series. If you want more, IDW has published a complete volume of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer work as The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, and I can’t recommend it enough. They also publish a number of new Rocketeer adventures, some of which (like Mark Waid and J. Bone’s Rocketeer/Spirit team-up) are worth a look, too. 

The Rocketeer is the first and best of what I consider my forgotten trilogy of underappreciated pulp action hero movies along with The Shadow and The Phantom. Sometimes I imagine an alternate universe where this movie had succeeded and Disney got the trilogy they signed up for or where Warner Bros. snagged some of the talent to bring Superman back to the screen in the ‘90s, instead of chasing the ill-fated Superman Lives project down a rabbit hole for the next decade. But the sad reality is that The Rocketeer arrived a few years too late to connect with audiences, and would have done better in the pre-Batman mid-80s when studios were looking to maximize that post-Spielberg nostalgia for the ’30s and ’40s. Instead, it looked like Indy and friends picked the right time to ride off into the sunset in 1989’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. If that kind of thing ever comes back into fashion, then Cliff Secord in his Rocketeer helmet should be the first hero they look to.

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