This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Disney’s “The Rocketeer,” one of the many comic book movies to try to capitalize on the tremendous success of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
After “Batman” made $411.5 million (and that’s 1989 dollars) for Warner Bros., competing studios tried to replicate the formula.
Burton’s “Batman” had a contemporary setting and pulled inspiration from the reimagined version of Batman that was largely shaped by Frank Miller, but the aesthetics borrowed heavily from early 1940s Batman comics. Burton’s own fascination with Gothic imagery and German expressions fueled many of these design choices.
Because of this, other studios looked for other comic book and comic strip characters created in or set during the 1930s and 1940s era. This includes “Dick Tracy” (1990), “The Shadow” (1994) and “The Phantom” (1996).
Even the modern-day “Darkman” (1990) was an original character created by director Sam Raimi when he was unable to secure the rights to “The Shadow” (Russell Mulcahy would eventually bring the character to the screen). Raimi would later go onto help shepherd in the current era of superhero films with his “Spider-Man” trilogy.
In the middle of all this is “The Rocketeer.” Created by Dave Stevens in 1982, the character was a homage to adventure serials from the 1930s through the 1950s. The design of the hero, who flies via a jetpack, was even patterned after the Rocket Man serials that debuted in 1949. This means the Rocketeer has more in common with Indiana Jones, another character paying tribute to film serials, than Batman.
Like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Rocketeer” is set in the late 1930s on the eve of World War II. But while Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), the man who becomes the Rocketeer, isn’t a brooding millionaire crimefighter, he also isn’t a rugged adventurer.
Instead he is a test pilot who finds a jetpack in a hangar and tries it on. He and his partner Peevy (Alan Arkin) consider using it to make a few bucks, but quickly become embroiled in a plot involving gangsters and Nazis. He becomes a reluctant hero who rises to the occasion to save his girl Jenny (Jennifer Connolly). In this regard, the film is charmingly old fashioned.
The film was directed by Joe Johnston. Twenty years later, Johnston would direct the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Captain America: First Avenger,” another World War II era-set comic-book adventure. In many respects, “The Rocketeer” was a dry run for that film.
Released a year after “Dick Tracy,” Disney’s first attempt at a comic book hit, “The Rocketeer” does borrow some of the tone of that film. “Dick Tracy” was highly stylized and actively attempted to emulate the style of a comic panel. Director Warren Beatty even limited himself to seven bold colors. The villains, including Al Pacino’s "Big Boy" Caprice were buried under piles of exaggerated makeup and prosthetics.
Even though “The Rocketeer” is not nearly as stylized and more emulates the look and feel of the films of the 1940s, one of heavily made-up “Dick Tracy”-style henchmen makes an appearance in “The Rocketeer.” Both films also have heroes that are sort of bland but are surrounded by characters that are more colorful.
This includes Timothy Dalton as the villain Neville Sinclair, an actor patterned after swashbuckling star Errol Flynn. Sinclair is a Nazi spy, a clever nod to rumors about Flynn, who is trying to get a hold of the jetpack.
The juxtaposition of Sinclair’s film heroism with his villainy in reality is a fun inversion of expectations that is further accentuated by the casting of Dalton. Released two years after Dalton’s second and final appearance as James Bond, he is clearly having fun playing a Bond-style villain.
In addition to Dalton’s fun villain turn, there’s also Paul Sorvino as a mobster and a brief, but memorable appearance by Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes, the creator of the rocket. The “Rocketeer” is also evidence that Arkin has been playing lovably cantankerous old kooks for 30 years. He’s wonderful in the film and his wry delivery helps give the film a light sense of humor.
Connolly’s role isn’t much more than a damsel in distress but it was one of her first post-”Labyrinth” roles to truly show off her starpower. The script by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and William Dear does give the character her own agency. Connolly has a great moment in which she outwits Dalton’s Sinclair by playing into his ego.
Campbell could’ve become a star, at least a B-list one, but unfortunately “Rocketeer” was a box office dud and, as he was the face of the movie, he likely unfairly shouldered a lot of the blame for that. He takes a generic character and makes him likable purely based on his easy-going charisma.
“The Rocketeer” was already a throwback in 1991. In 2021, after 30 years of increasingly more bombastic superhero films, its more modest ambitions are even more quaint, but the film has its own breezy charms and the fly effects hold up remarkably well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t get the follow-up it deserved.