Disney’s First Avenger
Back in 1991, long before Disney had any notion of one day buying Marvel, the company released a movie based on a little-known comic book superhero: The Rocketeer. I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of this film, especially since the 1991 Disney film most people are familiar with is Beauty and the Beast. What’s more, the late 80s and early 90s were a period of mostly-forgotten comic book-to-movie adaptations, including Darkman (1990), The Shadow (1994), and Dick Tracy (1990). Only Tim Burton’s two Batman films have survived in popular consciousness. I honestly forgot The Rocketeer existed for many years, although I recall seeing the VHS at my local video rental store during the mid-1990s (back when that was still a viable business). I’d heard good things about The Rocketeer in the last few years (particularly on The Incomparable podcast), so when I learned that this past week marked the 25th anniversary of the film, I decided to finally sit down and watch it.
The film is a classic superhero origin story, mixing the best parts of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Set during 1938, with Hitler in power and World War II on the horizon, the titular hero is a young American pilot and barnstormer named Cliff Secord. When he stumbles upon top secret military jetpack, Cliff tries to make a name for himself (and impress his best girl, aspiring actress Jenny Blake) as “The Rocketeer.” However, he’s soon pulled into a web of intrigue and espionage involving the FBI, local gangsters, Nazis, Howard Hughes, and Neville Sinclair: the “number-three box-office star in America.” As a World War II-era superhero, The Rocketeer naturally resembles another comic book hero from the Greatest Generation: Captain America. It turns out the director – Joe Johnston – actually worked on both films (as well as doing special effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark), and in many ways The Rocketeer does feel like a rough draft for the movie he’d eventually make for Marvel.
So how does The Rocketeer fare next to his later film (or the current crop of superhero films for that matter)? Is it even worth revisiting in 2016? Honestly, I don’t think the last 25 years have been kind to The Rocketeer. I can forgive the dated special effect, especially since it was another 15 years before we had believable flying sequences in movies like Iron Man and Superman Returns. No, the real issue is the script. The movie aspires to be like its pulpy contemporaries – the Indiana Jones series and Richard Donner’s Superman – but ultimately doesn’t pull it off with the same level of charm. Most of the characters, for instance, are paper-thin and one-note. Cliff Secord is a likable, if not particularly memorable, protagonist, and his girlfriend Jenny is ultimately filling the Lois Lane role (i.e., spunky, but prone to kidnapping). Timothy Dalton largely steals the movie as the pompous actor Neville Sinclair, though even he falls prey to mediocre character motivations.
I know that back in 1991, filmmakers and movie studios were still figuring out what a superhero / comic book movie should be, but this isn’t it. In my opinion, The Rocketeer‘s script should be quick and witty and exciting – oscillating between edge-of-our-seat action and clever banter between characters. I can’t help but think that a final rewrite by someone like Joss Whedon could have made this script sing.
Despite its flaws, I do believe The Rocketeer is worth watching 25 years later. In fact, I can imagine that kids would be thrilled by The Rocketeer, in much the same way that Star Wars and Indiana Jones captured my imagination as a child.
One final note: It’s really a shame that The Rocketeer wasn’t an original Disney concept. Now that they own Marvel, I could easily see the Rocketeer finding his way into the Marvel universe, maybe as in old companion of Steve Rogers during the war.