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.

Young Indiana Jones 1.11 – Princeton, 1916

In this blog, I’ve occasionally joked about the fun of watching television from parallel universes, and wondering about the shows that we could have watched if only our selfish TV companies had made them. With this in mind, I suggest to you that somebody in the multiverse got to enjoy at least a couple of seasons of actress Robyn Lively starring as Nancy Drew in adventures and mysteries set in the late 1910s after her no-good boyfriend abandoned her and went off to Europe. I bet that show was huge fun.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to start talking about the guest star instead of the new format for Young Indiana Jones, but it’s their own darn faults for making the earliest chronological appearance of the 17 year-old Indy a story where the guest star just steals the show from him. Sean Patrick Flanery takes over as Indiana Jones in this story, which was first shown on ABC in the spring of 1993, and Lloyd Owen is still here, briefly, as Indy’s father.

We’re in Princeton, where Indy is juggling his high school studies, time on the baseball team, an afterschool job as a soda jerk, and being boyfriend to Nancy Stratemeyer. Nancy is a fictional character, although her father, Edward Stratemeyer, was a real person. In 1916, he was renowned for his children’s books, principally the tales of the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift. Later on, he would devise the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the Nancy here is clearly meant to suggest that the fictional Nancy is based on his own daughter.

The episode was written by Matthew Jacobs and directed by Joe Johnston, and it’s a delightful tribute to all sorts of adventure fiction for kids. The mystery is all about some important plans that have been stolen from Thomas Edison’s nearby laboratories, and it’s got foreign agents and Naval intelligence and car chases and bad guys who conveniently talk about their secret schemes while our heroes are hiding right behind them. Of note among the actors, Clark Gregg, later to play SHIELD Agent Coulson, is here in a small part. Mark L. Taylor and James Handy, who had appeared together in the delightful Arachnophobia three years previously, are also among the cast. Director Johnston also cast Handy in small roles in his films The Rocketeer and Jumanji.

Our son enjoyed this much more than the previous ten episodes, though he was concerned about why they stopped making the “world tour” stories. This is the sort of development he’d better get used to. You can’t look back at classic television without looking at a lot of aggravating cancellations!

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

You know, I like Captain America’s first movie, but I don’t love it. It’s tough to completely embrace because there’s so much more to this story that time doesn’t allow us to see, but I want to so much. Everything works just fine until we meet the Howling Commandos. Then it’s into a montage of action scenes because this movie’s already gone for about eighty minutes and we still have several weeks of sneak attacks and missions behind enemy lines between where we are and the big climax.

It’s so unfair. Why aren’t there ten Howling Commandos movies here? I’ll settle for a ten episode TV series. Six. Two TV movies and a package of deleted scenes? They cast all these perfect actors as Cap’s team! I actually remember Dum Dum Dugan best from my own childhood as the starring part in Marvel’s silly Godzilla comic book, which I adored even despite the artwork that I didn’t like, and there is an actor named Neal McDonough who looks like the character came right off the page. There’s not nearly enough with these guys.

So what else? Joe Johnston directed this, and he also made the wonderful Rocketeer and Jumanji – and that idiotic Wolfman movie with Anthony Hopkins, but nobody’s perfect – and it’s just a tremendously fun period piece. Captain America vaulted over every other Marvel superhero to become my favorite once it finally clicked and I fell in love with Jack Kirby’s comics with the character. (Weirdly, I didn’t like Kirby at all when I was little.) Chris Evans just cemented the deal for me. He’s just perfect in the part. I really appreciate how he’s made this character resonate. Even on Twitter, the actor embodies everything that Captain America stands for.

Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, and Hayley Atwell is terrific fun as Agent Peggy Carter – about whom, much more later this summer – and it’s got a pair of great villains in Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. I like the concept of the Red Skull, a villain so hateful and horrible that even all the other Marvel supervillains hate him. I don’t like how there’s a get-out clause for him in this movie, that possibly the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube/Space Stone teleported him into the future so he might one day reappear to fight again. I hope not. I’m happier with him being a period villain only!

This also has the first appearance of Sebastian Stan’s character Bucky, who’ll end up turning the Marvel Universe upside down a few films later. Of course, all my childhood, Bucky was dead – and, because kid sidekicks were the worst thing in the universe when you’re thirteen or so, we were glad of it – so I was pretty surprised to learn, a couple of years before this movie, that they’d brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. Unpleasantly surprised, I should say. I was playing a miniatures game, Heroclix, at the time, when one of the other players at the shop explained this new-to-me character once he had a piece and thought that was the most idiotic thing I’d ever heard. I did win an important tournament for that expansion and snagged a super-rare prize with him, but grudgingly. So all credit to Sebastian Stan for taking a character I could not possibly care less about and making him so darn watchable. But some of that comes later, I guess.

Well, if you think I’m nitpicky about the way I write about these movies, you should see our son. He tells us that this is his favorite of the first five, but it needed one more explosion. The scene where Cap rescues the 400 soldiers from Hydra’s prison camp was his favorite part of the film, which I thought was interesting because it’s almost always the very end of the movie that thrills him most. But then again, this climax has Cap and Peggy being mushy over the radio to each other. He probably didn’t want to admit to any tears.

But all the action scenes had him hopping. He adored this movie and didn’t need too many explanations, although we did pause it to clarify what Hydra was up to after the Red Skull kills the three Nazi officials who visit his bunker to sneer at him, and also to explain Cap’s turn as an onstage propaganda hero to sell war bonds. Not like today’s children have many opportunities to learn what war bonds are!

And that’s another thing: they should have actually made one of those cheesy black and white shorts that Cap was making in the last half of 1942. That would have been so fun. So far my Marvel wishlist is a Sif and the Warriors Three feature, a ten-week Howling Commandos TV series, and a twelve-minute Captain America Punches Der Fuhrer’s Face short, like they’d run after the newsreel and the cartoon before the movie. Why does ABC keep making more Agents of SHIELD instead of what’s really important here?