Here’s another great example of a good idea handled badly by a major studio more interested in selling toys than selling a movie. Dick Tracy didn’t do as well as Disney’s upper management hoped, at least not on the merchandising front. Michael Eisner’s mouse house – eager to make that up, and hopefully copy Warner Brothers success with the Batman franchise – bought license rights for this particularly independent comic book property because of its high-concept and oodles of nostalgia.
The Rocketeer is a deliberate homage to movie serials, pulp-novels, and comic books of the early-to-mid 20th century. Its steeped in cameos, in-jokes, and subtle references fans of its source material or time period (or both) will readily appreciate. Interestingly enough, Dick Tracy, which went out of its way to look like a comic book, could help but wind up feeling like a cheap, Disney-fied gangster movie. The Rocketeer, which goes out of its way to look like a big-budget movie (even if the budget wasn’t as big as it needed to be) feels more like a comic book done well.
Problem is, in order for a kid from 1991 to find The Rocketeer anything but slow, kitschy and boring, that kid had to have my parents…or the rough local equivalent. An adult figure kind enough to pass on their appreciation for the Golden Ages of cinema and Sci-Fi literature. You could say I was preconditioned to like this film, but does The Rocketeer hold up today…?
It does! (Cue Hallelujah Chorus.) By doing a lot of very simple things correctly. So many that – with all due respect to Peter David and Sam Raimi – I’d go so far as to call it the Perfect Superhero Film. Not the “best” but the “most complete and of its type.” Specifically, it’s a Silver Age story set at the dawn of comic’s Golden Age: 1938.
Originally created in 1982 by Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer comics know what they are, know what they want to do, and do it well. For that alone they deserving a greater degree of fame than they currently enjoy. If nothing else, their 80s vision of late-30s American offers its own kind of nostalgia kick, now as then.
By 1991 marketing gurus were using Batman‘s success to justify equating “darkness” and “angst” with “what those crazy kids want in their superheros.” They forgot a market existed for stalwart heroes with good intentions, noble values, and a willingness to stand up and fight for them when the time came. Not because random bad guys killed his parents or uncle or wife, but because Obvious Bad Guys might kill other people’s parents or uncles or wives, and Our Hero happens upon the means and/or already possesses the will the stop them. Because it’s the right thing to do.
This is not in anyway an “old fashioned” idea. It’s the idea at the heart modern heroism as our culture understands it and expresses it through the superhero archetype. It’s why I believe Cliff Secord deserves the title, even if every major comic book publisher today would reject his story for being too contrived or too simple or too whatever. (Though his Love Interest was a nude model in the original comics – they were indy, after all – so I imagine that would help its chances.)
Marvel, for one, might sue director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson for plagiarism. Like Peter Parker, Cliff Secord lucks into an amazing ability through several overlapping twists of fate. He initially tries to make money off his new found Something before circumstances align to threaten those he cares about. His new found ability gives him the remove this threat in person and, through doing so, he gains a new found degree of self-respect and appreciation for the good things in life.
It’s deceptively simple, but The Rocketeer is also an artifact of its time, with plenty of genre deconstruction and social commentary knocking around inside its narrative. Because this never becomes the narrative it slides past people rendered immune to subtext by years of stupid, empty movies. It never becomes the narrative because Joe Johnston (was at the time) a director who (understood) the trick to doing superhero material. It’s not about originality. We’ve seen all this before and often seen it done poorly. It’s about execution. And not just the mob’s kind, either…though that helps move things along, in the best Gangster Movie tradition.
We know we’re in good hands as soon as the title disappears and the film’s literally opened up for us, it’s first shot framed by two guys pushing a hanger door out of the way. Like a comic book panel. Or the center-wipe of a Republic serial. As we follow a racing plane out of its hanger we meet former crop-duster, current stunt pilot and occasional race winner Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) who’s about to test-fly the plane he’s spent three years custom building for the upcoming, oft-talked about “nationals.”
These plans for the future literally crash and burn when a car chase between gangsters and FBI agents strays into Cliff’s airfield. We’re meant to think Cliff’s plane falls to stray gunfire, but repeat viewings reveal Cliff crashes because his father figure/mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) removed the Cliff’s lucky wad of gum from the the tail fin.
“That’s fresh paint, damnit!”
“You want me to crash?”
“Chewing gum ain’t gonna keep your butt up in the air.”
The Rocketeer does this thing movies used to do: setting up plot points that, later on, pay off. Like the picture of Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) in Cliff’s cockpit, which we also meet before the credits end. I admire this film’s economy of motion. There’s no waste here and, like a tribe on the Great Planes, the film wastes nothing. As soon as the credits end we get a title card: “Los Angeles 1938.” Cut to: a gangster with a Tommy gun, hanging out the trunk of his getaway car, blasting the Feds with a Tommy Gun.
In eight minutes we get credits, a full set-up, and complete introduction to the hero’s entire supporting cast. We also see Our Hero, Cliff, go through an entire emotional spectrum, from elation at his successful maiden voyage, to desperation as the plane crashes, to anger over its burning wreckage. We see him keep his head in a crisis by successfully bringing the plane down. He shows off some sentiment by rescuing his lucky picture of his girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), from the cockpit. And he shows off some anger by punching one of the Federales, who (of course) take no responsibility for all the mayhem and shrug off Cliff’s concerns with, “Well, maybe you should get a real job.”
After cleaning up and getting stuck with the bill for all the damages, Cliff and Peevy discover what all the fuss was about secreted inside one of their old bi-plane’s cockpits. It seems the mob’s absconded with a jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) himself. Most of the film is structured around inter-cutting between Cliff and Peevy, who have “the rocket” and everyone else who’s out to get it, including a Nazi spy-turned-number three box office star in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who originally hired the mob (forgetting to tell them about the whole “Nazi spy” thing).
Plot-wise, that really is it, but The Rocketeer‘s packed with all these little touches of verisimilitude. I love how Jenny’s house mother is named Mrs.
Pie Pye (Pat Crawford Brown). And how her first words to Cliff are,
“You know my rules: no gentlemen after 6 p.m.”
Cliff: “Well, I’m no gentleman.”
“You can say that again.”
Cliff and Jenny catch a lot of flack for being cardboard standies instead of characters because this movie lets them reveal character traits through their interactions. If this movie were made in 2011, Cliff would need to waste our time with some dramatic flashbacks, establishing the inevitable Daddy Issues all cinematic pilots must have in the post-Top Gun world (see also, Green Lantern…though, on second thought, don’t). Instead, we follow them through a typical date, ending in the typical move-date way, with her pissed him for being an idiot and not telling her about the plane crash.
The two work together because each is using the other to shore up their personality issues. She’s the All-Californian Girl, raised on an orange grove in the shadow of LA. She’s going after a career in Hollywood with stalwart practicality, building up a resume of shit parts, playing glorified set dressing. She’s longs for a Romantic image of Hollywood so much she went and hooked up with a walking example: Cliff . It’s no coincidence their one and only date in the film winds up at a Neville Sinclair movie, which Jenny convinces Cliff to see because Sinclair’s playing an Ace Pilot…the kind of Ace Pilot Cliff already is in real life.
But because he is living the journeyman life of a “flyer,” scrimping and penny-pinching to keep himself in spare parts and fuel, he can’t take his girl out anywhere but to the same old places. Insecurity constantly gnawing at him every time she talks about her successful Hollywood friends. If any major character flaw saves Cliff from Gary Stu-ism, it’s his fundamental misunderstanding of what Jenny wants/expects from him. He dreams of bringing home the bread for her as a nationally recognized flyer, knows that dream is farther off than ever before, and expresses his insecurity about this by verbally shitting on her professional aspirations.
I love that Cliff’s oafishness does not automatically end their relationship the first time it rears its ugly head. How, despite Neville Sinclair’s cozying up to her (after he overhears Cliff’s ill-timed and fumbling attempt to tell Jenny about The Rocket), asking her to dinner and dancing at the posh South Seas Club where she’s always longed to go, there’s never a hint that Jenny and Cliff’s relationship is in real danger. So when Cliff, disguised as a waiter, interrupts her dinner with Hollywood’s number three star, she’s more disappointed than annoyed, as if some small part of her were waiting for him to pull just such a stunt.
Of course, he only did it to warn her about the gangsters who stole her picture out of the hanger (when they couldn’t find The Rocket) and are now out to kidnap her to get to him. Then they have what’s arguably the film’s most famous exchange.
“Prepare yourself for a shock…I’m the Rocketeer.”
“The Rocketeer, don’t you read the papers?”
“No, I’ve been working.”
In Hollywood. The Dream Factory where, in about twenty years, men very much like Neville will help make jet packs famous for a new generation of kids. Meanwhile, out in the “real” world, her boyfriend’s become famous for using his own jetpack to rescue a fellow air-stuntman. (“Extra! Extra! Man Flies Without Plane!”) Instead of fleeing the South Seas Club, Jenny sticks around to help her man out once gangsters start closing in on him.
Sure, this ensures her Inevitable Kidnapping, but even here she shines, using good ol’ fashioned Movie Geek powers (honed to a fine edge thanks to it being 1938, eons before you could look everything up in five seconds, when we Movie Geeks still had to rely on our Memory Palaces) to see through Neville’s “I’m just as much a victim as you are” act. Neville tries to butter her up with come-ons from his previous films and, with a growing level of amusement, Jenny nails each one down to the scene and the actress who originally heard them.
This kind of irony makes me think there are two protagonists in The Rocketeer, and it’s as much Jenny’s story as Cliff’s. Both learn that the fame and fortune they sought in their respective fields is either illusionary or unimportant next to what they have together. Through the act of realizing this, both act in concert to save the world…or, at the very least, prevent Hitler from fielding flying commandos. Cliff trips over himself into the role of his world’s first superhero. Jenny realizes that being a top box office drawn doesn’t mean shit when literally anybody can be that…even a Nazi spy.
There’s a lot of ways you could take this analysis from there. Everyone else hides their real selves behind their job titles and social conventions. Jenny’s an actress, looking to disguise herself for a living. Neville does just that on several levels, being an actor and a spy pretending to be an actor. (After all, the two professions are so alike…hey, you know what? Team America totally ripped this movie off.) The mob boss Neville hires to snatch The Rocket, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), pretends to be the respectable owner of the South Seas Club. The FBI agents pretend to be competent. Howard Hughes does a fine job pretending to be sane…if we chalk the whole “designing and building a jetpack” thing up to Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
Everyone in the film is pretending to be something they’re not…except Cliff. So (in another ironic of course) he winds up wearing the mask and the costume…though it’s never referred to as such. It’s a helmet, built for functionality, ontop of his usual piloting clothes. And, in a very Marvel Comics moment, the media give Cliff his nome de garre. The Rocketeer is never an identity Cliff steps into: it’s a tool. And, if he’s any kind of pilot, he views every tool designed to aid human flight as an extension of himself.
As with most sci-fi MacGuffins, the Rocket’s only as good as the person wearing it. There’s never any doubt Cliff is anything other than the Best Possible Person in the World to’ve found it, and that’s gonna rub some people the wrong way. Nor is the outcome of all this ever really in question. The narrative is too deliberate, too classical, for existential navel gazing or Deep Commentary on the affairs of the day.
Since either (or both) of these two things hobble even the best modern superhero films, I can’t but find The Rocketeer refreshing. I loved it as a kid and it’s even better today. Predictable without being boring. The script is too tight, the actors are too well-cast and Joe Johnston’s (was at this point) too good of a director to let the film glide. Like any good flying machine, its thousand moving parts all come together to achieve a technical miracle, and a personal favorite of mine to this day.
My hands want to detach themselves from my wrists and strangle me for typing this, but The Rocketeer really is……a film….for the…whole…uggh…family. Unless you’re the kind of person who found this movie “boring” because “nothing happens” and everyone in it is “boring” and/or “stupid.” If so, you are obviously a soulless zombie, incapable of human emotion and out to feast on my brains.