Disney released The Rocketeer in 1991 and the audience yawned. It made a reported $46 million on a $35 million budget while trying to capitalize on a comic book character that had been introduced in 1982 and never seemed to break through to the mainstream. The film died a rather undignified death ... at first.
"The Rocketeer lacked stars, lacked known source material, had a budget that limited what audiences came to see (a hero with a rocket pack flying around), and merely promised more 1930’s-era heroics with fedoras, Tommy guns, and the like," Forbes reported. "Tim Burton’s Batman was a trendsetting blockbuster in the summer of 1989. The Rocketeer (along with the delightful The Phantom which just turned twenty years old two weeks ago) was unable to replicate that success."
Disney was caught a bit with its pants down; it was counting on a big, continuing hit. "Disney had high hopes forThe Rocketeer as the next big blockbuster franchise as well, cross-promoting the film with fast-food tie-ins and a Super Nintendo game," AMC stated. None of these efforts helped The Rocketeer make a splash.
So why are we still talking about it?
Because the movie is fucking amazing. You start with a few good-looking kids trying to make it big, you mix in a jetpack, mobsters and literal Nazis and you shake thoroughly. What popped out is one of the most under-appreciated superhero films of all time.
The cast seems to be having a great time with the pulpy source material, and it doesn’t hurt that everyone from lead Billy Campbell to Jennifer Connolly is drop-dead gorgeous. Timothy Dalton plays a dashing actor from classical Hollywood named Neville Sinclair who just so happens to be a secret Nazi. The set design, from the Bulldog Cafe (based on a real structure!) to the South Seas Club and Sinclair’s house is just as attractive. The Rocketeer himself event sports an art deco helmet that looks like a hood ornament from a Ray Bradbury fever dream.
The movie is optimistic. The special effects look attractively practical, which helps give The Rocketeer its timeless feel. There is a subplot about Howard Hughes, featuring a Nazi propaganda film that’s darker in tone than the rest of the film; this is when we learn that Secord isn’t going to get away with just using the jetpack for a few heroic adventures. The entire war effort hinges on its recovery, and destruction.
There is no Rocketeer cinematic universe, even if many of us have hoped for sequels. The darker tone of the film’s threat exists as something to be stamped out; there is no monologue here about staring in the abyss or how you have to become the villain to fight the villain or other such nonsense that can make modern superhero movies so tedious.
Our hero is obsessed with flying and speed, and his love interest is herself drawn to the glamor of the movies. There is a wide-eyed sense of wonder to the film, aped from the classic serials and more recent (at the time) hits like the Indiana Jones series, without the more cynical tones of Burton’s Batman.
In many ways, the film’s visual effects and themes probably play better now — and are certainly more refreshing — than they were when the film was released. The Rocketeer feels like an antidote to the bloated monstrosities of modern action films.
Disney continues to crank out a few pieces of merchandise per year, and the film has gained a substantial cult of fans, cosplayers and collectors since its release. Billy Campbell himself has spoken of the film’s legs; more people talk to him about the film now than they did when it first released. "People who know the film and appreciate it really, really know it and appreciate it," he told CinemaBlend. "And so many people have loved it over the years that I do still get that. It's kind of pleasing, it's quite nice."
He said it actually took him a while to understand just how much the film had grown in its reach and audience.
"It was sort of a cumulative thing over the years, five or 10 years of realizing wow, this movie happened a decade ago, and I'm still having people come up to me and speak enthusiastically about it," Campbell stated. "And that doesn't happen all the time. I've made countless movies that I'd be surprised if anybody remembered."
Disney still had faith in the basic Rocketeer formula as well; the company tapped Joe Johnston to direct Captain America: The First Avenger, another film based on a comic book that took place in World War 2 with an optimistic, square-jawed hero. That film featured a character that was also slightly better known and was part of a much more effective marketing push.
It’s the perfect time to reboot the film with a new cast, as love for the source material has only grown in the past 25 years. If you haven’t seen the original, consider this your homework assignment. It was a film about a decade ahead of its time, and it’s wonderful to think that Disney may take another crack at it.