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The Rocketeer (watch now on Disney+) landed in movie theaters on June 21, 1991, during a mini-wave of comic book adaptations. Studios were desperate to replicate the success of 1989 mega-hit Batman (and before that, Richard Donner’s Superman) but seemed unsure of how to best translate graphic novels from the page to the screen.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge box office success in 1990, but probably pulled a larger audience from the syndicated cartoon series than from the original graphic novels. The newspaper comic strip-inspired Dick Tracy, also from 1990, raked in plenty of cash, but not enough to launch the franchise that the Disney had banked on. And the first attempt to make a movie of The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren, was technically released to theaters in Europe in 1989 but it only saw a direct-to-video release in the United States in 1991. Suffice to say, it did not meet a positive reaction.
So in 1991, Walt Disney Pictures released The Rocketeer, based on writer and artist Dave Stevens’ backup features originally published by Pacific Comics. The Rocketeer was only modestly successful at the box office, earning just $46.7 million on a $40 million budget. Watching it today, however, The Rocketeer feels uncannily like it could be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Captain America: The First Avenger) managed to land on the MCU’s winning formula of humor and heroism 17 years before Iron Man birthed the mega franchise and changed movies forever.
The titular Rocketeer is Cliff Secord, a fearless and foolhardy 1930s stunt pilot who dreams of racing airplanes. In demeanor, he’s somewhere between Peter Quill and Steve Rogers. When Cliff finds a stolen rocket pack that lets him fly like Superman, his first idea is to use it to earn money by entertaining crowds at airshows so he can get his wrecked racing plane up and running again. But Cliff is a good person at heart, and the first time he dons the rocket pack and iconic helmet is to rescue a friend who is about to crash a plane. After being hounded both by mobsters and the FBI for the stolen rocket pack, Cliff realizes he’s in over his head and tries to return the jet pack to its rightful owner, who just happens to be real-life aviation magnate Howard Hughes (played by Terry O’Quinn).
That makes Cliff a reluctant superhero. He embraces the role of the Rocketeer fully when faced with no other choice, like when his girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) is held captive by actor-slash-Nazi-spy Neville Sinclair. At the same time, Cliff is just as happy at the end of the movie when the Rocketeer’s pack has been destroyed and a grateful Howard Hughes gifts Cliff not with a new rocket pack, but with the racing plane he originally wanted. (The only person interested in rebuilding the Rocketeer’s pack is Cliff’s mechanic Peevy, played by Alan Arkin.) In that respect, Cliff resembles MCU superheroes who stumble into great power like Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Scott Lang. Even wholesome Steve Rogers starts out simply wanting to enlist into the regular Army, not necessarily to become Captain America.
Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny, a struggling actress, has enough agency and smarts to be the first character who figures out that Sinclair is a Nazi, and she lands some blows in a couple fights. She’s no Black Widow or Carol Danvers, but Jenny is in step with other Marvel women who refuse to simply be victims like Pepper Potts or Jane Foster. Of course, Connelly now has her own Marvel movie connections: She was Betty Ross in the 2003 non-MCU Ang Lee take on Hulk, she voiced the A.I. in Peter Parker’s Stark-designed costume in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and she’s married to Vision, Paul Bettany.
As an antagonist, Timothy Dalton’s Neville Sinclair is the type of evil but charming villain that Marvel would find in Loki and Killmonger. Dalton was fresh off two James Bond films, and was arguably the biggest star at the time in The Rocketeer. He is set up as a villain from the beginning, both in his ruthless search for the rocket pack and in his lecherous attempts to seduce Jenny once he realizes her boyfriend Cliff might be hiding it. When Jenny discovers in the third act that Sinclair wants to use the rocket pack to equip Hitler’s Luftwaffe, the reveal raises Cliff’s stakes considerably from simply trying to save his girlfriend and get the mobsters and FBI off his back, to preventing a German victory in World War II.
All of this is played seriously, even the climactic fight between Cliff and Neville on an exploding Nazi zeppelin. The Rocketeer never winks at the audience or makes the kind of meta jokes that let you know they think this is all a bit ridiculous too. In the universe of the film, the consequences are real and people generally act like you expect human beings to behave. There are plenty of funny moments and quippy lines from the Rocketeer and his supporting cast, but the film itself never veers into cartoonish territory.
The same is true of Marvel movies. While much has been made of the witty banter and pop culture jokes in MCU films, even the funniest entries like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok use that levity to balance out heavy emotional beats, and the jokes are always in character.
Director Joe Johnston’s vision for The Rocketeer, on the other hand, is largely realistic, even if it portrays a nostalgic, idealized version of the 1930s. There are some truly impressive practical stunts and effects work that still holds up, especially with the acrobatic stunt plane sequences. Placing superheroes in something like the real world may seem obvious, because most comic book movies after Bryan Singer’s X-Men have aimed for realism. But other recent films have still found success bringing comic book pages to life in a more stylized way, like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, 300, and Sin City.
In the early 1990s, realism was not the default look for a comic book movie. Tim Burton’s Batman, a massive success, created an industrial art deco Gotham City that looked cool but not like a place that could actually exist. Dick Tracy went even further, with obviously fabricated sets, everyone dressed in flat colors, and bad guys in prosthetic faces to mimic their drawn appearance. Later in the 1990s, the Joel Schumacher would attempt to merge Tim Burton’s aesthetic with the campy 1960s Batman TV series in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin for a colorful, goofy world that also didn’t bear any resemblance to reality.
Marvel films also lean on realism, with the exception of the sepia tones of Captain America: The First Avenger — also directed by Johnston. When director Ryan Coogler flooded eyeballs with the vivid color palette of the Black Panther, it was received as a significant departure from the relatively muted Marvel movies that preceded it.
So if it unlocked the MCU formula, why did The Rocketeer never take off? The one conspicuously missing element of MCU alchemy is a true star in the lead role. Billy Campbell does a solid job as Cliff Secord, but he lacks the high wattage charisma of Robert Downey Jr., or Chris Evans. It’s no secret that Downey’s performance as Tony Stark set the benchmark for the rest of the MCU. Campbell is good, but probably not great enough to carry a franchise. Plus, while neither Evans, nor Chris Hemsworth were A-list names when they entered the MCU — and RDJ was still rebuilding his career — 1991 was a time when bigger names had to headline a potential franchise flick. By comparison, Campbell was a relatively unknown television actor at the time.
What’s more, the MCU films always put their lead characters through a hero’s journey, where they return home transformed by their experiences. Meanwhile, Cliff ends The Rocketeer completely unscathed by the events. The worst trauma Cliff faces is when he wrecks his plane. That story failure may have prevented audiences from connecting with his character at the emotional level that demands to know what happens to him next.
The Rocketeer was probably also the victim of bad timing, with its release date sandwiched between two of 1991’s other cinema juggernauts: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In that company, The Rocketeer’s radio days nostalgia felt less like a ripping superhero adventure and more like a weak clone of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In recent years, however, audiences have grown to appreciate what The Rocketeer achieved on its limited scale. Just a few weeks ago on November 8, 2019, the Disney Channel aired the first episode of an all-new Rocketeer cartoon about Cliff Secord’s 7-year-old great-granddaughter Kit, who inherits the rocket pack and helmet. You can also look for The Rocketeer’s hidden influence woven through Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, and probably every other MCU film yet to come.
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