When Disney announced that it’d be releasing a fifth Indiana Jones movie directed by Steven Spielberg, it was inevitable. Since it purchased Lucasfilm, Disney has aggressively expanded Star Wars, but with few other franchise options available (sorry, underground Radioland Murders fandom), it was only a matter of when Disney would revive Harrison Ford’s fedora-donning hero. Now that Disney owns Marvel and Lucasfilm, it can make superhero movies of different kinds until, to paraphrase Troy McClure, they become unprofitable. Indiana Jones doesn’t have a cape or super-strength, but his ability to evade any obstacle—boulder or heart-pulling baddie or something worse—is equivalent to that of Captain America, a lightsaber-wielding Rey, or other heroes. Maybe Spielberg wants to atone for the negative reactions associated with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which tried to pass the fedora and whip onto walking meme Shia LaBeouf. But there’s a greater irony at play: Disney already released an excellent heir to the Indiana Jones-as-hero-and-superhero title, just days after the 10th anniversary of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
That heir is The Rocketeer, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Here is a nostalgia trip that is both better than you might remember, and genuinely wonderful. To revisit The Rocketeer, directed by journeyman filmmaker Joe Johnston, is to step back even further in time than to the early 1990s. The film’s hero, Cliff Secord, may not initially suggest an analogue to Dr. Henry Jones Jr. He’s most at home at the airfield where he first discovers the jetpack that gives him the power of flight in ways that even his prized Gee Bee plane can’t. Cliff would probably be lost in one of Indy’s archaeology classes at Marshall College, but his daring, adventurous spirit and thrilling transformation into a makeshift hero in the Golden Age Of Hollywood fit right into the ethos of the first three Indiana Jones films.
The Rocketeer takes place in Los Angeles in 1938, the same year as the events of The Last Crusade. The fresh-faced and guileless Billy Campbell is Cliff, who lands in the crosshairs of the FBI, mobsters, Nazis, and even Howard Hughes, all in the span of 108 minutes. Though Cliff and Indy come from different backgrounds, their shared willingness to take the risky move in a moment of peril posit them as being cut from the same pulp-hero cloth. The Rocketeer was adapted from the comic books of the same name by the late Dave Stevens, who was himself inspired by Commando Cody, a character from the Republic Pictures cadre of serials; Indiana Jones, concocted by George Lucas and Spielberg, was inspired by serials they loved as children, specifically those from Republic Pictures.
When The Rocketeer opened in the summer of 1991, critics weren’t blind to the notion that the film might owe a debt or two to the Indiana Jones franchise. Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader dubbed it a “rip-off” of both the Indiana Jones films as well as Back To The Future, and other reviews didn’t ignore its inspiration in ’30s- and ’40s-era serials. (The late, great Roger Ebert suggested, “Indy kidded [serials], The Rocketeer copies them.”) What makes The Rocketeer stand on its own two feet 25 years later, instead of actually existing as a rip-off, is that its gee-whiz, aw-shucks tone is so welcome and so at odds with not only action films of the early 1990s, but most modern, frequently grimdark blockbusters.
There’s no shortage of dark and/or mature undertones to The Rocketeer, even if they’re smoothed down to fit the Disney standard. (In Stevens’ vision, Cliff’s girlfriend, Jenny, was directly patterned on pinup model Bettie Page. Unsurprisingly, the movie version of Cliff’s gal pal, played here by Jennifer Connelly, is more family friendly.) The difference is that, as with the Indiana Jones franchise, the darkness never threatens to engulf the characters or world they inhabit; it exists to be destroyed, not to be wallowed in. The easiest parallel between this film and the Indiana Jones movies is in their mutual, very dark enemy: the Nazis. No one here echoes Indy and says, “Nazis. I hate those guys.” Yet the climax, set at Griffith Observatory, comes awfully close: Mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) reacts to the news that his movie-star boss, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is a Nazi in disguise by pointing his gun at the suave villain and saying, “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100 percent American!”
The Nazi threat is made vivid and terrifying to Cliff when he watches a piece of animated German propaganda purloined by an FBI agent and Hughes (played smoothly by Terry O’Quinn), depicting the Führer’s plan to use jetpack technology to equip his soldiers with the power to fly and destroy all in their path. This section was directed by Disney’s Mark Dindal (who later directed The Emperor’s New Groove), further emphasizing how serious the studio was about wanting this to be a big hit, as the Disney renaissance of animation hit its peak. The Rocketeer’s budget—$35 million, according to Box Office Mojo—might not’ve been the company’s biggest ever, but this wasn’t a case of Disney dropping a movie at a slow time of year to be ignored.
Quite the opposite, in fact: Disney went overboard on giving the movie a proper spotlight. (The art-deco-themed marketing has long been a bone of contention as to why the film flopped, even for Campbell; the design of the early posters may not sell audiences on the exact premise, but they remain lovely and arresting images.) The Rocketeer landed a cushy summer-release slot and got a comparable merchandising campaign to animated films like Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin. Unfortunately, the film opened in between Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the two highest-grossing films of 1991. The Rocketeer wasn’t a flop—it raked in $46 million domestically. But the numbers don’t lie—the original 101 Dalmatians was re-released later that summer, and had a bigger opening weekend and overall domestic take than the story of a test pilot who straps a jetpack on his back and flies around Los Angeles. That alone represents an unavoidably bad spin on the success of a 1930s-set comic-book adaptation inspired by old-fashioned serials.
If The Rocketeer had been a hit in 1991, Campbell and Connelly might’ve become stars; Connelly eventually got there, thanks to more prestigious, award-winning roles. The success of The Rocketeer would’ve led to Disney’s first comic-book franchise, a decade-plus before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed. Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg was gung ho on the project because of its similarities and connection to Indiana Jones. (That connection goes all the way to the top: Johnston worked as an art director on Raiders and Temple Of Doom, as well as on the effects of the first two Star Wars pictures. And Stevens did uncredited artwork on Raiders Of The Lost Ark.) The recent success of Tim Burton’s Batman would likely have been encouraging to Katzenberg as well. But by 1991, a clear-eyed, awestruck movie that combines a love of aviation and a melting pot of archetypes from old serials was out of place in the mainstream. Burton’s Batman was a seismic shift in blockbusters in 1989, just as Raiders Of The Lost Ark was in 1981; it was a shift away from films like this one.
The Rocketeer was Disney’s second consecutive attempt to make a comic-styled franchise: The summer of 1990 brought the bigger and splashier Dick Tracy, directed by and starring Warren Beatty, as well as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Madonna. That Touchstone Pictures release was so indebted to the visual design of Chester Gould’s garish gangsters and the related serials that it didn’t feel like a spiritual sibling of Indiana Jones. (The Rocketeer does veer slightly into Dick Tracy territory with the depiction of Sinclair’s blockheaded heavy, Lothar, although that character did appear in one of Stevens’ stories.) Dick Tracy made far more money than The Rocketeer, bringing in over $160 million worldwide. But because Dick Tracy cost $100 million to make and promote, Katzenberg saw it as a failure, telling employees that the film “may not have been worth it.” We can only imagine what he said about The Rocketeer after it left theaters.
Maybe it’s because The Rocketeer was a one-and-done proposition that its luster hasn’t dimmed in a quarter century. The existence or prospect of multiple comic book-themed cinematic universes is now impossible to avoid; the majority have been created to copy Marvel’s long game in the short term. Add to that supposedly connected universes with various action figures, apps, and even Tetris. Thus, a movie like The Rocketeer—populated with old-school effects, featuring a host of “Hey, it’s that guy!” faces surrounding two baby-faced leads (Jon Polito! Sorvino! Ed Lauter! Character actor Margo Martindale!), and lacking a pointless mythology—is decidedly singular. (It’s kind of funny to revisit the film with the knowledge that its existence was a large part of why Joe Johnston directed Captain America: The First Avenger, set a few years after The Rocketeer.) This movie is not without its fans—last month, Disney’s online store unveiled a handful of exclusive shirts themed to the film’s anniversary, suggesting that even it knows it has a minor cult on its hands.
As well it should. The Rocketeer is, and always has been, a delightful, old-fashioned paean to the past, when a man strapping a jetpack on his back and performing minor acts of heroism would set the big city abuzz. The tone is set instantly, with theme music from the late James Horner that ranks among his finest compositions: a sweeping orchestral number led by violins and punctuated by a single brass note that evokes a genuine sense of awe and excitement at the mere sight of Cliff Secord flying his Gee Bee racer in the valleys of Southern California. Secord is a good-hearted lug who wants to provide for his lovely girlfriend/acting hopeful, Jenny, but worries that his current state of affairs would make him a less-than-palatable husband. Jenny, meanwhile, gets what could be the role of a lifetime, when her work as an extra on the latest Neville Sinclair picture turns into something more intimate. As played by a deliciously evil Dalton, Sinclair is essentially a dastardly Errol Flynn; when we see him on set chewing the scenery, it’s like peeking behind the scenes of a slightly cheesier version of Michael Curtiz’s classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
This confluence of archetypes—Nazis, mobsters, movie stars—is one of many aspects of old-school serials that The Rocketeer gets right, much like the Indiana Jones films. Certain sequences and character arcs are equally similar: The set piece at the South Seas Club—where Neville oozes charm toward Jenny before Cliff, in his Rocketeer outfit, comes to save the day—is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Temple Of Doom; the climax on a Nazi zeppelin recalls a similar scene in The Last Crusade. Neville Sinclair’s death scene—after he wrests away the jetpack from Cliff and puts it on, he fails to notice a fatal gas leak in the battered device—isn’t quite as horrific as the villains’ death scenes in the Indiana Jones movies, yet it represents a similar conclusion from a storytelling point of view: Sinclair, like Belloq or Mola Ram, allows an unquenchable thirst for power to consume him, and loses his life in the process. (Also, Sinclair ends up blowing not only himself up, but the “land” part of the “Hollywoodland” sign, doubling down on the iconography.)
That same temptation presents itself to Cliff. He can’t deny the jetpack’s power, even after it’s destroyed: When Hughes, in the final scene, asks Cliff what it was like wearing the pack and flying around, he replies simply, “It’s the closest I’ll ever get to heaven, Mr. Hughes.” The movie ends with Hughes giving Cliff the next best thing: a replacement for Cliff’s Gee Bee, which gets shot down as collateral damage in an opening firefight between the feds and mobsters who tussle over the jetpack. Jenny, meanwhile, hands Alan Arkin’s crusty mechanic Peevy the blueprint to that same jetpack. It was a tease for a sequel that never materialized. (A few years back, Vulture reported that Disney was interested in remaking the film, but the project appears to be dormant.) Who knows what would’ve happened in the sequel that never was?
There were so few stories in Stevens’ original incarnation of the character—Neville Sinclair was a wholesale creation of screenwriters Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and William Dear—that whatever came next wouldn’t have been any more beholden to the source material. If a sequel were announced, whatever fans there were of the comics would likely not be as obnoxiously deafening as the faux-put-upon MRAs who act aggrieved at the very thought of a female-led Ghostbusters. There wouldn’t be a cadre of heroes who fought against each other. Whatever peril Cliff faced would, ironically, feel less airborne and closer to the ground. He’d get into various scrapes. He’d make up his escape plans as he went along, getting the girl in dashing fashion just in the nick of time. He might face off against villains aiming to destroy the world in some fashion, much as Indiana Jones did against the Nazis and Mola Ram, but without the threat feeling exhausting. The Rocketeer only took flight once; that one time was enough to put us all a little closer to the heaven of another serial-inspired, breathless action film that embraced the corniness of its premise without sacrificing the sense of genuine entertainment.