The Rocketeer is Still Flying High After 25 Years

Remembering Joe Johnston’s Original World War II Superhero Film.

The celebration of movie anniversaries has become something of a cottage industry in film criticism. In the need to cater to millennial-inspired nostalgia, the threshold of what constitutes a memorable film has never been lower. It’s important, then, to remember why we celebrate movie anniversaries in the first place. These pieces revisit movies that had an immediate impact on the industry at the time of their release; failing that, they also evaluate films whose influence on Hollywood have only become evident over time. The best writing combine the two, offering us a renewed appreciation for the context of their original release and their effect on the titles we see in theaters today.

The Rocketeer may not be the first movie that comes to mind when you think of superhero movies. It may not even be the first movie that comes to mind in the summer of 1991. Today, though, on the eve of its twenty-fifth anniversary, it’s worth remembering a time where a Disney superhero film was anything but a sure bet.

The original comic series – the brainchild of the late graphic novelist and storyboard artist Dave Stevens – offered a look at 1930s Hollywood that was wildly out of line with Disney’s family values. Most of the major pieces are still present; Cliff Secord is still a down-on-his-luck pilot who stumbles across a piece of military grade technology while his girlfriend is an aspiring actress who patiently endures Cliff’s resentment towards her profession. In both the comic and the movie, Cliff runs afoul of the FBI and manages to solve his problems by trading punches with Nazi sleeper agents. Unlike Jennifer Connelly’s Jenny Blake, however, the Betty of the comic books had made a name for herself as sexually explicit pin-up girl (her namesake, Bettie Paige, would see a spike in popularity due to The Rocketeer comics). The Cliff Secord of the comics also comes across less like the boy next door and more like an abusive boyfriend; several of the chapters center on Cliff’s refusal to return the jetpack until he has chased down a globe-trotting Betty and dragged her back to Los Angeles.

Mature content or not, Disney executives saw at The Rocketeer’s core a throwback family adventure not unlike Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies. When Dave Stevens and his writing partners shopped the project around Hollywood, Disney’s David Hoberman was the only person to make an offer. “The story had such a clear heroic structure,” Hoberman told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “(A)n innocent guy stumbles on something and ends up saving the world . . . and it was a world we hadn’t seen before. What stayed in my mind was the simplicity of the story that just works; those clearly defined stories don’t come along every day.” Meanwhile, director Joe Johnston – who had just finished directing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and was under contract for three more films with Disney – was independently trying to secure the rights to a film version of The Rocketeer. Once he learned that the movie rights were owned by his own studio, The Rocketeer went into production.

First came the challenge of finding the male lead. Disney executives tried valiantly to convince Tom Cruise to take the part of Cliff Secord; when he passed on the role, Johnston picked relative unknown Billy Campbell as his lead. “I knew that Bill was right when I saw him walk into the room,” Johnston told the Los Angeles Times. “(Disney was) very nervous about it . . . until after the first three or four weeks of filming.” As production continued, Johnston’s attention to period detail and demanding special effects caused The Rocketeer to blow past its original budget. In interviews, Johnston admitted that he knew his film would cost considerably more than Disney expected, but decided not to tell the studio until it was too late to have him fired. “That (fact) hit hard about halfway through production.”

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Studios was suffering from a larger public relations nightmare. In January of 1991, an internal memo by then-Walt Disney Studios head Jeffrey Katzenberg was acquired and published by Variety, kicking off a fierce round of discussions in Hollywood regarding the industry’s future. In the 28-page memo, Katzenberg discussed the effort that went into making Dick Tracy a blockbuster success as well as the current trend in Hollywood towards studios putting all of their eggs in a few high-priced baskets. He also touched on the upcoming release of The Rocketeer as part of the new path that Disney should follow. “(If) the film succeeds,” Katzenberg wrote, “most of the rewards will be ours. There are no giant stars, no big gross participants, we own the rights, we control the licensing and we have talent contracts covering sequels in the event it works.” What had once been regarded as a strength of Disney films – the discovery of new talent – was now evidence that the studio was being cheap where it really counted. “(The Rocketeer) founders on Katzenberg’s determination to avoid blockbuster salaries,” wrote Boston Globe critic Jay Carr in his negative review of the film.

Despite production delays and bad publicity, The Rocketeer opened on June 21, 1991 in theaters across the country. Critics and audiences alike responded with ambivalence. Many agreed that the film was impressive in its effort to faithfully recreate 1930s Los Angeles, but The Rocketeer also suffered from unfavorable comparisons to aforementioned period adventure films like Dick Tracy and Indiana Jones. In its opening weekend, the film placed behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers, and fellow new release Dying Young at the box office; it would never place higher than fourth throughout its theatrical run. Later that year, the studio would release The Rocketeer in international markets without Walt Disney Studios listed as the distributor. “Knowing what we know about how Walt Disney Pictures movies perform,” senior vice president Kevin Hyson told the Wall Street Journal in September, “we thought that The Rocketeer was more appropriate as a Touchstone film than as a Disney film.”

And yet, despite the film’s choppy production background and reception, The Rocketeer may be the rare childhood film that has only gotten better with age. Much of this has to do with the film’s setting. While an action-adventure film set during World War II evoked a very specific type of blockbuster in 1991, the proliferation of World War II films since then allows The Rocketeer to succeed on its own merits. Each of the period details – the architecture, practical airplane stunts, and behind-the-scenes look at a Hollywood in its prime – only serve to make Johnston’s world feel more authentic than the hyper-stylized design of Batman or Dick Tracy. Much like he would do with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Johnston taps into a decade in American history that is both immediately familiar and forever timeless. Few living people have experienced the Hollywood of 1938, but when we see it there on the screen, we immediately recognize the design as feeling right.

Meanwhile, the so-called underwhelming cast has developed into anything-but. Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin are an easy match for characters in the 1930s; even the supporting cast benefits from a little bit of hindsight (William Sanderson, Margo Martindale, and Jon Polito each appear in small roles). None of that compares to the performance put forth by Timothy Dalton. From his first sword fight as Hollywood star Neville Sinclair to his jaunty Nazi salute in the final moments before his death, Dalton perfectly inhabits the space between homage and parody. Sinclair is a perfect send-up of Hollywood movie stars like Errol Flynn; we are drawn to his magnetism even as we recognize his true nature for the monstrosity that it is. While Dalton has had a long and impressive career, The Rocketeer cannot help but make one wonder if he was not a generation too late in his career as an actor.

If a film must be both interesting and enduring to warrant an anniversary celebration, then The Rocketeer passes the test with flying colors. To this day, Hollywood still struggles to create the type of studio-owned blockbusters that Katzenberg described in his infamous memo. Meanwhile, Joe Johnston’s passion for this era in American history has led him down roads that would ultimately end in projects like The Iron Giant and Captain America: The First Avenger. As we march further into an era where superhero movies as a regular part of the Hollywood production cycle, it is worth taking the time this week to re-watch The Rocketeer and remember a time when Disney gambled on a superhero comic and lost, even when they shouldn’t have.

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