The Rocketeer (1991)

Around these parts, the late comic artist Dave Stevens is best remembered for two things. The one you can’t have known about was providing the cover of a notorious issue of Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents that featured the sexy female lead in her underwear posing like a classic pinup. I bought that issue when I was in high school, didn’t think twice about whether I might need to discreetly put the other three or four comics I bought on the top of the stack, and suffered the wrath of my outraged mother for the better part of a month after she saw it. Knowing a good thing, Eclipse issued the cover as a poster. I may have had a cheesecake photo or two on my wall as a teenager, but even I wasn’t so dumb as to buy that poster.

The other thing is, of course, creating the throwback superhero the Rocketeer, although he did surprisingly little with a character that ended up as the star of a big, fun, Disney adventure film. There’s honestly not a lot of Stevens Rocketeer work in print, which kind of reminds me of how very little Steve Ditko Hawk & Dove there is. Stevens created the project as a love letter to icons from his youth like the Rocket Men from Republic’s adventure serials, Rondo Hatton, Bettie Page. I gave our son a quick visual rundown of the three last night, selecting a nice, tame picture of Bettie, nothing as envelope-pushing as that DNAgents cover, and he went to bed very, very skeptical about this movie.

So of course he enjoyed the heck out of it once it got going. It’s a very good adventure film full of explosions, stunts, and gunfights. It was directed by Joe Johnston, a director whose work I really enjoy, and he brought some terrific performances and energy to a really fine and tight script. I think the only flaw in the film is that it needs an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland sign early on, before the last four letters get abruptly blown up in the end. It stars Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly as the leads, with Timothy Dalton as the villain, and a powerhouse assortment of great character actors from the period, including Alan Arkin, Eddie Jones, Terry O’Quinn, Jon Polito, and Paul Sorvino, backing them.

It’s surprising that a film this good was made in the era it was. Thirty years ago, movies based on comic books were uncommon and largely awful, and the Rocketeer was hardly a household name. He – I mean she – may become one before much longer, though. One of the Disney channels has a new cartoon starring Cliff Secord’s great granddaughter as the modern Rocketeer. She could be the next Doc McStuffins! But I like the low-tech and throwback charm of this movie, with G-men and gangsters and Nazi saboteurs and Hollywood royalty and restaurants in buildings that look like bulldogs. It’s even got Howard Hughes in it! I’ve explained the Howard Hughes analogues that we’ve seen in this blog to our son before, in episodes of The Bionic Woman and The Ghosts of Motley Hall, but this is the first time the actual historical figure is a character in the narrative!

I paused the movie early on to make a point with our son. He was rewatching 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters last night, and we talked about how I’m just not as wowed by modern special effects as what they did in older movies. There are certainly some very interesting shots and compositions in the monster movie – Ghidrah’s reveal is breathtaking, and better than his introduction in any classic Toho film – but when everything amazing is done on computers, there’s less of a wow factor for me. There’s a bit early on in The Rocketeer when Cliff lands a tiny one-seater plane without landing gear, on fire, on a dirt track runway. I am more impressed with what the special effects team and stuntmen accomplished under the hot California sun that afternoon than I am anything in any modern Godzilla movie. I hope one day he’ll agree.

I do have a couple of minor complaints about the product we watched. I picked up the DVD from the era when they were advertising DisneyMovieRewards.com on everything, and firstly, the transfer is downright godawful, very soft and artifacty. And it doesn’t have a very, very good 40-second teaser trailer that you used to see, with the letters in “rocketeer” punctuating some very quick cuts of the action; it has one of those “spoil everything” trailers, for a film you now need not see. I’m tempted to upgrade this to a better Blu-ray edition. It’s a good film that deserves a good home media experience.