Before Capes Were Cool #4: The Rocketeer (1991)

The Rocketeer, like Superman: The Movie and The Fantastic Four, strives to translate what you see on the comic book page right onto the screen. It is arguably one of the most faithful adaptations of a superhero comic ever made, to the point of staging an air rescue setpiece lifted right from an equivalent sequence from the comic.  The Rocketeer looks like the Rocketeer, with a couple tweaks to the design of the jetpack. Billy Campbell’s Cliff Secord looks like Cliff Secord: a bit of a square-jawed lunkhead, but a good-hearted dude through and through. It’s true that, as a Disney movie, some of the edges are sawed off: in the comics, Cliff is essentially dating pin-up queen Bettie Page, whereas in the movie, Jennifer Connelly is Jenny, a starry-eyed aspiring actress. (But if you have to make a PG-rated version of Bettie Page, Connelly is a pretty perfect choice.)

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But it’s not just the surface elements: the spirit of the original comic is there, and also like Superman and The Fantastic Four, this movie is very earnest about what it is. The comic and film are love-letters to the 1930s adventure serial and the excitement of the golden age of aviation. The movie adds a Old Hollywood angle, but it’s completely in keeping with the vintage vibes of the rest of the film.

Unlike The Fantastic Four, however, The Rocketeer actually manages to be a good movie, with an engaging plot and a light, zippy script. The special effects are decent, and any shortcomings can be brushed off as being in the spirit of the thrown-together effects of old serials. The Rocketeer doesn’t have actors of the Marlon Brando or Gene Hackman pedigree, but it has reliable, recognizable character actors in supporting roles. The standout is Timothy Dalton as swashbuckling actor Neville Sinclair. Loosely patterned on the (totally debunked but still fresh in the public consciousness) rumors that Errol Flynn was a secret Nazi spy, Dalton moves effortlessly from charm to menace. He hams it up (“Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above!”) but it’s deadpan, never winking at the audience. On a list of the greatest comic book movie villains of all time, you might not always think to add Sinclair, but once you are reminded of him, you would have to make room on your top ten list for him.

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So! Fidelity to the source material, earnest tone, solid execution. In Superman, this was a recipe for success. And yet, although it’s now considered a bit of a cult film and a minor nostalgia fixture for ’90s kids, the movie only grossed $46 million at the box office on a $40 million budget. Most analysis suggests a sort of “death of a thousand cuts” combination of elements working against its success. The Rocketeer character had a critically acclaimed but relatively obscure and short-lived comic book, and he lacked the general-public name recognition of a Superman or a Batman. The movie was released by Disney; today they own Marvel and Lucasfilm, but back in the ’90s, their reputation for family-friendly entertainment probably kept some self-conscious teens and young adults at home. Maybe the original, Art Deco poster didn’t sell the movie clearly enough. Maybe they should have gotten a big-name draw to play Cliff. Maybe Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was too strong a competitor.

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But in the end, I think the problem is this: general audiences do not love 1930s homages as much as Hollywood thinks they do.

You can see how they arrived at this mistaken assumption. Once again we have to remember, at this time, there wasn’t a real solid roadmap for how to make a modern, serious superhero movie. The Indiana Jones movies were blockbusters of the ’80s; in fact, it was Indy’s success that helped convince studios to take a chance on making The Rocketeer. And then, after Batman took place in a sort of Art Deco uchronia, studios seemed to get the impression that the way to do this superhero thing was to dip back into the pulp roots of the superhero rather than focusing on the four-color spandex elements. And so, the ’90s saw greenlit projects for Dick Tracy and The Shadow and The Phantom. And The Rocketeer. When one of them would underperform at the box office, they’d say, “Huh, that’s weird, but we know the 1930s thing works because of Indiana Jones and Batman.” And, in the pre-2000 superhero movie era, without a formula you cling to what works…or what you think works.

But I’d argue that Indiana Jones and Batman were hits despite their setting. I mean, I like 1930s pulp action homages. Lots of genre fans like 1930s pulp action homages. Movie directors and film critics and scholars certainly seem to like 1930s pulp action homages. But Indiana Jones wasn’t a hit because American moviegoers as a group were hungry for 1930s pulp action homages; it was a hit because it was Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford and George Lucas and John Williams making a movie. If they had made a spy movie or a detective movie, it might well have been an equivocal success; it’s just that Spielberg and Lucas chose this particular action movie archetype. Tim Burton made Gotham City into a nightmare of terrifying architecture and retro fashions because Tim Burton likes that sort of thing, but it’s not what made Batman a success.

I think the period piece superhero movie is a tempting trap, and you can make a really excellent one like The Rocketeer, but by and large, I think action movie audiences have trouble relating to stories in the past,1 and they don’t turn out to see them. Studios still try it every once in a while—Sky Captain, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, John Carter—and every time it comes up short at the box office without a Spielberg or a Burton or a Brad Bird2 at the helm to sell the audience on accompanying them on a trip to the past.

Two decades later, Rocketeer director Joe Johnson would get another shot at retro heroics with Captain America: The First Avenger, and this time it would succeed with audiences. I’d argue this is because the Marvel brand had built up sufficient trust by that point, and also because Chris Evans really is that good. But The Rocketeer will always be the franchise that got away.

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NEXT WEEK: There’ll be no column this Christmas, children. But the week after that, we’ll ring in the new year with a look at the thematically richest Batman movie yet filmed. Take a hike, Christopher Nolan: it’s actually Batman Forever we’ll be talking about. (Spoiler alert: It’s not very good, though.)


  • 1/1: Batman Forever (1995)
  • 1/8: Generation X (1996)
  • 1/15: TBA