In 1982, writer/artist Dave Stevens created a character inspired by his love of Saturday matinee serials/chapter plays from the 1930s and 1940s, pulp heroes like The Shadow, The Phantom, and Doc Savage, and the work of artists like Will Eisner, Frank Frazetta, and Jim Steranko. That character was The Rocketeer.
From this interview with Dave Stevens in 2001:
…I’d always loved the idea of a guy flying like a bird, with just a combustible contraption strapped to his back. The image really appealed to me. But I didn’t want to be stuck doing an exact replication of the serials, with Martians, death-rays, etc. That wasn’t the quite the approach I wanted to take.
I wanted to do a real period aviation strip, but with one small element of science-fiction added: The rocket-pack! So I came up with the outfit and the name. You know, a funny take on the word, racketeer, “The Rocketeer.” I thought it sounded catchy and the drawing seemed to work.
I showed it to a couple of friends and they liked it, so I went ahead with it. I thumbnailed around a bit and came up with a threadbare story that didn’t have a whole lot to it, but it was only intended to be filler material. So I just had fun with it. [Bill and Steve Schanes, owners of Pacific Comics, which originally published The Rocketeer] liked it, but nobody made a big deal about it. Well, by the time the second installment came out, it was suddenly a very big deal, because Pacific had gotten a ton of mail over it!
The Rocketeer was a hit with readers, and Stevens sold the film rights for the character to Walt Disney Pictures a year later. After countless obstacles that got in the way of the film actually being made and seeing the light of day throughout most of the 1980s (Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanting to change the look of The Rocketeer’s helmet, the studio’s concerns about making a superhero film that wasn’t set in the present day, endless rewrites that resulted in the film’s original writers being fired and re-hired), The Rocketeer was finally able to go into production and opened in theaters on June 21, 1991.
Set in Los Angeles 1938, The Rocketeer tells the story of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), a stunt pilot who, along with his mechanic/partner/best friend “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin), are hoping to use their racing aircraft, the Gee Bee, to enter and compete in the Nationals. Unfortunately for them, their dreams literally go up in smoke when a car chase/gunfight between the FBI and two gangsters who work for crime boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) makes its way onto their airfield and ends up doing serious damage to Cliff’s plane while he’s mid-flight. The gangsters end up stashing their stolen merchandise in one of Cliff’s old biplanes, and when Cliff and Peevy are trying to figure out what their next move will be, they soon find the merchandise that the FBI and Valentine’s men were fighting over: a powerful, rocket-powered jet-pack that enables the person who is wearing it to take flight and move almost as fast as a speeding bullet while doing so. Cliff wants to use it as part of a new flying act that will make him and Peevy enough money to get the Gee Bee repaired, and he ends up grabbing the attention of everyone in Los Angeles when he uses the jet-pack to save a friend from a potentially fatal plane crash. Thanks to his boss looking to make a good impression with reporters wanting to know more about this mysterious new flyboy on his payroll, Cliff gains a secret identity as a result: The Rocketeer.
But Cliff soon finds himself with a laundry list of problems: Valentine and his crew want the rocket back, as do the FBI. A seven-foot-tall hitman named Lothar (Tiny Ron) is on the hunt for him. Plus, his girlfriend, struggling actress Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), finds herself being swept off of her feet by rich, famous, and handsome movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton)…who is actually working with Valentine in order to get his hands on the jet-pack, and for his own nefarious purposes that could end up putting the entire country in danger.
Coming out after 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1989’s Batman, The Rocketeer was one of the earliest comic-book films to open in theaters. (This was long before Robert Downey Jr. would announce “I am Iron Man” in 2008 and lead the way for the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Perhaps this is why the film wasn’t as successful at the box-office as Disney had hoped; Audiences weren’t ready. So, Disney cancelled plans for Rocketeer sequels. However, this scrappy superhero movie aged well and stood the test of time better than many other films of its genre.
For starters, The Rocketeer fully embraces everything about the comic book that is being adapted, and takes its source material seriously without attempting to ignore, belittle, or modernize it. It looks and feels like a pulp comic/gangster film from the 1930s and 1940s, partly thanks to cops and robbers shooting at each other with tommy guns, Clark Gable and W.C. Fields exchanging greetings with Neville Sinclair as he and Jenny walk into the South Seas Club, Cliff and friends grabbing a bite to eat at the Bulldog Cafe (which is made to look exactly like a giant bulldog), to even the animated black-and-white propaganda film that is used to explain what Sinclair and the Nazi party plan to do with the rocket once they have it. From the cinematography to the production design to the costume design to the visual effects that help make The Rocketeer look as believable as possible whenever he’s up in the sky, The Rocketeer clearly has no shame about what it is, and what kind of story it’s telling.
Most of all…it’s also just really damn fun to watch. It’s hard not to smile and feel your heart soar just a little bit along with The Rocketeer whenever he takes flight and James Horner’s terrific score kicks in. The film succeeds in making the audience feel just like Cliff does whenever he ignites the jet-pack and takes off into the sky. It’s the closest you could possibly get to Heaven. Even Eddie Valentine can’t help but feel this, as he whispers “Go get’ em, kid!” while watching The Rocketeer fly towards the zeppelin to rescue Jenny from Sinclair and the rest of the Nazis on board. Much of that is thanks to the film’s entire crew, particularly writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who created the short-lived but still beloved The Flash for CBS in 1990, starring John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash…
…and director Joe Johnston, who would go on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger. After his work on The Rocketeer, it’s very easy to see why Marvel and Disney offered him the job.
As for the cast, their enthusiasm in bringing their characters to life is evident whenever they’re onscreen.
Peevy is not just the brilliant mechanic/engineer who is able to fix planes, modify the jet-pack so that Cliff is able to fly it, and also create a helmet that acts as a rudder during flight while also protecting his identity (and his skull from any possible brain damage), but is also the one who can be counted on to knock some sense into Cliff when he’s about to do something foolish, whether as himself or as The Rocketeer.
As the #3 movie star in Hollywood, and as someone using that status to hide the fact that he’s really a spy working with the Nazis, Neville Sinclair doesn’t just bark orders at Eddie Valentine to bring him the jet-pack at any cost, but also uses his charm, good looks, and fame to manipulate Jenny into leading him to Cliff. All of that would be enough to make him the kind of villain you love to hate (and who you love to see getting his comeuppance at just the right moment). Yet, his scenes with Jenny, where he uses dialogue from his own films to try and seduce her, showcases how his sociopathic behavior with vulnerable women has been easily replicated by so many other actors and film studio executives in Hollywood. Not even because these men are secretly Nazis, but because they simply like taking whatever they want, no matter who gets hurt in the process.
If you’re familiar with the original Rocketeer comics, then you probably know that Cliff’s girlfriend is none other than legendary pin-up model Bettie Page. As The Rocketeer movie was meant to be family-friendly, we get a Disney-approved version of Bettie Page named Jenny Blake, who would just love to get her big break as an actress in Hollywood, and who also wants Cliff to take their relationship more seriously. But when Jenny realizes how much danger Cliff is in because of his double identity, she refuses to forsake her darling and even jumps into action to have his back, proving that she’s no helpless damsel-in-distress.
(As a bonus, Campbell and Connelly became romantically involved while making The Rocketeer, and were together for five years, even becoming engaged, before they called it quits in 1996.)
A good man and a great pilot, Cliff Secord isn’t a two-fisted, gun-toting macho action hero. He doesn’t suit up as The Rocketeer to fight crime or save the world from alien invasions led by mad titans. He does it so that he and Peevy can make enough money to get their plane fixed and fly in the Nationals. As much as he really likes what he can do as The Rocketeer, it doesn’t take long for Cliff to realize that he’s in way over his head. The smartest thing for him to do is give the jet-pack back to the FBI to avoid any more armed men in suits kicking in his door and shooting up his house. But his love for Jenny and his refusal to let her be harmed by anyone, whether by Neville Sinclair or Eddie Valentine or the entire Nazi party itself, won’t let him walk—or fly—away that easily.
The Rocketeer has plenty of familiar faces in its supporting cast, including Margo Martindale, the late Ed Lauter, James Handy, William Sanderson, Eddie Jones, the late Jon Polito, Clint Howard, a brief appearance by Melora Hardin as the singer at the South Seas Club, and Terry O’Quinn as the inventor of the jet-pack and the original genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist, Howard Hughes.
Because Hollywood is Hollywood, everything that is old ends up being new again, and there have been some recent discussions about The Rocketeer being the next property to receive the remake/reboot treatment. Back in 2016, it was announced that The Rocketeers was in development with Matt Spicer and Max Winkler working on the screenplay.
From The Hollywood Reporter:
The new take keeps the story in a period setting and offers a fresh view on the characters. Set six years after the original Rocketeer and after Secord has vanished while fighting the Nazis, an unlikely new hero emerges: a young African-American female pilot, who takes up the mantle of Rocketeer in an attempt to stop an ambitious and corrupt rocket scientist from stealing jet-pack technology in what could prove to be a turning point in the Cold War.
There hasn’t been any additional news about The Rocketeers and when it will actually go into production, but Disney is still doing what they can to keep the character in the public eye. In 2019, The Rocketeer was made into a computer-animated series that aired on Disney Junior and The Disney Channel. It centered on Katherine “Kit” Secord, great-granddaughter of Cliff, who learns that she is next in line to inherit the jet-pack and become The Rocketeer, and who uses it to keep the town of Hughesville safe from harm.
This wasn’t the first time that The Rocketeer was portrayed in computer animation, as computer graphics artist John Banana made a fan film that paid tribute to both the character and its creator in honor of the film’s twentieth anniversary back in 2011.
Though Dave Stevens died in 2009, there has been no shortage of appreciation from fans and from fellow artists. This is especially true of his greatest creation, The Rocketeer. Its influence can still be felt in comic books, movies, and television shows. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DCEU aren’t entirely your brand of whiskey, but you still want to see a superhero story that will reward your time and your attention, then The Rocketeer is for you.
The Rocketeer is now streaming on Disney Plus.
Header Image Source: Walt Disney Pictures