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With Disney now working on a reboot, it’s a great time to catch up with the 1991 superhero classic The Rocketeer on Disney Plus.
The Joe Johnston-directed adventure film feels ahead of its time and as enjoyable as ever. If you missed it when it first came out, or haven’t seen it in a while, don’t miss your chance to stream it today.
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A under-appreciated classic
The Rocketeer, based on the comic by Dave Stevens, wasn’t a big hit when it came out 30 years ago. It came and went without much fanfare or big box office numbers.
But it has endured and become an unlikely classic in its own right. The story is pretty straightforward but gives a lot of room for some terrific performances from actors like Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, John Polito, Margo Martindale, and its two leads, Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly.
The Rocketeer is much better than its initial reception would suggest.
In 1938, Cliff Secord is a stunt pilot on the cusp of making it big when he finds a mysterious jet pack stashed in his plane. Hidden there by mobsters who stole it from famous aviator Howard Hughes, the jet pack allows Cliff to become the flying hero, the Rocketeer. But with Nazis on his tale, Cliff realizes he may be in over his head.
As a superhero origin story, The Rocketeer hits a lot of the high notes that later hero films have struggled with. And it feels like something of a blueprint for some of the early films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We meet a host of engaging characters, learn the stakes of an outlandish conflict, and get a thrilling ride in a tight runtime.
The Rocketeer also looks amazing and gives us just enough campy, pulpy fun to keep things weird and not too somber or self-serious.
The Rocketeer… The First Avenger?
I’m not joking when I say The Rocketeer feels like a blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Many of Marvel’s best hits find their prototypes in the film. It makes perfect sense that director Joe Johnston would go on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger for Marvel 20 years later. You can also see the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Johnston had worked on as art director of visual effects.
In Cliff, we see hints of the Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man to come. He has a bit of Tony’s brash cockiness and a bit of Steve’s all-American goodness. He’s an idealist and a dreamer, and he looks out for number one. The jetpack is like Iron Man’s armor and Captain America’s super-soldier serum all rolled into one, giving him that extra edge to become the best that he can be.
Read: Captain America at 10
But by blending the two larger-than-life heroes, he becomes more than the sum of his parts.
Cliff isn’t as cocky and selfish as Tony. And he’s not as pure as Steve. He’s more of a regular guy than either of them. And that makes his hero’s journey more grounded and ultimately rewarding.
He gets to grow into his hero persona more organically, but with some similar results. He showed up on the scene a full 20 years before Captain America: The First Avenger, and in a lot of ways, he beat Cap to the punch.
The Rocketeer is finally getting some love
The Rocketeer has certainly gotten some well-deserved love lately, with several high-profile write-ups celebrating its 30th anniversary earlier this year.
The Guardian‘s Scott Tobias celebrated it, saying, “The Rocketeer feels, in the best way, like a backlot tour of romanticized Hollywood. The action sequences are full of suspense and visual wit, especially the climactic showdown atop a Nazi blimp, but it’s memorable most as a time machine to a place that never existed, poised between cartoon history and silver-screen fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to pay it a visit?”
Someone at Disney seems to have gotten the memo. A series based on the film and comic premiered in 2019 on Disney Junior and Disney Channel. In it, a seven-year-old girl inherits the family jet pack to become the next Rocketeer.
And now, Disney is producing a reboot, or rather a sequel. The Return of The Rocketeer will be produced by David Oyelowo’s Yoruba Saxon Productions banner, with Oyelowo expected to take the lead role. The sequel will follow a retired Tuskegee airman who takes up the mantle of the Rocketeer. Oyelowo previously played a Tuskegee airman in 2012’s Red Tails.
There’s no release date for the reboot yet, but now is a great time to get caught up with the original The Rocketeer on Disney Plus before it comes out.