Revisiting 'The Rocketeer,' Disney's Early Superhero Masterpiece

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)In 1991, Walt Disney Pictures released two of the very best films to ever fall under their banner. That fall, they would release Beauty and the Beast to widespread acclaim from audiences, critics, and the film industry as a whole. The animated adaptation of the tale as old as time became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – it's a feat that's never truly been repeated, because the other two animated Best Picture nominees (Up and Toy Story 3) did so in a field of ten nominees, where Beauty and the Beast did so as just one of five nominees. No matter: everyone knows that Beauty and the Beast is one of the studio's biggest successes, a wonderful, enchanting romance that deserves its iconic status.I haven't convened you all here today to talk about Beauty and the Beast. Let's talk about the other wonderful film Disney released in 1991, smack dab in the middle in the summer. That's when Walt Disney Pictures tried its hand at making a live-action story that would become a summertime hit at a period when they badly needed one. It was a period piece, an action-adventure, based on a comic book. In the 2010s, The Rocketeer would've been a big hit out of the gate. In 1991, it was sadly relegated to cult status.

The Pitch

In the summer of 1990, the Walt Disney Company, through its Touchstone Pictures distribution arm, aimed big for its summertime hit. Touchstone had, in the 1980s, boasted films with some big-name actors, but none quite so big as Dick Tracy. Based on the comic strip that originated in the 1930s, Dick Tracy was an impossibly A-List film from top to bottom. It was directed by Hollywood legend and Academy Award winner Warren Beatty, who also starred as the square-jawed detective alongside an ensemble cast featuring Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Dick Van Dyke, Charles Durning, James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Catherine O'Hara, Estelle Parsons, and more. Dick Tracy was the height of spare-no-expense blockbuster filmmaking of the era, garnering three Oscars, including one for Best Original Song, awarded to Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim.And in spite of all that, Dick Tracy was, at most, a modest hit. Domestically, it grossed over $100 million and was the ninth-highest-grossing film of the year. But Dick Tracy arrived the same year as a much bigger hit for Touchstone Pictures, Pretty Woman, and couldn't measure up financially. Considering how much the film cost, it was seen as a disappointment, Oscar love aside. (Fun fact: through 2018, Dick Tracy was tied with just one other film for having won the most Oscars and being a comic-book movie. The other title is Black Panther.) Dick Tracy was supposed to be, for Disney brass, the next Indiana Jones. Alas, the numbers weren't there.But Disney wasn't willing to give up without a fight. Dick Tracy had arrived the summer after Tim Burton's massively successful adaptation of Batman for Warner Bros., so Disney was convinced that there was still more juice left in the comic-book idea for its future films. In the late-1980s, the company had purchased the rights to a lesser-known comic-book character created by artist Dave Stevens, known as The Rocketeer. Like Batman, the Rocketeer wasn't exactly gifted with superpowers. This scrappy pilot had just a super-powered jet pack that he strapped to his back, enabling him to fly. The comic-book version of the character was a bit more risque – his girlfriend was named and designed to mimic the 50s-era nude model Bettie Page, for example. But as development on a film began, the girlfriend's curves smoothed out and she became more demure than risque. Eventually, Disney shifted the film – it was first set to be released by Touchstone Pictures, but then by Walt Disney Pictures proper. 

The Movie 

The Rocketeer, from the outside in, does exactly what Disney would have hoped for from the property. Like the Indiana Jones series, the film is set in the 1930s. Like the Indiana Jones series, there's a threat of Nazis against the good guys. Our heroic lead is an unfussy, though often in-over-his-head type with a love interest who's less damsel-in-distress-like than she may seem, too. We can talk about the reception of this film in the next section, but let's get this much out of the way: The Rocketeer is one of the very best films Disney has ever made, and it's not even close.The opening piano strains of James Horner's incredible score set the stage for something both sincere and rousing, as we watch our hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), prepare for flight in his newly redesigned Gee Bee racer plane. Unbeknownst to Cliff and his friend/mechanic Peavy (Alan Arkin), there's a runaway mobster carrying a mysterious package, hunted down by the Feds. This chase ends up colliding with Cliff's flight – an errant bullet destroys the plane's engine and nearly sends Cliff to the hospital. Down on his luck, Cliff is shocked to see that the mysterious package has been left on the airfield where he and Peavy work: it's a strange-looking rocket pack. After some tests, he and Peavy realize that the rocket pack, when placed on his back, can let him fly around. Of course, the Feds, the mob, and an oily British actor named Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) all want the rocket pack too, setting off a wild adventure.Directed by Joe Johnston, The Rocketeer is a straightforward, uncomplicated, and utterly charming story of old-fashioned heroism. Like both Star Wars and Indiana Jones before it, The Rocketeer seems to have been willed out of a nostalgia for 30s-era serials, but done so with enough modern flair to avoid feeling fusty or stodgy. The script has more unexpected flashes of wit than you might figure with a Disney film; Cliff's girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is an up-and-coming actress, and the scenes where he goes behind the scenes of the latest Neville Sinclair adventure in which she's appearing as a background player are pitched at the same level of knowing satire as the inside-baseball jokes in Singin' In The Rain.More to the point, The Rocketeer is just a hell of a lot of fun. Secord's foray into superheroism is charmingly low-stakes, too: when he first dons the bodysuit, rocket pack and helmet (the latter of which, Peavy states, makes him look like a hood ornament), he's only doing it to save an old flying buddy of his from crashing and killing himself during a daytime air show. Even when the stakes seem to get higher, it's oddly quite grounded. Within the span of a few hours (in screen time – the movie is a well-paced 108 minutes), Cliff learns that the source of the rocket pack is none other than Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), who built it as a rival to something the Nazis are trying to concoct for their own nefarious purposes. Yet even as he's fending off Nazis and a Dick Tracy-like thug, Cliff's adventures feel less outrageous and more natural.Though none of its stars could claim to be true A-Listers at the time – Connelly was a decade away from winning an Oscar, and Dalton was a couple years removed from having played James Bond – The Rocketeer boasts a genuinely overtalented ensemble of character actors: Sorvino, Dalton, Connelly, Campbell, Arkin, and O'Quinn are joined by William Sanderson, Margo Martindale, Jon Polito, Ed Lauter, and more to fill out the cast. And they never play down to the material, treating it with the right level of earnestness. Think of one of the truly great heel-turn moments in Disney history. The climax is set near Griffith Park Observatory: the Nazis, led by Sinclair (who's been a sleeper agent the whole time), have kidnapped Jenny in the hopes that Cliff will hand over the rocket pack. Sinclair's got the mobsters (led by Eddie Valentine, Sorvino's character) as his lackeys, until Cliff insults Valentine for working for the Fuhrer. Valentine is shocked to learn of Sinclair's true colors, and says firmly, "I may not make an honest buck. But I'm 100% American, and I don't work for no two-bit Nazi." The dialogue could come right out of a comic book, but Sorvino plays it straight and makes it work just as well as a follow-up line he has once a gunfight begins between the Feds, the mob, and the Nazis. He sees Cliff don the helmet and pack, and fly off to save the day, and simply says: "Go get 'em, kid." What a hell of a moment..

The Legacy

And what a hell of a movie. The Rocketeer was largely met with solid critical reviews, though a few critics were less kind to the film's Indiana Jones-esque aspirations. (Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, in a critical piece, rightly noted another inspiration, Back to the Future, in the way Marty and Doc Brown's relationship is mirrored by that of Cliff and Peavy.) The decent buzz, though, was not enough to help The Rocketeer at the box office, if only because it was a victim of timing. The movie opened on June 21, week after the arrival of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and two weeks before Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Those were the two highest-grossing films of 1991.)Worse still, The Rocketeer was outgrossed by a summertime release from Walt Disney Pictures, arriving just three weeks later: a 30th anniversary re-release of 101 Dalmatians made $60 million at the box office, where the comic-book adaptation made just $46 million. Though its budget was modest, the numbers weren't there. Just as had been the case with Dick Tracy, Disney wanted a franchise with The Rocketeer. And just as with Dick Tracy, they struck out.Over time, The Rocketeer has maintained its cult status. Johnston's career as a journeyman filmmaker adept with special effects continued throughout the 1990s; he directed the original Jumanji as well as the underrated drama October Sky. One of his most recent directorial efforts is a pretty big deal indeed: the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Captain America: The First Avenger. It's a film set during World War II, whose hero is transformed by the unexpected arrival of special gifts, and has to fend off Nazis. It's no coincidence that Johnston directed the well-liked MCU effort. Disney, to its credit, hasn't entirely forgotten The Rocketeer. The film served as the inspiration for the recently premiered Disney Junior show of the same name (though said show has its heart in the right place, it's a lot different than the film, for good and ill). There have also always been whispers about a possible revival of the character. In 2016, Disney announced that it was creating a sequel to the film, to be written by Max Winkler and Matt Spicer, though no further information ever emerged. (The persisting rumor was that the new lead would be a young African American woman, and may I just humbly suggest that Disney cast Lupita Nyong'o and be done with it?)It's heartbreaking that The Rocketeer never got its full due back in 1991. But now we have Disney+, which means you can watch the movie again and again and again. Like so many of the greatest Disney classics, The Rocketeer is inherently rewatchable. It's a thrilling, exciting paean to the past that toes the line between being old-fashioned and modern. If you're reading this while scrolling through Disney+, head down to the Nostalgic Movies subsection, find this title, and click Play. You'll thank me later.