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’90s kids didn’t give a damn about the peerless movie-serial nostalgia of The Rocketeer

Screenshot: Rocketeer
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Rocketeers exist. There aren’t many of them, but they’re real. A few years ago, at an action movie festival in North Carolina, I met one. His name is Dan Schlund, and he’s a stunt performer who flies a gleaming silver rocket pack that doesn’t look too different from the one in the 1991 movie The Rocketeer. It doesn’t work the same, of course. Schlund doesn’t go shooting off into the sky on a jet of flame. His rocket pack doesn’t even emit any sort of smoke, and it makes a godawful whining noise, loud enough to make your eyes water. I honestly have no idea how it works. Schlund told me that he’s one of maybe three people on the planet who knows how to fly one.

Ultimately, I’d like to imagine that Schlund isn’t that different from Cliff Secord, the guy who becomes the Rocketeer in The Rocketeer. Secord, like Schlund, is a stunt guy, a pilot who flies in airshows. He’s the kind of guy who says things like “I could fly a shoebox if it had wings.” In the movie, Secord is reaching the end of his luck when he happens to find a stolen rocket pack that a mobster, on the run from the law, happens to stow in his plane.

Secord tries out flying the thing for the sheer joy of it, even though he knows that it’s dangerous and that dangerous people are looking for it. He falls into super-heroics backwards, by accident. But by the time the movie is over, that rocket pack has gotten him into conflict with mobsters, G-men, Nazis, and one towering troglodytic figure. (That character, Lothar, is played by Tiny Ron Taylor, a 7-foot former basketball player from Austria. He’d played the big henchman in Road House a couple of years earlier. In The Rocketeer, he wore latex makeup that was supposed to make him look like iconic horror-movie heavy Rondo Hatton, but which really made him look more like a peripheral Dick Tracy character.)

The Rocketeer was a whole new type of superhero movie. Batman, the movie that really ignited the modern version of the genre, had a visual style built from exaggerated, gothic darkness, something that later attempts like Darkman and even Dick Tracy would emulate. The Rocketeer was based on a comic that the artist Dave Stevens had begun publishing in the early ’80s. Stevens’ comic was, in turn, clearly inspired by the movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s, and the movie follows its lead; it’s bright and lighthearted and idealistic. In spirit and tone, the movie is a whole lot closer to Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, another 1989 blockbuster, than it is to Batman.

The Rocketeer opens with romantic Howard Shore music and sunny Spielbergian images of olden-days air-show planes. (The movie’s producers corralled plenty of antique aircraft for the shoot.) Within a few minutes, we’re watching a vintage police chase, with tommy guns being fired out of roadster trunks. Soon enough, we meet an oily movie star, clearly modeled on Errol Flynn, and the glowering gangsters who work for him. More than once, we get to see that old movie trope where anyone, no matter how big, will immediately pass out if you sneak up behind him and smash a vase over their head. Everything about the movie, from its rat-tat-tat dialogue to its art deco costume design, is pure pastiche, done with energy and love.

It’s weird to think how many of the superhero movies of the ’90s took their cue from those old movie serials rather than from the actual comic books that were doing huge business at the time. That was the case with Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Phantom, and as recently as 2004’s Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether this was a case of aging Hollywood power brokers like Warren Beatty indulging their own childhood nostalgia or whether everyone was just chasing that Indiana Jones money. Whatever the case, it was a vast miscalculation; the kids of the ’90s, by and large, did not care about this stuff. Some of those movies did okay, and some were total financial disasters. None of them launched movie franchises. But none of them ever did that style better than The Rocketeer.

The Rocketeer might not have made money, but it’s one of those blessed aesthetic experiences where everything just came together. It probably helps that the people involved all had experience with actual Indiana Jones movies. Dave Stevens, the comic book creator, had done storyboards on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, while director Joe Johnston had done special effects and art direction work on the first two movies in the series. Johnston hadn’t been directing long; his only previous movie had been 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. But as a former special effects guy, he knew how to make exciting action scenes using pre-CGI techniques, something that would change forever when Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened a couple of weeks after The Rocketeer.

Johnston, to his credit, also did whatever he could to keep The Rocketeer true to the story of the comic book, something that put him into conflict with his Disney overseers. Stevens stayed on the movie’s set, offering input and helping Johnston in his fight to keep things like the helmet design the same as they were in the comic. (Disney boss Michael Eisner reportedly wanted an astronaut-style bubble helmet.) Johnston did, however, make adjustments from the comic book; Cliff Secord’s girlfriend, rather than the Bettie Page-style pinup model of the comics, became a wide-eyed bit-part actress. But even that worked for the movie’s purposes, since it meant that a young and ridiculously beautiful Jennifer Connelly got to be in it.

Connelly was only 20 when she appeared in the movie, and she was tough and naive and glamorous. She could communicate that she was hopelessly in love and hopelessly sick of Secord’s bullshit, not an easy combination to pull off. Billy Campbell, a largely unknown TV actor who’d had parts on shows like Dynasty and Crime Story, made for a square-jawed and mischievous Rocketeer, but he practically melted into the scenery whenever he was onscreen with Connelly. She walks away with the movie, and her only real competition is Timothy Dalton, two years removed from playing James Bond, as the flamboyantly dashing asshole movie star who becomes the villain. Sixteen years later, Dalton would play pretty much the exact same character, right down to the mustache, in Hot Fuzz. (Dalton remains cinema’s greatest ever Bond-turned-villain, though George Lazenby in The Man From Hong Kong puts up a good fight.)

The Rocketeer didn’t have any actual stars, something that might’ve hurt it at the box office. But watching it now, it’s a total buffet of character actors. Paul Sorvino, a year after Goodfellas, played a principled gang boss, a possible riff on his Goodfellas character. (In one of the movie’s greatest moments, Sorvino flies into a rage upon realizing that he’s been working for a Nazi, leading to mobsters and FBI agents teaming up in a massive gunfight against the Nazi troops who I guess were hiding out in Hollywood, waiting for that moment.) Melora Hardin, Jan from The Office, plays a nightclub singer who emerges from a giant clamshell, while acclaimed character actress Margo Martindale plays a waitress in a café that’s made to look like a giant bulldog.

Rewatching The Rocketeer, I’m amazed how it really seems like an early blueprint for the superhero movies of today. The movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in particular, have drawn a whole hell of a lot more from The Rocketeer than from Batman or Darkman. Johnston, of course, returned to superhero movies 20 years later to make Captain America: The First Avenger, which meant that he got a much larger budget to play around with the same sorts of period details and pulp-hero iconography.

But the influence of The Rocketeer goes beyond that one movie. It’s in the brisk pace, the rapid-fire banter, the showstopping set pieces, the outlandish plot turns, and the heroes who project a naively square-jawed form of goodness even as they’re shooting off one-liners. A couple of years ago, Disney announced plans to reboot The Rocketeer—to make a movie set a few years later, with a black female Rocketeer. Even if that never happens, The Rocketeer will remain a weirdly important piece of the superhero movie canon.

Other notable 1991 superhero movies: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze, the sequel to the 1990 surprise hit, managed to be even sillier than its predecessor. This becomes obvious a few minutes in when Michelangelo uses a yo-yo to knock out four bad guys. Late in the movie, a fight between the Turtles and a pair of big burping mutant brutes breaks out at a Vanilla Ice show, whereupon Ice improvises a song about the Ninja Turtles. For that alone, the movie will always have a place in my heart, even though I can’t exactly call it a good movie.

Another bad movie that remains deeply watchable is The Guyver, an adaptation of a Japanese manga from a director named, I swear to god, Screaming Mad George. It’s a movie about a bland martial arts kid who discovers an alien doohickey that turns him into a sort of giant kung-fu robot bug. He then takes on the functionaries of a shadowy alien corporation that transform into rubber-suit monsters. Poor Mark Hamill plays a hapless detective with a mustache, and, in the movie’s most remembered scene, he turns into a giant cockroach-type thing and then dies.

I will always, however, be more partial to the scene where a giant gremlin with Jimmie Walker’s voice does something that I guess is supposed to be rapping. Also, I’ve never seen it, but maybe Dollman, an Albert Pyun movie about a foot-tall space cop named Brick Bardo, qualifies.

Next time: Tim Burton gets gloriously over-the-top performances from Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, a movie I’ve always considered better than the original.