Quick, start naming the best superhero movies ever made. Yeah, I’m hearing a lot about Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and Batman Begins and The Batman and okay I get it, there are a lot of great Batman movies. But any list that fails to include The Rocketeer has a glaring oversight. After Batmania swept the nation in 1989, Hollywood responded in the most curious way. Rather than greenlight a slew of movies based on popular superheroes from Marvel and DC comic books, they spent the next few years releasing films based on pulpy heroes from 1930s comic strips and radio dramas like Dick Tracy (1990), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996). Luckily for Dave Stevens, he’d written and drawn a comic in the eighties that paid homage to the era that was now in vogue, so in 1991, we got The Rocketeer, which sadly disappointed at the box office and never became the franchise it deserved to be. I had fond memories of it as a kid, and I’m pleased to report it holds up as an adult, even moreso because of how it compares to the modern superhero movies popularized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU even had the good sense to recruit director Joe Johnston to helm Captain America: The First Avenger when they needed their own Nazi-fightin’ superhero origin story! Watching this nineties adaptation of an eighties comic set in the thirties in the year 2023, I was struck by its endearing sincerity, a trait I’ve been appreciating in movies so much more because modern superhero movies — and blockbuster films in general — have embraced a sarcastic “Well, that happened” attitude over this film’s sincere “Gee whiz!” ethos. And while that tone pervades the film, I was even more struck by the times it managed to make light of superhero schtick without sacrificing its earnestness.
Long before it became de rigeur for superhero movies to deride their source material for putting characters in yellow spandex, The Rocketeer pulled off a similar joke with sweetness rather than sarcasm. Anyone who sees a drawing of the Rocketeer immediately notices the iconic helmet, a beautiful piece of design work, so the film builds up to the moment that Cliff Secord (a wholesome Billy Campbell) puts it on to complete the look. First, after a disastrous test run with the jet pack ends with a statue missing a large chunk of his head, Cliff worriedly declares, “I think we’re gonna need a helmet.” Later, we see mechanic Peevy (a grandfatherly Alan Arkin) building that helmet long into the night, but we don’t get a good look at it. Then in the morning, Cliff walks in to find the helmet covered in a cloth, and we have to wait for him to remove it so we can see what this helmet looks like in real life, off the comic book page. And it looks pretty cool! To us! Cliff’s reaction? “He has got to be kidding.” Notably, though, it’s a quiet moment for only him, as Peevy’s asleep, so it lacks the meanness it would have if he’d reacted that way to Peevy’s face. When the time comes for him to put it on, however, he’s consumed by a sense of heroism, needing to save a friend in danger, and so he doesn’t make any objections to its aesthetic qualities. Instead, he asks Peevy how he looks, and Peevy shoots back, “Like a hood ornament.” It’s gruff but warm, an acknowledgment that it may look objectively silly but it doesn’t matter.
The film also lampshades the objective silliness of its own name in a perhaps overly cute scene following Cliff’s first public appearance as the jet pack-flying hero. Otis Bigelow (a slimy Jon Polito), Cliff and Peevy’s heartless “Business is business” creditor, claims that Cliff’s high-flying antics are “all part of the show,” so journalists harangue him for a name. Rocket Boy, he suggests without much thought. The journalists offer some other suggestions like Rocket Man and Missile Man, really riling up the audience who saw the opening title and knows what he should be called. Bigelow looks out the window and sees a sign for Pioneer Petroleum. And as James Horner’s light, wistful score rises out of the silence, Bigelow says, “How about…Rocketeer?” And suddenly a scene that was all about making fun of stupid superhero names becomes one about embracing the mythic, visceral emotion that stirs within us whenever we hear one of those stupid superhero names.
Behind that stupid superhero name, however, is an ordinary pilot named Cliff Secord, and the film pokes fun at the concept of the secret identity. It works especially well because the timeframe of this film is bizarrely compressed — only a few days — which means that even though more than half the movie remains after Cliff’s debut, there isn’t enough time for the Rocketeer to become a household name. So we get a cute dramatic moment where Cliff reveals that he’s the Rocketeer to his girlfriend, Jenny (a glamorous Jennifer Connelly), expecting her to be shocked that her boyfriend is this incredible hero and instead receiving a confused “The Rocke-who?” Johnston doesn’t punch this moment like a laugh line, though, as the diegetic nightclub music continues unbroken in the background and the camera remains static. Cliff has a brief moment of consternation, but that’s it, and it doesn’t become a running gag for the rest of the film. In fact, later on, we see him with a little girl who does know who the Rocketeer is, and she says the name with an adorable reverence that cancels out the fact that Jenny hadn’t read the papers because she’d been working all day.
In most ways, The Rocketeer is refreshingly different from modern superhero fare, and I could spend hundreds more words discussing those aspects. The unique milieu that blends grounded period piece and pulpy alternate history in a way we don’t normally see today outside of, well, Captain America: The First Avenger. The very human villain who is not out to destroy the world but simply collect his paycheck from the Nazis. A finale that involves exactly zero skybeams where the hero prevails not by force but by cleverness — Chekhov’s chewing gum! — and where the villain dies before the henchman/assassin. But it’s because of everything the film does differently that the moments where it does the same things that feel so damn tired now stand out as significant. This is how those tropes play if you’re not embarrassed to be making a movie about a guy who puts on a jet pack and flies around without burning his butt. Superhero costumes are silly. Superhero names are silly. Superhero secret identities are silly. The modern edict seems to be that the only way to deal with this is to mock it from a place of superiority. But The Rocketeer posits that you can mock it with love.