When I think back on my youth, there always seemed to be a class, or a guest speaker, or a test that would ask about your favorite superpower. In trying to understand how student minds work, someone always asks what ability you wish you had that is supernatural (in fact, I've even done this in my own classes). A lot of people choose telepathy and mind reading, others choose invisibility, and still others like choosing eternal life. Me, I was much more simple. I wanted to be able to fly. I always enjoyed stories of characters who could fly and it always seemed to me to be a much more practical super power than invisibility or eternal life (although telepathy would be pretty awesome). If I could fly, I could reach destinations faster and cut down on my gas bill...I could reach the top of buildings and mezzanines in a single bound and never worry about stairs or elevators again. I could even see the world from a completely new perspective. My fascination with flying is not unique; it seems as though everyone would love to be able to fly. The writers of Superman, Watchmen, and even Hancock all have added flight to one or more of their characters because of how powerful it makes characters seem. Air travel remains popular due to it's ease and speed and folks almost always want the window seat so they can look down at the world below them. Flight is one of life's miracles and we treat it with reverence. I suppose that is why today's film still fascinates me as much as it did when it was new. So let's take to the skies with Disney's answer to the comic book movie, The Rocketeer.
Cliff Seacord is a pilot who hopes to make his mark as an aerial racer and artist, however circumstances never seem to be going his way. He has done clown shows for very little money, has kept himself from treating his girlfriend Jenny Blake to nicer dates because he is broke, and has hung all of his hopes and dreams on a single airplane. You can imagine his shock and dismay then, when that plane is totaled when the FBI is chasing a fugitive across his runway and the gunfire brings him down. The FBI destroys his plane and a gas tank in their chase and refuse to pay for it, leaving Seacord and his mechanic, Peevy, to hold the bill. Little do they know that the crook took Peevy's old vacuum cleaner and substituted it for what he stole...a prototype made by aviation king Howard Hughes. When Cliff and Peevy find it, they think that just maybe their luck has changed. The prototype is a backpack rocket, meant to allow a man to fly. The first time they turn the contraption on, it goes flying across the room and nearly destroys their work space, but soon after they begin to understand how the device works. Meanwhile Jenny, who aspires to be an actress, has just joined the cast of a medieval film featuring Nevile Sinclair, a dapper Clark Gable-like actor. She admires him and longs to play a scene with him, but she does not realize that Sinclair is actually a Nazi spy who originally commissioned the theft of the rocket. Nevile soon realizes that Seacord has the rocket and makes plans to use Jenny to get it from him...and Seacord suddenly finds himself needing to become a hero.
The Rocketeer takes elements from superhero films like Superman: The Movie and mixes in a healthy dose of 1930s Indiana Jones flavor to create something that feels familiar on one hand and yet terribly unique. It is one of the many cases, particulalry in the wake of 1989's Batman, where a film was clearly meant to be a franchise starter and yet never quite took off. Like The Shadow and The Phantom, audiences weren't exactly dying to see The Rocketeer and with good reason. It merely looked like "Superman" crossed with "Indiana Jones" from the advertisements and so people already felt that it was "been there, done that". While part of that is true, another part of that ignores what made The Rocketeer unique. First, it was a very violent film for Disney, with men being folded in half and a respectable amount of fake blood dribbling from wounds but also, it was much like Die Hard in that it was about a reluctant hero. Superman and Batman are fighting crime because they feel they must...but Cliff Seacord simply gets dragged into the action due to proximity. He only becomes a hero in the interest of saving his girlfriend, not because he wants to save the world. Few comic book films featured a hero who didn't want to be a hero and that sets The Rocketeer apart from it's brethren. That's not to say that Cliff is selfish, not a bit...he just knows that when you want something done right, you should do it yourself. That is his position each time he saves someone, whether it is a friend caught in an airplane disaster, or his lady love when she is heald bay by the evil villain. Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, and Timothy Dalton should all be commended for their performances...particularly Campbell and Connelly who were not "names" at the time and so feel like fresh-new faces for us to fall in love with. It's a shame that the film didn't take off with audiences (no pun intended) and thus we have no part 2, 3, or 4. However, maybe that's best given the track record of comic book sequels in the 90s. Perhaps someone will do a reimagining (I hate that word) of the story for new audiences and turn it into something that people will want to see again and again. Until then, we will only have the original comic books and the film, which is a diamond in the rough for anyone to discover.