In an era where big budget superhero films dominate the box office, it’s easy to forget that “comic book adaptation” was once a dirty phrase in Hollywood. Even 10 years ago, silver screen supeheroics were considered a risky investment before Nolan and Whedon used them to shatter records. Capes on Camera is a look at those rare comic book movies of years past. Some are hidden gems, some noble failures, and other best relegated to the quarter bin of history.
In 1989, Warner Brothers, with Michael Uslan and Tim Burton at the helm, took a considerable risk for a major studio when it went forward with a big budget, star-studded adaptation of Batman at a time when the character still conjured images of a dancing Adam West (all respect to dancing Adam West, of course). When the film ended up a commercial success and a marketing supernova, other studios took note and took off running to drug store spinner racks and comic shops for inspiration. The Rocketeer, released by Disney in 1991 was one of the first films to try to tap into the pulpy comic vein that had WB rolling in the bat-dollars.
Unlike many of the films I’ll likely be re-visiting in this series, the Rocketeer is a relatively recent property, in spite of its 30s trappings. Created by Dan Stevens in 1982, the Rocketeer was one of the first real successes of the 80s indie comic boom that would also give rise to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Los Bros Hernandez’s seminal Love and Rockets, among others. In this case, a sporadic publishing history and less than a decade’s worth of stories perhaps worked to this film’s advantage. While studios were eager to snatch up the rights to comic book heroes in the wake of Batman, few were comfortable with the tropes of comic book storytelling, often resulting in frequently regrettable and often downright inspired changes. In this environment, a fledgling indie comic set in the 30s is actually served pretty well.
While superheroes might still have been a flash in the pan, big budget serials like Indiana Jones were a proven quantity, and that’s clearly the mold from which this film is cast. After his plane is brought down during a shoot-out between runaway gangsters and G-men, test pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is close to losing his job and his aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) when he finds a personal rocket engine hidden in an old plane by the gangsters. After Cliff uses the rocket to save a friend during an air show, “the Rocketeer” attracts the attention of the press and of Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a matinee idol and secret Nazi agent who wants the rocket to create a squadron of Nazi jetpack troopers. With the aid of Jenny and mechanic “Peevy’ Peabody (Alan Arkin) Cliff must fend off Sinclair and the mafia goons of boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) before the rocket falls into the clutches of the Third Reich.
The Rocketeers greatest strength may be its sincerity. Utterly devoid of cynicism or ironic deconstruction of the source material, The Rocketeer doesn’t try to be anything else than a fun adventure serial. Director Joe Johnston—a former Star Wars production designer who would revisit similar serial territory to greater financial success with Captain America: The First Avenger—has clear affection for the comic source material and its roots and lovingly captures the spirit of Saturday matinees. The performances are characteristically heightened, to mixed results. While the film’s gangsters and government agents all speak in distractingly conscious period slang, Timothy Dalton owns it as an evil Errol Flynn-type, hitting a sweet spot between charming and creepy, even after his Nazi sympathies are revealed and he takes to speaking in one of the most wildly exaggerated German accents committed to film. Both the script and Jennifer Connelly do a lot to try to elevate Jenny out of the standard damsel in distress role, even though the character ultimately winds up in a few too many distressing situations that necessitate jetpack rescue.
The problem with taking inspiration from a film genre noted for being thin and disposable is that the end result might be, well, thin and disposable. Nothing in The Rocketeer is outright bad, it’s enjoyable throughout, but not much of it is particularly memorable either. Much of the action from an iconic first flight, to gangster shootouts, to a chaotic brawl in a swank nightclub, is well-worn ground that the Rocketeer doesn’t do much to make stand out. This issue extends to the titular character, whose personality is thinly sketched outside of his love for aviation and Jenny. For all its two-fisted action and Ark-raidin’, part of what makes the Indiana Jones movies stick out from its pulpy-ilk is how well and naturally it fleshes out its main characters. Learning details about Dr. Jones’ past, quirks, and fears elevates him from the lantern-jawed adventurer archetype from which the character originates. Billy Campbell fills in what’s on the page well, but Cliff Secord ends up feeling as two-dimensional as the world he inhabits.
The film has its share of silly moments, but these all feel like the product of the genre rather than the particular fault of the film. It’s cheesy gee-whiz sincerity a breath of fresh air in the waning days of drab, gritty superheroics. Scenes such as when the up to that point ruthless gangsters are more or less let off the hook because they refuse to actively assist some stinkin’ Nazis (rather than unwittingly, as they did for the past hour and a half), and the scene where government agents and the Rocketeer are suddenly ambushed by a massive Nazi zeppelin test the limits of credibility (you think the dude who’s whole deal is flying might have seen that coming), stretch credibility, the film remains fun for people willing to watch the film on its own level.
Though thin at times and a little on the nose in its 30s aesthetic, The Rocketeer is a commendable adaptation from page to screen and more enjoyable than its flop status suggests. The Rocketeer is a solid, workman comic adaptation, if not necessarily a memorable one.
Comic Nerd Nitpicks: “Uh, hello? The Rocketeer’s girlfriend is named Betty. After the famous pinup model Bettie Page? Why don’t we just call the Rocketeer ‘JetGuy’ while we’re at it.”
Look for it on Netflix instant and iTunes.