Wait, what? Why the special recognition for a would-be comic-book franchise that was a notable flop when it was released? Actually, I’m glad you asked.
In retrospect, maybe it should have been obvious that a film based on Dave Stevens’ relatively obscure super-hero was far from a slam-dunk when it was released June 21, 1991. While the massive success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman had launched a quest for the next big franchise, in terms of name recognition The Rocketeer was closer to Howard the Duck than the Caped Crusader—and the 1986 Howard the Duck movie had been one of the all-time cinematic epic fails.
Nevertheless, Disney put a huge marketing push behind the 1930s-set tale of a cocky pilot named Cliff Secord (William Campbell) who discovers an experimental rocket pack that had been stolen by gangsters from its creator, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Who’s behind the espionage? Swashbuckling movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton)—who has nefarious plans for its use.
Those plans involve Nazis, which is one reason why The Rocketeer matters this summer. The film’s director was Joe Johnston, the special-effects whiz who had made Disney a mint with his directing debut Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and whose next film also happens to be a comic-book adaptation about an ordinary guy, a scientific breakthrough and villainous Nazis: July’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
Based on what we can see from The Rocketeer, there’s every reason to think Johnston might just nail it. There’s an unforced exuberance to The Rocketeer, from Campbell’s gee-whiz hero to Alan Arkin’s low-key grumblings as his avuncular mechanic, Peevy, to Dalton’s preening bad guy. The pre-CGI matte effects and wire-harness flying may seem a little bit cheesy to contemporary eyes, but Johnston paces his action sequences—and indeed, the whole film—with just the right energy. James Horner’s triumphant score stands as one of the few orchestral heroic themes of this generation to rival John Williams. And let us not underestimate the appeal of a 19-going-on-20-year-old Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s sweetheart, Jenny, rocking a form-fitting satin gown that should have been every bit as enticing to its adolescent male target audience as a guy wearing a jet pack.
It’s true that Johnston and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo—creators of the short-lived, equally charming 1990 The Flash TV series—grow a bit too enamored of their winking insider jokes. One of Sinclair’s henchmen is a brute named Lothar (“Tiny Ron” Taylor), whose makeup was modeled after old-time B-movie villain Rondo Hatton. W. C. Fields shows up to ogle Connelly’s cleavage, along with a reference to Hughes’ Spruce Goose. In a sop to the comic’s fans, The Rocketeer strikes a heroic pose straight out of one of Stevens’ covers, and the character’s retro helmet is the target of a hood-ornament gag. Subtlety occasionally gets shown the door.
But in a time when comic-book movies appear nearly every month, laden with overly complicated origin stories and undercurrents of angst and darkness, The Rocketeer stands out for a sense of pure joy in the storytelling that informed Raimi’s Spider-Man and Favreau’s Iron Man. Financially, The Rocketeer may never have earned the sequels Disney hoped for, but 20 years later it feels like the model on which a new generation of comic-book adaptations should have been based.