The Rocketeer is the crowning achievement of comic book cinema, a bold statement considering it was released in 1991. There hasn’t been a more faithful translation from comic to screen since Richard Donner’s original Superman — and The Rocketeer has the added benefit of not having Marlon Brando sans pants crazying up the cast. Hyperbole aside, every comic book movie that’s followed The Rocketeer is treading the same well-worn footprints, only they have to walk where The Rocketeer soars.
Actually, that was more hyperbole. But it’s true, nonetheless.
If you look at the comic book history of The Rocketeer, it seems like a strange property for Disney to adapt to the screen. The character is obscure at best, having been created in 1981 by Dave Stevens as an homage to Doc Savage. The comic was by no means a bestseller, and while the idea of a man strapping a rocket to his back to fight Nazi’s is a pulp lover’s dream come true, it’s hardly the recipe for box office success.
At the time of release, the only successful comic book movies were Batman, Superman, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, three of the most popular comic book properties of our time. With that in mind, you’ve got to admire the bulbous balls it must’ve taken for Disney executives to pluck The Rocketeer from obscurity and give him a shot at prime time. If you released The Rocketeer today, even with the popularity of Iron Man and The Avengers, it would still be a hard sell for audiences.
Whether it was a lack of comic book properties to adapt or a serious gambling disorder, Disney executives took a chance and The Rocketeer was released. As with most films ahead of their time, the gamble didn’t pay off and The Rocketeer failed to ignite with audiences. A damn shame because it’s a freaking classic.
If Steven Spielberg ever directed a superhero movie, it would look and feel exactly like The Rocketeer. It has Nazi secret agents, gangsters, tommy guns, bigger-than-life henchmen, damsels in distress, bi-planes, and whimsy to spare. The Rocketeer has the look and feel of an early Spielberg movie, possibly because director Joe Johnston drew the storyboards and production art for Raiders of the Lost Ark. And for fans of Star Wars, particularly The Empire Strikes Back, Johnston was the person responsible for the creation and design of Boba Fett. Which makes him a God in human form.
Like the Doc Savage stories that served as inspiration, The Rocketeer is a rollicking pulp adventure that doesn’t exist anymore. The story is from a less complicated time when the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. There is no gray area. The Rocketeer doesn’t break rules and question his heroic morality. He punches Nazis in the face and looks cool doing it. Simple. Effective.
The script is pitch perfect and captures the goodie-goodie nature of the character without coming across as cheesy or overly sentimental. Marvel’s recent Captain America: The First Avenger is a cinematic soul mate, in that it takes a hokey premise and turns it into a fun throwback to classic adventure serials. And would you believe that both were directed by Joe Johnston? Can’t be a coincidence.
Johnston remembers that reading a comic book is supposed to be fun! Watching a comic book movie should provide the same experience. What child wants to watch scenes of prolonged angst and self-loathing in a superhero movie? Kids want to see Spider-man swinging from rooftops, not tossing his costume in the trash.
After watching years of gritty and realistic comic book movies, it’s refreshing to find nothing resembling grit or realism in The Rocketeer. The movie plays better now than when it was originally released, precisely because of how simple and pure the plot is: an adventurous test pilot discovers a rocket prototype sought by Nazi spies. That description is more fun than anything from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films — which are great but don’t hold a candle to the animated series.
Fans herald Christopher Nolan as the savior of comic book movies but the truth is Joe Johnston already filled that position twenty years ago. The Rocketeer is a comic book movie that needs and deserves to be rediscovered. And after three dour Batman films and an equally serious Spider-man reboot, would it kill you to have some fun?
Fun Fact: Johnny Depp was nearly cast as The Rocketeer but lost out to Billy Campbell. Thank God.